A Meditation on Luke 4:14-21
|Christ Reads from Isaiah, by Mike Moyers|
He’s had this powerful experience of baptism in the river, in the wilderness; and he’s coming into this vision of a beloved community where all are blessed and safe and anointed by God’s grace. And he’s comfortable now, Jesus is, in his own skin; and he’s choosing to partner with God in breaking bread and extending mercy and speaking up for his community. God isn’t a puppeteer or a gentle giant in the clouds, not for Jesus, not anymore. God is the air that he breathes, and the food on his table, and (this is most important of all) God is embodied in the neighbor in the road, and the poor woman begging for her children, and the refugee seeking sanctuary from violence and war. God is the ground of all being!
So Jesus comes home to Nazareth, and the text says he comes “in the power of the Spirit.” Because when the power of the Spirit is upon you, when the power of the Spirit wakes you up in the morning, you’re happy in your own skin; and you choose to partner with God; and you see God in every being and every landscape around you. So Jesus comes home, to the community that raised him, “in the power of the Spirit”—and right there in the synagogue, on the Sabbath day, he comes out to them all. Pride, right? This is who I am. This is who I will be with you. This is who we can be together. And he takes up the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah.
And he works his way down the scroll to the part that he wants to read, to the part that he loves to read. You can find it too. The sixty-first chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah. And it goes like this:
“The Spirit of our God is upon me;
because the Most High has anointed me
to bring Good News to those who are poor.
God has sent me to proclaim liberation to those held captive,
recovery of sight to those who are blind,
and release to those in prison—
(in other words, he says, with Isaiah, in conclusion)
to proclaim the year of our God’s jubilee!”
Now when Jesus claims this jubilee tradition as his own, when he outs himself within that tradition, which is the prophetic tradition, Jesus is taking sides. And this sets the whole of Luke’s gospel in motion. He’s rejecting economies of greed, accumulation and oppression; and he’s choosing God’s economy of grace and abundance and love. We are made for liberation and communion. We are made to enjoy the fruits of our labor and the feasts we prepare with our own hands.
The jubilee tradition—from Leviticus to Isaiah—takes a very clear stand. In some respects, it’s hidden in plain sight. Right there at the heart of the Hebrew Bible. Most folks don’t know it’s there. And the so-called Religious Right, well, they pretend it’s not.
But it goes like this. The land belongs to God. The economy, then, belongs to God. And human communities are called together to love the land, to cultivate the land, to share the land generously and justly. But every fifty years, this is the jubilee part, every fifty years, the people of God are responsible for restoring the land to families, individuals, communities who’ve fallen into debt, or who’ve been torn from the land, or who’ve simply lost their way. A great redistribution—by the will and desire of God—every fifty years! So that people can live and grow and thrive in community. So that the land can prosper and heal and glorify God. Because God loves the world. Because God loves the peoples of the world.
In a little book called “Land Tenure and the Biblical Jubilee,” Jeffrey Fager writes that the jubilee vision of the prophets was a “countermeasure to a system that provided wealth for a few at the expense of the many” and that it “recognized the constant threat of the loss of land, so it established a means of regaining the proper balance.” And I think this has everything to do with a contemporary vision in the church, a vision of citizenship, a vision of community, a vision of the common good. The land belongs to God. The economy belongs to God. So the people of God keep track of who’s left out, and who’s disconnected, who’s out of touch with the land. And we’re responsible for restoring the land to the people, for counteracting all systems, all ideologies, that enrich the wealthy at the expense of the poor.
Now in the Bible, there’s a lively and contentious debate about this jubilee business, as you can imagine: whether it’s particularly feasible, whether it’s utopian nonsense, or whether it truly is the will, the desire of the One Holy and Merciful God. That debate goes on, loudly, until this day. But, here at least, in the synagogue he grew up in, Jesus takes a side. “The Spirit of our God is upon me…to proclaim the year of our God’s jubilee!” Because he trusts the God of abundance and grace. Because he loves the God of his ancestors and teachers. Because God is nothing but goodness and mercy and hope. “The Spirit of our God is upon me…to proclaim the year of our God’s jubilee!” Debts canceled, land recovered and restored, prisoners freed and detainees released. A great redistribution—by the will and desire of God! For the glory of God!
And this, my friends, gets Jesus into all kinds of trouble. As you can imagine. Because the Spirit of the Living God will do that kind of thing.
I just want to note that every Sunday, when we say together the Lord’s Prayer, we join Jesus in this ministry, in this vision, in this radical commitment to redistribution and release. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” The language of his prayer—the prayer he teaches disciples to pray—is shaped very much by his jubilee vision, by his prophetic consciousness. And he asks us to pray it with him, to pray it together, and then to put it to work. Now some churches in some places will tweak it a little, soften it just a bit, so that we’re asking for forgiveness for our ‘trespasses.’ But the language of the Gospel is clear: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” And this is indeed the language of the jubilee. The disciples would have recognized it. Everyone else hanging around the edges would have recognized it. Jesus was a jubilee guy.
