Good News for the Poor (A sermon on Luke 4:14-21)

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me!”

Who said it?

Jesus of course … sort of.

It was printed on the front of our Sunday pew bulletins, so Jesus must have said it, and He did say it … sort of!

Jesus said it. It was part of the address He gave in Nazareth. The problem was that He went on to say a bit more, and quoting only a part of a sentence someone gives can be misleading. It’s like quoting me when I say that ‘I believe what our politicians are telling us’ and leaving out the word ‘NOT’ at the end of the sentence.

Jesus did say “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me” but He didn’t end His sentence there. What He said was “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor!” and that’s something quite different, and something that the person responsible for the artwork on our pew bulletin evidently didn’t feel quite as comfortable with, probably because it all seems a little too exclusive!

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me” is a relatively warm and fuzzy thing to say, especially for regular middle-class, church-going people. Jesus is revealing His identity as the anointed one of God! That is something we can all say a hearty ‘Amen’ to! “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim god news to the poor” is a far less appealing thing to say, especially to regular middle-class church-going people, most of whom are not poor.

Was Jesus trying to be offensive? If so, He certainly succeeded that day in Nazareth. According the Gospel-writer, Luke, what started out as a friendly synagogue service with Jesus as the guest preacher ended up as a riot with the congregation attempting to lynch Him!

Were they right to be offended? Should we be offended? Did Jesus target us too? Or, to put it more precisely, did Jesus define is mission in a way that excluded us?

For this sermon, recorded in Luke chapter 4, is a very significant one for Jesus and is a very significant one for us as we try to understand Jesus.

According to Luke, this was Jesus’ first sermon. He was back in his home town as the guest preacher and it was there that he chose to inaugurate His ministry, and it seems that He used this occasion to define his ministry – both in terms of His self-understanding and of His God-given mission, and He chose to describe it all in this way: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor!”

What did Jesus mean? Who are these poor that Jesus came to proclaim good news to? Are we included or was He directing His message at somebody else?

And the related problem is that ‘good news for the poor’ tends to have a flip-side – namely, it’s ‘bad news for the rich’! Was that a part of His message?

It’s a bit like national security. Whenever a country talks about increasing its national security they always mean at the expense of making somebody else more insecure.

It was Chomsky who first pointed this out to me, though it should have been obvious.  For our country to be ‘secure’ from our neighbours we need to be able to thump them before they can thump us, which means that if we achieve that security we have, by definition, put our neighbours in a more insecure position relative to us!

‘Good news to the poor’ functions along roughly the same lines, I think. It inevitably comes at somebody else’s expense. You can’t have ‘good news for the poor’ without it being ‘bad news for the rich’ … can you?

Or perhaps He was talking about the ‘poor in spirit’?

You remember them – ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’ from the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew 5). None of us are quite sure who the ‘poor in spirit’ are meant to be but it sounds as if we could all be included in that group!

The problem is that if Jesus is not referring to some amorphous group that can more or less include everyone then it all starts to sound rather exclusive and as if the good news of Jesus wasn’t’ really meant for us at all!

“Peace on earth and goodwill to all men” – those are the tidings of comfort and joy proclaimed by the angles to the shepherds as recorded in the Gospel of Luke a couple of chapters earlier. Well … not exactly! Luke 2:14 reads:

“Peace on earth and goodwill to all men upon whom His favour rests”.

Again, we can understand why people truncate the verse a little to make the good news sound more appealing and inclusive, but if we are genuine in wanting to understand Jesus – the real Jesus – and if we are serious about wanting to proclaim ‘the gospel’ as Jesus understood it then we can’t keep chopping verses in half and cutting out the bits that we don’t feel comfortable with.

Jesus was anointed ‘to preach good news to the poor’. How do we understand that?

Thankfully we don’t have to go too far to find the answer to this one as it’s here in Luke chapter 4. The key to uncovering it though, I believe, comes when we realise that Jesus is engaging in exactly the same sort of misquoting procedure that we’ve been accusing others of doing!

 

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me for he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor!” These are the words of Jesus, certainly, but before that they were the words of the prophet Isaiah, spoken some centuries earlier.

Jesus is quoting or, to be more exact, Jesus is giving the third and final Bible reading at the synagogue service in Nazareth on a Sabbath morning.

Jesus is reading from Isaiah chapter 61. Presumably the reading he gives was a part of the set reading for today. We don’t know that for sure but what we can know for sure is that if it was the set reading, Jesus did not read all of it!

The synagogue tradition, as I understand it, was to give the third and final reading from the prophets and to read a minimum of three and a maximum of twenty-three verses.  How many verses did Jesus read from Isaiah 61? The answer is one and a half. Not only does Jesus not complete the reading, but he cuts Isaiah off in mid-sentence and so potentially changes the meaning of what Isaiah was saying!

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn
.

Jesus, at that synagogue service in Nazareth, reads this same passage from the prophet Isaiah and so He identifies Himself with the prophet as one anointed by God and appointed by God to preach ‘good news to the poor’.

But his message is not the same as that of Isaiah. He leaves out Isaiah’s message about the coming ‘day of vengeance’ just as he leaves out all the verses of the prophecy that follow. Instead Jesus climaxes this announcement of His own anointing with a proclamation of ‘the acceptable year of the Lord’, which is almost certainly a reference to the jubilee year of Leviticus 25.

