Luke 4:14-21 (NRSV)
The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry
14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16 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, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 “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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 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. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
“People are hungry and one good word is bread for a thousand.”
– David Whyte
In this passage, Jesus returns to his hometown, and speaks in the synagogue. He is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, he finds Isaiah 61, and begins to read. It is a short passage, it is enough. He stops before “and the day of vengeance of our God”, creating a separation between the two acts of his ministry, his first and second coming.
Did the crowd think him to be another prophet? He leaves no ambiguity. Prophecy and fulfilment merge to one in his statement; “these words are fulfilled in your hearing.” He announces who he is; the Messiah. He announces who we are; the poor, the oppressed, the captives. He has come that we may be something so much more.
My friend Abigail sent me a link to Walter Brueggemann’s On Being interview recently (get yourself friends who send you hour-long videos of theologians, with confidence that you might well watch them). Listening to him for the first time helped bring portions of the Bible alive in new ways; portions that I have not spent enough time reading or thinking about, namely the Old Testament prophets, whose writing Jesus reads from here. Brueggemann spoke about the prophetic imagination, and how understanding the poetic qualities of the prophetic texts brings further levels of depth. I loved this. I love his descriptions of the power and the purpose of poetic language:
He also said; “people who control the power structure don’t know what to make of [prophets] and try to silence them. They always discover you cannot finally silence poets. They keep coming at you in threatening and transformative ways.”
Isaiah 61 is a rich example of this. The words stick and stay, they are rhythmic, mesmerising, they capture in a few lines some of our universal desires. It creates in us an ache for a place we could go. It is wholly attractive, wholly a vision one would want to participate in.
Bruggemann believes the prophetic imagination saves us in another way. It saves us from the temptation to reduce the tenets of faith to an ideology. He says, “that is what is so extraordinary about poetry. It is so elusive, it refuses to be reduced to a formula.” The truths, expressed in the poetic form, allow for something transformative rather than prescriptive. This passage Jesus chooses, is a good example of this. Is it literal of figurative? Is the good news that is for the poor, or the poor of spirit? The language allows for both. We must leave space for both. When viewed through this lens it saves us from two temptations. The first, the temptation to reduce Jesus to individualistic pop psychology Jesus who rescues us to Live our Best Lives and social justice Jesus who tells us how and why to address the material lack of those around us, focusing on societal change to the neglect of inner transformation. Luke says blessed are the poor. Matthew says blessed are the poor in the spirit. Jesus holds out redemption of both realities.
Poverty in all its forms, is not hard to find, takes little stretch of our imagination. 1 in 10 Irish children live in it, increased to 1 in 5 in single parent families. Almost 400 people died by suicide in Ireland every year, 4 out of every 5 were men. Where is our hope in these situations? Where is our imagination for better than this? It is in Jesus, in his mission we have been invited to participate in. Do I truly, truly imagine my life, Ireland and the world differently according to the work of Jesus Christ, a work I believe to be still unfolding?
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
May your imagination be stirred. May you be nourished by possibility. May you share hope when you have it. May it be shared with you when you don’t. May you write a poem, may you be a poem.
Emily is currently working part-time as a youth worker in Kilkenny, having just completed her Masters in Community and Youth Work. She is passionate about tag rugby, proper conversations, dancing, poetry, public transport as a lifestyle choice and seeing people and ideas come together.