the disciples. The reading Ive chosen from Luke 4 expands what it means to
be followers of Jesus, our calling.
Jesus had begun teaching in the synagogues in Galilee and then came to
Nazareth (see John 1:16) to worship as was his habit, in his hometown, like
coming back to your home church. There each Sabbath the community sang
a psalm, recited the Shema (Deut. 6:4-5) and the 18 Benedictions, read from
the Torah (Law) and then from the Prophets, heard a sermon on the meaning
of the readings, received a blessing by the president and concluded with the
priestly blessing of Numbers 6:24-27.
We are not sure whether there was a cycle of readings in first century
Palestine. If there was, then the scroll handed to Jesus would be open at
Isaiah 61 with a marker at the verse to be read. If not, then Jesus chose the
reading himself, unrolling the scroll almost to the end. He read Isaiah 61:1-2
replacing one phrase and leaving out much of the final verse. Maybe this was
the version of the Aramaic Scriptures used in Galilee at that time; if not, then
Jesus himself made the changes. Jesus omits those elements that might
either spiritualize the text ("to heal the broken hearted") or threaten his
audience ("to announce a day of vengeance"). He then sharpens the whole
reading by inserting the phrase, "to let the oppressed go free." The reading
therefore become clearly focused as good news for the poor and the
oppressed. But it begins by saying the Spirit of the Lord “is upon me”. What
does that mean? It meant to Jesus that his life was dedicated to making the
lives of one majority group in his society improved.
"The poor", "the captives" and "the blind" refer to the poorest of the poor who
are in a cycle of debt. The poor are those who are economically and socially
oppressed. Prisoners were blinded because underground prisons were bereft
of sunlight. The poor are placed at the centre of the gospel because they are
the least in first century Palestine, the lowest in society.
Jesus announces a "Jubilee", a forgiveness of debt. The biblical Jubilee was
held each 50 years when fields lay fallow, families returned to their ancestral
homelands, debts were cancelled and slaves set free. The Jubilee restored a
rough equality between families and clans. The inevitable increase in
inequality and injustice over the years must be levelled down each half-
century. The community could start afresh.
Jesus slipped in the phrase "let the oppressed go free" from Isaiah 58:6. In
Hebrew the oppressed are the "downtrodden", those broken in pieces, the
oppressed in spirit. Who are the "broken ones", the oppressed in Britain
By quoting Isaiah, Jesus claims that he is both a messianic prophet of the sort
that Samaria awaited, and a messianic king of the kind that Judea expected,
one capable of setting in motion incredible events foretold by Isaiah.
This sermon is a manifesto. It is the gospel in miniature. This is what Jesus is
about. This is what we should be about as Christians. Jesus’ concern is a
universal concern for the underprivileged and the outcast, a statement of
commitment to social justice.
The congregation reacts in a variety of ways: with enthusiasm, admiration,
doubt, small-mindedness and, finally, with anger. This gospel brings conflict.
Jesus said “he who is with me is not against me”. All who follow this path are
with the Jesus mission. How do we interpret this in the 21st century today in
the UK? So who are the poor, the least, the lowliest, the lost?
According to the ONS a third of The UK fell below the poverty line in 2013.
The figure was the same in 2015. According to the Joseph Rpowntree
Foundation in 2016 a million people could not afford food, wash themselves
and their clothes and stay warm and dry. This level of poverty had devastating
effects on their mental health, their ability to socialize and left them feeling
ashamed and humiliated. These people rely on food from food banks and the
kindness of strangers. The Institute for Fiscal Studies last year said that two
thirds of children classed as growing up in poverty are in households where
there is at least one parent in full time work. The problem is that there is no
real increase in wage levels since the 2008 financial crisis to match the rise in
the cost of living. And almost half of those in poverty are in a household where
some one is classed as disabled and therefore experiencing problems in
creating an income.
But the oppressed are not just the financially poor. They may be people with a
mental health condition, an absent partner, in an abusive relationship, be
lonely and unsupported by a family network.
A long time ago Malcolm Duncan as leader of Faithworks put statistics to
people living near to churches and suggested that the churches had
something to say and do about the situation. Are churches really just
concerned with themselves and their members? Isnt there something about
churches being an example of kindness and hospitality that is at the heart of a
Jesus who emptied himself for us? Could it be even that there is a direct
relationship between the sacrificial giving of a church in its community and the
number of people attending the church, or put another way could empty
churches be about churches that are not engaged with their communities in a
loving empowering manner?
Are they refugees and asylum seekers who have no food food because we
are closed to their needs? Are their people struggling with cuts to working tax
credits, benefits and rents? Do we know them, do we talk to them, do we
listen to them? How do we accept them, embrace them, at stand at their
How do we place the poor at the centre of the gospel, at the heart of our
Christian community life and worship? Do we see the poor as somehow
intrinsic to Gods Jubilee in Leviticus 25?
What are we doing to free the poor of crippling debt? Are we giving out
charity, are we building awareness, are we advocating for peoples rights and
fighting for justice?
These are the values that are our measure. our manifesto, not rearranging
dying churches but getting stuck in where the poor, the oppressed and the
captives are. This is the church on earth.
Does Donald Trump espouse these values? Does Theresa May? Do you? Do
I? What values does our life witness to?