Good News for the Taking

~ Sarah Marsh

October 4, 2015

Luke 4: 14-30

Peace Mennonite, Lawrence

I grew up in Halstead, near Newton, Hesston, and Hillsboro, which is right smack dab in the middle of Mennonite territory. It is always been a good thing to be neighbors with Mennonites and I like to think that I am who I am today in part because of the peace and justice that was blowing all around me in the wind down there in Halstead. Today I want to reflect with you on some of that justice.

I’ve never asked myself to preach this passage from Luke all the way to the end of the story, even though this scene in the synagogue is foundational to my faith. I haven’t preached it, I suppose, because the first half of the story is so amazing and full of promise… and the second half? It ends with attempted murder. Not exactly the kind of thing we come to church on Sunday to hear about. Especially when we can’t seem to escape from the violence that surrounds us every other day of the week. Our hearts go out, in particular, to the people of Oregon who are grieving today.

It has been several months now since I’ve been in the pulpit. And it is profoundly good to be back, here and now with you, especially because I trust that with peace-loving people like you, we can take on the violent crowd that comes after Jesus.

But first I offer this confession. I suppose I should not be sympathetic towards an angry mob of religious people. But, on some level, I am. Everything was going well in worship that day in Nazareth, was going fabulously really, until the man who was preaching got sharp with the people. But to get there, to talk about that, first we’ve got to rewind and unwind this story.

The sun was shining, the cool breeze blowing, as the Golden Boy stood up and reached out his hand for the scroll. It had been a long time since Jesus had been home and a lot had happened to the carpenter’s son since then. He had heard that voice booming from heaven at his baptism, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” He had been led by the Spirit into the wilderness, straight into the company of the tempter. And when he had finished every test, he returned to Galilee, filled with the power of the Spirit. He began to teach in the Jewish synagogues and to heal the people. And the word was getting out. Jesus wasn’t just a carpenter’s son from Nazareth any more. He was somebody. Somebody that everybody was talking about.

So the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to the hometown hero. He took a moment to find the words he was searching for. Then he read those good words:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ 

When he had read this, he sat down to teach. Everybody leaned in close to listen to this special somebody. “Today,” he said, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And then the scripture says, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” They were amazed and we are amazed. And so we pause right here for a moment to let his words sink in.

Of all that could be said about Jesus’ action here, there are two things that are most important to us today. The first is this. If you look carefully at where Luke places this story in the context of his gospel, you notice something. These are the very first words out of Jesus’ mouth at the beginning of his ministry. What that means, scholars often say and I believe, is that this is Jesus’ statement of his purpose and his mission. Everything else that follows in Luke is meant to be interpreted in light of these words. The words of the prophet Isaiah are a summary of who and what Jesus understands himself to be and to do. These words are Jesus’ mission statement.

So what does he say? This is the second important thing and the reason this story matters so much. Jesus says, “The Spirit of God has sent me to bring good news to the poor.” What is the good news? It is freedom for the captive, sight for the blind, forgiveness for the debtor, land for the landless, liberty for the oppressed. It is jubilee, the reversal of fortunes, and complete upheaval. It’s redemption, restoration, healing, love; it is justice for God’s people and it is starting today. It is always starting today.

No wonder Jesus’ friends and neighbors in Nazareth were so pleased! What good news Jesus proclaimed to them and to us! These are promises to cling to. I don’t know about you, but the promise of God’s good news for the poor is one that I need to hear every single day. What Jesus is offering is something I’m eager to have for myself. I long to know that there is good news for me, for my family, and for my friends. I want to know that my life matters to God. Jesus’ mission is beautiful and his words give us a glimpse straight into the heart of God’s intentions. That’s why I think maybe we should just stop reading the story at this point. Because it’s only downhill from here. Or rather, it goes straight to the top of the hill, where the mob tries to push Jesus off the cliff.

What on earth happened? What did Jesus do that incited such rage? This is where I tell you I have some sympathy for the community in Nazareth. So everybody is amazed with Jesus, thrilled with his fine words. But he wasn’t done. He was just getting started. “Today,” he said, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And then he looked around the room at the smiling, familiar faces and said, “Doubtless you will say to me, ‘Doctor, cure yourself! Doctor, do here in your hometown the things we have heard you did at Capernaum. Show us your healing power. Give us your blessing. Astonish us.’” And I think, yeah! Do here in Lawrence what you did so long ago in Galilee. We want for ourselves what you’ve got to give, Jesus. You’ve got that right!

But that, unfortunately, isn’t the response that Jesus was looking for. “No,” he said, “let me remind you of our history. God did not send the prophets Elijah and Elisha to bless the widows or the lepers of Israel. It was those who were not Jewish that God chose to heal.” And with that, a rioting crowd escorted the hometown hero out of the synagogue. Could Jesus have made it any clearer? God’s good news is not simply yours for the taking, he said. God’s good news for the poor is not your exclusive property. It does not belong to you and you alone.

The biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann said it like this. How does the Bible think about justice? “Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom, and to return it to them… The work of liberation, redemption, salvation,” he writes, “is the work of giving things back.”

Giving things back, we know, of course, is the opposite of taking things for ourselves. We can sympathize with the angry crowd that day because we know that it is often our first instinct to take for ourselves and for our families. Or at least it is my first instinct. I will work for others to have shelter, medicine, food, jobs, freedom, hope, and healing, as long as I’ve got mine first. As long as I’ve got plenty of money in my bank account, plenty of comfort and leisure in my life. As long as I’ve got enough to share, so that I won’t even notice if something goes missing.

But this where the preacher’s sharp words, Jesus’ sharp words, are words that unsettle. It’s always okay to take the things we need: medicine, food, clothes, shelter. It’s just not okay to take more than we need and to leave others without enough. It’s not okay to take God’s rich blessing for ourselves and to ignore God’s intent to bless everyone. Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom, and to return it to them.

Jesus’ words are meant to comfort, and to poke and prod. Whether in ancient Galilee, or in Lawrence today, Jesus came to give things back: to restore hope to the poor, sight for the blind, freedom for the captives and the oppressed. He came to give things back to all from whom these things have been taken. And he came to invite us to be a part of his mission, whatever that might mean for us today. So the question is: will we join him, even, and especially, when his words challenge us to change our thinking and our lives?

Walter Brueggemann’s words were drawn from his writing in To Act Justly, Love Tenderly, Walk Humbly: An Agenda for Ministers. 1997, Wipf and Stock Publishers, Oregon, by Brueggemann, Sharon Parks, and Thomas Groome.

Luke 4:14-30

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.

They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.