Today is the last Sunday in January. Where has the time gone? We just celebrated New Years, but we are already moving into a new month. Our East Asian people are busy preparing for the Lunar New Year celebrations with a special lunch next Sunday. You wouldn’t want to miss it. I am looking forward to enjoying this special celebration. One main way East Asian people celebrate New Year’s is to visit parents and relatives and the graves of our ancestors to show respect and to give and receive blessings. I think Jesus knew this custom. As a grown man Jesus is going to his home town not to celebrate New Year’s but to share good news.
Let’s turn our thoughts back to today’s scripture reading. Jesus had been away for a while after beginning to work in his father’s carpentry shop. Some scholars say Joseph probably died when Jesus was quiet young. In this case Jesus grew up with a single parent – his mother. Now Jesus comes to his hometown, Nazareth after his experience of temptation in the desert. He must have been tired from wrestling with the devil but with the renewing power of God’s spirit he felt refreshed and filled with energy. Moreover, he feels at home in his hometown. As was his custom every Sabbath, he goes to the synagogue with his family to worship God. Jesus is now sitting in the family pew, so to speak, just like old times.
As a way of welcoming him back home, we can imagine that the Rabbi asks Jesus to read the Scripture lesson. It is a familiar passage, Isaiah chapter 61. It is a passage full of hope and promise. It is a passage most of the hearers know by heart. The hearers must be moved. Such eloquence! Such clarity of diction! Such self-possession! Such a clear, well-modulated voice! The people who had lost touch with the family now come to their senses with a shock of recognition. “Isn’t that Mary’s son?” “Isn’t that her son down from the carpentry shop, now grown up, making such a fine impression?” “How proud his mother must be?”
However, when Jesus finishes his reading he senses that the mood of the gathered in the synagogue has changed. He senses that the temperature in the synagogue has dropped well below freezing. The people complain that Jesus did not read the scripture as it is. Why did Jesus include “the poor” in the scripture reading, even though it is not in the passage in Isaiah chapter 61. Jesus wants to offer hope to the poor who have no reason to hope. But, many people think it is a dangerous thought. Some people even murmur about killing him. This scheme to kill Jesus begins right after the scripture reading, right after his first sermon.
What do you think about Jesus’ scripture reading and his interpretation? Do you think he went too far? Or do you think he was declaring what his ministry would be?
In Korea, especially during the three decades of military dictatorships from the 1960s, this scripture has been considered the central message of Jesus’ ministry of doing God’s justice and peace. Today’s scripture has been the theological foundation for the churches’ advocacy for the poor, the captive, the blind and the oppressed. This gospel message of good news has become the basis of mission for justice. Personally, today’s scripture was the most important motivation for my decision to become a minister. I still think today’s scripture is one of the key passages of my ministry.
I wonder if, in this different Canadian context, this is still an important scripture for us. I wonder, in this developed, affluent county, how important this passage is to you. On reflection I am convinced that this scripture is still important to us. In our community there are still many people needing deliverance from poverty, captivity, despair, prejudice and oppression. According to the 2018 BC Child Poverty Report Card one in five children live in poverty. In 2013, a report from the Correctional Service of Canada said in a special report that aboriginals made up 4 percent of Canada’s population but 23 percent of inmates in federal jails. The aboriginal population of Canada’s prisons has grown by 43 percent in the last five years alone. I hope we as Canadians are making progress in terms of practising equality and justice.
In the Bible poor people are often the focus of Jesus’ attention but in the history of the church, attention is often given to the wealthy. In Jesus’ time, the poor were even prohibited from access to the synagogue because they could not keep the laws required by the religious leaders in the name of God. Jesus knew that the well-to-do had become the official interpreters of scripture and set the social norms. In this context Jesus declared the poor to be the first recipients of the good news. I think this is the reason why he added “the poor” in the scripture reading.
Today’s scripture is one of the several examples of social reversal we find in the gospels. The poor, whose lives have been a succession of bad news one after another, now receive the good news of justice, not charity. The captives, whose lives have been bound by the power of injustice, are restored to community. The blind, whose independence has been denied by the sighted majority, are able to participate as whole human beings in society. And the oppressed, whose lives have known nothing but enslavement, are freed to grow and contribute to the common good. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” How can this be?
When we proclaim and practise the year of the Lord’s favour, the Jubilee year, the scripture is fulfilled. According to Leviticus chapter 25, every 50 years, a sabbatical year is to be celebrated on a grand scale: all debts are to be cancelled, slaves are to be freed, the soil is to lie fallow and wealth is to be redistributed. Jesus proclaimed this Jubilee in his hometown synagogue in his inaugural sermon.
When we practise the year of the Lord’s favour, or Jubilee, the scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing because God’s time is today, here and now. God’s time is never delayed until tomorrow or allowed to slip again into some vague future, because God is always working with us here and now to fight child poverty and for equality for all people, particularly justice for Aboriginal peoples. Jesus began his ministry with the vision of Jubilee to make all people feel welcome and at home everywhere. Jesus invites us to fulfill God’s Jubilee vision for all people in our mission and ministry. We are grateful to be invited to practise God’s vision in our daily struggle to live faithfully. As we live in the vision of Jubilee, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing” (Luke 4:21). Thanks be to God for the gift of God’s vision and grace. Amen.