Now you can say that kind of faith will never fly in the world we’re living in. Realpolitik, and all that. And you can say it flies in the face of everything we know about capitalism, and everything we know about empire, and everything we know about self-interest and economic anxiety and human striving for security and wealth. To be honest, most days I’d agree with you. Jesus is daring us to dream big and to imagine a great healing. Jesus is daring us to love like he loves. And that kind of faith is risky business.
But don’t we need a great healing? Isn’t God’s imagination for all creation a great healing, a great wholeness, a great gathering of celebration and justice? Not a miraculous one-time fix-it-all: but a renewal of our many spirits, and a reorientation of our many communities. Maybe this jubilee stuff inspires us to dream big and to be bold in defending the planet from climate change and corporate greed and authoritarianism. Maybe this jubilee stuff inspires us to partner with the Living God in restoring the land to human communities, and finding a new and holy balance on the face of the earth, and freeing those held captive to the great powers of empire and violence. If we’re going to cast our lot with Jesus, which is in a sense what we do here every Sunday morning, we must—at the very least—take him seriously. “God has sent me,” he says to us today, again today, “to proclaim liberation to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison…” I’m all in, he says, with God’s jubilee!
Now I think this kind of faith, this kind of practice, requires an open heart, a curious mind and a kind of resilience that is unfettered and unbound. We’ve all got to open up. And we’ve all got to come out.
|A Brave & Quiet Heart, by Janet McKenzie|
And since we’re playing with this “coming out” metaphor this morning, I want to offer this about Jesus. And his example. And his heart. I think Jesus would resonate deeply, would appreciate deeply all those exploring nonbinary identities in today’s world, in today’s culture and climate. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Whether it’s around gender and sexual orientation, whether it’s around race and ethnicity, all of these things. And I’m so grateful for friends and colleagues—and for my own daughter—who’s challenging me to think in new ways about identity and language.
Jesus would be very comfortable, for example, very happy to use “they/them/their” pronouns—were we to give him a choice. Think about it. If Jesus were on your Zoom screen this afternoon, don’t you think they’d have their name on there with “they/them/their” as pronouns? I think so.
They were delightfully comfortable in their own skin. (See, I’m trying this out!) And they refused to pigeon-hole anyone, anyone, by gender, race, ability, sexual orientation, religious affiliation. Jesus cherished every individual for the uniqueness and light in their hearts. And they orchestrated the uniqueness of each individual into a symphony of the whole. And that’s got to be our vision of the church. On our way to jubilee, we liberate ourselves from bias and prejudice. On our way to jubilee, we free ourselves from the prisons of our own expectations and notions. And we simply and only love.
Think about it. Jesus insisted on integrating their life, living fully into their human spirit. Embracing it in every way. Jesus wasn’t interested in patriarchal stereotypes or gendered expectations: they were the one feeding friends at the table; and they were the one washing their feet when they came in tired and grumpy; and they were the one to nurse the sick and touch them where they hurt most. Jesus resisted binary expectations and identities on all fronts, and invited everyone they met into a human community that celebrated many ways of loving, many ways of serving, and a thousand different ways of expressing the wonders of human being.
In our own generation, I think of Thich Nhat Hanh as something very much like a Christ figure, as a Buddha in our own time. And of course, Thich Nhat Hanh died at 95 this weekend, crossing the river, joining the saints and pilgrims of the ages on the other side in glory. And we grieve with those students and loved ones who cherished him most; but mostly we give thanks to God, to the Universe, for gifting us with one so brave, so whole and so tender.
Years ago, in his book “Living Buddha, Living Christ,” Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that “when you touch deep understanding and love, you are healed.” When you touch deep understanding and love, you are healed. So long as we’re stuck in binary categories, gendered expectations, black and white valuations, we’re limited in how deep we can go. So long as we’re stuck in binary categories and gendered expectations, we’re limited in how broadly we can love and care and how bravely we can act together. We don’t take time to truly understand or truly love. But when we resist the urge to judge, the binaries that separate and simplify our lives, we open up this wonderful, marvelous space for compassion and understanding. Like Jesus. Like Thich Nhat Hanh. And that’s our calling. That’s the church.
So this morning, let’s celebrate Thich Nhat Hanh and his life and witness to understanding and love. And let’s celebrate Jesus, our own teacher and partner on the journey to healing, justice and jubilee. In the circle of faith, in the Christian body, there is no longer any need for Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, rich or poor. We are one in our humanness. We are one in our commitment to the earth and its flourishing. We are one in the grace poured out from the heart of God upon us all.
For that grace, I give thanks.
Amen and Ashe.