Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We can like or dislike what Jesus is about as we make our way through Luke’s gospel, but we can’t say he didn’t warn us. The way Luke tells the story, Jesus doesn’t waste any time. Word’s just started to spread about him when he makes his way home to Nazareth and is invited to do a Scripture reading at his local synagogue service. “From the Isaiah scroll? It would be an honor. Let me find the section… ah yes, here it is… ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me… to bring good news to the poor… release to the captives… to let the oppressed go free.’” (Luke 4:18)
Good news for the poor, release for the captives, freedom for the oppressed. And with it a mention of “the year of the Lord’s favor” which seems to be a reference to the jubilee year, every 50thyear when according to biblical law all debts were to be forgiven. (Leviticus 25:8-12) Fantastic news for anyone dealing with financial hardship. Crushing debt wiped out just like that? Bring on the year of jubilee! There apparently aren’t any records of that jubilee year actually being observed in ancient Israel. That’s understandable, I suppose, since then as now those who’ve loaned money tend not to want those loans instantly forgiven. But Jesus is saying here that his ministry will primarily focus on those without that kind of power and wealth. Then he adds “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) In other words, I’m the anointed one of God. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” (Luke 4:18) to bring good news to those who need it most.
This is Jesus’ inaugural address, if you will, and he seizes the moment to center those who are rarely the center of society’s attention. Sure, he’ll make room in the kingdom of God for more privileged folks too, but we’ll see as we move through Luke that Jesus never wavers from reaching out to those not allowed to run the show, those without financial security, those who’ve regularly been devalued and ignored. This isn’t just an intriguing extra bit here and there in Jesus’ story. It’s at the core of who he is and what he’s about, which has important implications for us as his disciples.
It concerns me to realize that church leaders I’ve trusted have sometimes spiritualized the gospels to a point where this has been easy to miss, and I wonder how often I’ve done the same. Certainly, throughout my church experience there have always been nods to Jesus’ care for the poor, and to our calling to care for them too, but especially when I was young what I mostly heard was that what I believed mattered most. That the most important message of Scripture was about my personal salvation, and yours. That getting my heart right with God was a mostly internal spiritual exercise.
Please understand - I’m not saying those things aren’t important. Of course, we want to deepen our relationship with God and to grow spiritually. But the more I read the gospels, the harder it is for me to think I can do so in a sheltered bubble, cut off from those who were so very close to Jesus’ heart. Is a sense of my own personal salvation the only thing or the primary thing Jesus would want someone like me, in a position of privilege, to take away from his story?
Jesus must have taken that moment in the Nazareth synagogue very seriously. He seized the opportunity to explain that his coming was about bringing good news to those who’d had far too little good news in their lives, those for whom the proverbial deck seemed to be stacked against them, and everything he did thereafter made clear he meant what he said. Social justice isn’t an elective then, for Christians. It’s core curriculum for those of us who follow Jesus.
To continue with our reading, up to this point the rest of Jesus’ fellow worshipers in the Nazareth synagogue were with him. Being faithful Jews, well trained in the school of the biblical prophets, they knew all about God’s demand for justice and righteousness. They knew about God’s love for the poor. They knew from their own people’s history as slaves in Egypt that God hears the cries of the oppressed. So let’s first of all be clear that’s not what Jesus’ Jewish community objected to. They heard Jesus quote from Isaiah, heard him say “today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” (Luke 4:21) and they were on board. Verse 22 says “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”
But by verse 28 “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” So much so that they drive him out of town and try to throw him over a cliff! What went wrong?
We can’t say for certain, but we do know those in-between verses are where Jesus tells them he’s not going to focus his healing ministry in his hometown. He brings up two more biblical traditions his audience would have known well about healing miracles being offered not to Israelites but to foreigners: the prophet Elijah ministering to a widow in Sidon, the prophet Elijah healing Naaman the Syrian. And that’s the point at which they’re enraged. I heard a sermon a couple weeks ago suggesting they’d confused their worth in God’s eyes with their ethnicity, that they’d essentially racialized their faith. That could be, I suppose; we’ve certainly seen that danger manifest itself in our own nation. Or perhaps it wasn’t about the widow in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian being Gentiles rather than Jews. The hometown crowd was simply furious that Jesus was taking his healing work elsewhere, any kind of elsewhere. Didn’t he have a duty, first and foremost, to look after his own?
