Today’s gospel reading is a familiar one. Jesus goes to the synagogue and reads and comments on a passage from Third Isaiah, which was authored by an anonymous prophet continuing the tradition and themes of the prophet Isaiah. The people hearing the prophet’s words were either just returning from exile in Babylon or had remained and suffered through occupation. The people of Judah and Israel were almost always being occupied and persecuted by some foreign power who didn’t understand or respect their laws or customs or even their God. It must have been so difficult for them to keep hoping for a better day. This speech in Isaiah, then, serves as encouragement that the people need to hear. The prophet says to them, “All of you who are in mourning now will be given a garland instead of ashes, and a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” You will rise up from these ruined cities, repair the devastation, and restore your community for yourselves and for future generations.
“The Year of God’s favor,” you might remember, refers to the Jubilee mentioned in Leviticus, which says that every fifty years, all slaves would be freed and all debts forgiven. There is no evidence that the Jubilee was ever put into practice. (People have always been selfish.) But it was a model for a spiritual, social and economic restructuring of society that was in line with what Yahweh wanted for them. This good news, then, was a reassurance that if the people worked together, treated one another fairly, and refused to exploit the poor and vulnerable, Israel would be restored.
We know that the Biblical prophets were not loved by everyone, especially the top one percent. Speaking on behalf of the poor and marginalized and calling for the wealthy to use their privilege to help others does not make one popular with those who are comfortable with the way things are. To them, prophets were trouble makers. So when Jesus walked into the synagogue that day in Nazareth, where he grew up, and where he had likely gone daily to study the Torah, he was in good and bad company, depending on where you stood on the socio-economic ladder, because he, too, wanted to move people beyond their own concerns to the concerns of the society in which they lived.
The custom in the synagogue on the Sabbath was to read through the scriptures. The text doesn’t say that Jesus asked for this particular scroll of Isaiah to read from; he just asked for a scroll, and this was probably where they happened to be in the readings. I don’t think he went there with the purpose of shocking the audience, although some were shocked, but to give some remarks, a short sermon, on whatever the reading was for that day.
Professor and author David Leong says, “Jesus inhabits Israel’s sacred texts and with intricate and sweeping connections, harnesses the prophetic message of Isaiah 61. And he weaves a new thread into the story that connects seamlessly to the original fabric that has been there all along.”
What Jesus adds to the Isaiah text is this: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” One of Jesus’ primary messages in the gospels was that the realm of God is here, not out there somewhere. So, I think, he is telling the people, “We can’t wait any longer for Isaiah’s words to become reality.” Yes, we are once again occupied. Yes, we have suffered defeat. But it is time to do what we can to realize that vision of beloved community of social and economic justice for all people. He added a sense of urgency and action to the situation. And he shared that urgency and action with everyone he came into contact with. He said to them, “The time is now.” You all must be the agents of change in your world. You must break down walls that divide us from each other, embrace the stranger, and eat and drink and spend time with everyone, especially the lonely and excluded. You must dismantle structures that favor the rich to the detriment of the poor. And really love your neighbors as yourselves, and show it by the way you treat them.
Of course, Jesus’s message is for us too. We have to stop waiting for the world to change and go change it. To take a closer look at injustice in our society. It is everywhere, and there is an attitude among many of our leaders that that’s just the way things are. The lack of compassion by the one percent for the rest of the population was made so clear this week when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, when asked about the federal workers who were furloughed for 35 days before getting a 3-week reprieve on Friday, having to use to food banks, responded with this: “Put it in perspective, you’re talking about 800,000 workers, and while I feel sorry for the individuals, even if they never got their pay. . . you’re talking about a third of a percent of our GDP. So it’s not like it’s a gigantic number overall.” I just want to get in his face and say “Shame on you for reducing human beings to a percentage of the GDP.” I think he needs some of that sight to the blind that Jesus talked about.
But there are so many individuals and organizations big and small who recognize the urgency of the situation and have stepped up to help: churches, foodbanks, restaurants, banks and credit unions, pharmacies, utility companies. Even the Jaguars paid for the Coast Guard’s meals on Thursday. We here also recognize the urgency. Our small church does so much to follow the words and example of the prophets and of Jesus to give to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free, and to love our neighbors as ourselves through our actions. May we never tire of this mission, as it is the heart of who we are.