Now I appreciate that this is all starting to get a little complicated. We started by taking a quote from Jesus and then noted that Jesus was actually quoting Isaiah, and now I’m suggesting that Isaiah was quoting (or at least referencing) another part of the Bible again – a passage in the Torah that was written some centuries before he lived – but I do believe that if we want to understand the identity and the mission of Jesus and, more specifically, if we want to understood how Jesus understood Himself – his own identity and mission – then we need to go back to Moses where the concept of ‘good news to the poor’ was born in a law recorded in the book of Leviticus, chapter 25.

“Count off seven sabbaths of years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbaths of years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land.

Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each one of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan. (Leviticus 25:8-10)

It was basically a program of land reform – the Jubilee Year. Each person would return to his own family property and each to his own clan, which meant in practice that the land was shared out again, just as it was when the people originally took control of the land.

Every clan had an equal share, every family had an equal share, and so every individual ultimately had an equal share in the wealth of the land.

In our context I suppose this would mean that all the land would go back to our Indigenous people, who would then share it out amongst themselves as they saw fit. If this happened it would indeed be ‘good news’ for a lot of poor black people in this country, but not-so-good news for most of us white fellas!

In the Israelite context it was similarly ‘good news for the poor’ because it meant that all those who had lost their land and their wealth over the years, either through bad luck or poor management or even through reckless and profligate living would have all their wealth given back to them every 50 years and they could make a fresh start!

Good news for the poor, but inevitably bad news for the rich, which is why historians believe that the Jubilee Year never actually happened!

It was always there on the books – in the Torah indeed – but given that it was always going to be the rich and powerful who were responsible for making sure that this generational redistribution of wealth happened, it never happened.

There’s a fascinating story recorded in Jeremiah chapter 34, where it seems that the people almost had a Jubilee.  The city was surrounded by the Babylonians and the people were desperate, and in a final act of pious desperation the leaders started freeing slaves and cancelling debts, but as soon as the Babylonian army miraculously disappeared they re-arrested all the prisoners and put all the slaves back to work and the Jubilee was called off (much to the chagrin of Jeremiah).

The bottom line is that, despite all the legal nuances recorded in Leviticus 25, outlining how you couldn’t sell your land in the 49th year and expect much money for it since you’re going to get it back again in the 50th year anyway, it seems that the Jubilee never literally happened. Instead it became a part of the prophetic imagination for the people of Israel – a part of a vision of what the world could be like if people got over their greed and lust for power and lived instead as God intended.

And so Isaiah speaks of a Jubilee year for the captive people of Israel, living in exile in Babylon – a day when the will again take ownership of their land and share in the wealth of their nation.

And so Jesus proclaims the acceptable year of the Lord – a new era of sharing, equality and justice – when the rich and the mighty are going to be brought down from their thrones while the lowly are lifted up, where the first are going to be last and the last will find themselves first, where prostitutes and sinners are being welcomed into the Kingdom of God well ahead of the righteous and the respectable (Matthew 21:31)!

And I do believe that this same Gospel-writer, Luke, speaks of the early church and says that “all the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had” I do believe he sees the proclamation of Jesus, the vision of Isaiah, and the ancient Jubilee statute of Moses finally finding their fulfilment.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

 [And Jesus said] “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Are we included in this? Is there ‘good news’ for us here? Of course there is!

For the target of Jesus’ proclamation is not just ‘the poor’ but the entire cosmos! Jesus is proclaiming a whole new order of justice and peace and equality and love, and that change is ultimately going to transform every molecule in the universe!

Jesus is not pointing His finger at anybody in particular in his sermon in Luke 4. Rather he’s pointing to God’s Jubilee Year and inviting us all to be a part of it!

And so it matters not if we are rich or poor or black or white or slave or free or gay or straight or male or female. For sure there is going to be some levelling up and levelling down, but the issue here is not one of judgement or vengeance or anything of the sort. What we have here is an invitation to be part of a new world of equality and justice and peace and love, and that new world is ‘good news for the poor’ indeed, but in truth it is good news for all of us who are willing to believe in a world that is truly at peace and full of love and who are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to get there!

I don’t think the people of Nazareth understood that. I don’t think they understood Jesus at all. I think a lot of people today don’t understand Jesus either. And of course I don’t pretend to understand Him fully either. But I do suggest that the best place to start in our understanding of Jesus is by looking at the way Jesus understood Himself, and it’s all here:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” 

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on January 27, 2013.

To download or hear the audio version of the sermon click here soon

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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One Response to Good News for the Poor (A sermon on Luke 4:14-21)

  1. Arlene Adamo says:

    In Israel, at that time, it was believed that the poor deserved it. They brought misfortune on themselves by their sin and/or the sins of their forefathers. Also that they were of a lower caste in the sight of God. Samaritans were considered genetically inferior to Jews. There was a very strict religion/familiar based hierarchical system in place. Many scoffed at Jesus for being from Nazareth, because it was considered a lower class place. It makes sense that to try and awaken people to this terrible social system, Jesus would have to discuss the poor in this way.

    Also, he discussed the rich honestly because wealth and power can do some very unhealthy things to the mind and spirit. You relate the the world in an entirely different fashion. Your relationships easily become based on social climbing and career building. Many people you come in contact with are reduced to mere servants. Money is a spiritual mine field.

    But Jesus did find a little hope as written in Matthew 8:

    When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.” Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?” The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.

    Also, Isaiah rocks!

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