Again, we can like or dislike his answer, but Jesus is pretty consistent on this point. “His own” would be those who’d been devalued and dismissed by too many others, from the man possessed by an evil spirit in the passage immediately following today’s reading to a woman suffering from a 12-year-long hemorrhage to a thief hanging on a next-door cross.
In other words, it’s not all about you, he says to his hometown congregation (in our tradition we’d call them his church family). It’s not all about you; it’s about others. In fact, it’s about those youhave sometimes “other-ed” by considering them outside the fold. If they’re not from here, if you don’t know their names because you’ve never really given them any thought, if you try to avoid eye contact when you meet them on the street, that’s exactly where I need to get to work. I’m sorry I can’t stick around and offer a friends and family discount. It’s just that there’s some urgency to this project and it’s critical I start not here on the inside where you already know God loves you and values you, and other people do too, but out there on the outside with those who’ve been scorned and shunned and kicked when they’re down. With the kinds of people the prophets Elijah and Elisha helped: foreign widows and leprous enemy soldiers. With the kinds of people the prophet Isaiah spoke about: the poor, the oppressed, the captives.
As an aside here, the presence of the word “captive” in today’s text has taken on a whole new meaning for me now that I’ve read the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. I used to automatically equate prisoners with criminals, assuming they were behind bars because of something terrible they’d done. I mean we could feel challenged by Jesus’ command to show them kindness (Matthew 25), we could even forgive them, but in our heart of hearts we’d always know they were in the wrong… right?
It’s not that simple. Stevenson has woken me up to the alarming frequency with which our broken criminal justice system sends people to prison without just cause and with absolutely tragic results. And not just a few of them. Thousands upon thousands. The vast majority of them Black and brown, and a staggering number of them sentenced to life in prison (or as Stevenson puts it, sentenced to die in prison). A gut-wrenching number of them children under 18 years old. Some of them even on death row for crimes they never committed. How must they hear Jesus promise: “the Spirit of the Lord has anointed me… to proclaim release to the captives… to let the oppressed go free?” (Luke 4:18) How should we hear those words, now that we know what we know?
Good news to the poor. Release to the captives. Freedom for the oppressed. We can like or dislike who it is that draws Jesus’ attention as we make our way through Luke’s gospel, but we can’t say he didn’t warn us. It’s right here in his inaugural address. This is why the Spirit of the Lord has anointed him. This is what he’s about. We do him a tremendous disservice when we overly spiritualize his message or try to water it down.
Social justice means, among other things, both addressing and correcting serious inequities in wealth, privilege, power and treating every child of God with dignity. This isn’t a feel-good extra in the sustenance we’re offered in the pages of Luke’s gospel, a sort of side dish we can add to our spiritual nourishment or not as we prefer. It’s the main course. It’s Jesus’ primary point. I didn’t always see it that way. But I can no longer un-see it.
Which begs the question: what to do about it? In the very next chapter of Luke, we’ll see Jesus inviting his first disciples into his mission, and each generation since has been called to pick up the baton. That includes you and me. Can we at MPC challenge ourselves to do better than Jesus’ hometown congregation does here in today’s text? Can we remember the extent to which his ministry is about those who aren’t here, and can we celebrate that fact rather than feeling hurt or angry about it? Certainly, Jesus can make room in the kingdom of God for more privileged folks like us too, but he’ll never waver from centering those we too often forget to center. Those who’ve been shunned and scorned, devalued and dismissed.
Again, working for justice isn’t an elective for us as followers of Jesus. It’s core curriculum. And it’s not going to be an easy class. Because kindness and generosity, while important, aren’t the same as justice. It’s a good thing to feed neighbors who are hungry and this congregation has long done that well, but we also need to address the root causes of their food insecurity. Why are they hungry in the first place? What can we do to change those dynamics? Likewise, it’s not enough simply to ensure we don’t personally behave in racist ways, or call out others for their individual acts of racism – though, again, these are good things to do. We also need to do our part to change systems and structures that perpetuate racism, to ensure all God’s children are treated fairly.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” says Jesus, “to bring good news to the poor… release to the captives… to let the oppressed go free.’” Let’s find our place in that good news story.
Because, remember, God’s perfectly capable of accomplishing God’s purposes with or without us. In fact, Jesus is already out there working through whoever has lent their hands and feet to do the work of God … whoever has offered heart, soul, and strength to the cause of justice … whoever has lifted their voice to demand good news for the poor and release for the captives and freedom for the oppressed… whether or not they’d ever consider themselves his disciples.
But surely we don’t want to miss being part of it all.