He Brings Glad Tidings to the Poor
Pic: ‘Jésus dans la synagogue déroule le livre’ (Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue), James Tissot, circa 1886-1894. (public domain, Brooklyn Museum)
What’s your typical reaction to self-help gurus? You know the type. They promise you can lose weight or get rich if you buy their product. My usual reaction is skepticism…and that’s generous. I’ll bet yours is the same. I’m sure there was no shortage of similar snake oil salesmen in Jesus’ time. It certainly was true regarding self-proclaimed “messiahs.” First century Palestine was filled with them.
Given that background, you can imagine the skepticism when Jesus stands up in the synagogue of Nazareth, reads from the book of Isaiah, and says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). He’s claiming to be the Messiah, and it’s hard for them to believe. After all, they knew Jesus as a kid. He grew up there. However, if you understand this passage from Isaiah, you can see Jesus is saying something different–a spiritual, not earthly salvation. He is proclaiming the Gospel.
Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61:1-2. It describes the year of Jubilee. That’s what an “acceptable year of the Lord” means—Jubilee. Every week, Israel was to keep the sabbath, six days work and one day rest. Every seventh year was a sabbath year. No one worked that year. The people, and the land, rested. Then, every 50 years, a sabbath of sabbath years, there was a year of Jubilee. In the Jubilee year, everything reset. All debts were forgiven, slaves were freed, and ancestral property reverted to the original owners. Sounds great, huh? For some maybe. The problem was, it cut into profit margin and no one did it. Can you imagine? That land you snatched up when your neighbor fell on hard times went back to him. Did someone owe you money? You had to let it go. What about those indentured servants who worked your fields for nearly nothing? Freed. Jubilee was bad for business, so they never observed it. This didn’t make God happy. One of the main reasons God sent Israel into exile was for their failure to keep the sabbath, especially the Jubilee. It was far overdue.
Isaiah’s Jubilee prophecy was seen as something different, though. It’s a future, spiritual Jubilee for Israel. Other places in Luke (1:77, 3:3, 24:47), the word used for “release” here means “forgiveness.” Isaiah foresees not a release from financial debt, but from the debt (guilt) of sin. Freedom for captives yes, but for those enslaved by idolatry. This liberty is for those oppressed by Satan.
Most interesting is the “recovering sight to the blind” and preaching “good news to the poor” part. Later in Luke 7, when John the Baptist sends his disciples to question if Jesus is really the Messiah, what signs does Jesus say? The proof is “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22). The miracles Jesus performed, particularly the ones from Isaiah 61, are John’s proof. The word “poor” here doesn’t mean people who live in material poverty. It refers to the “anawim,” the lowly, neglected, and often powerless who live in humility and trust in the Lord. God always has special blessings reserved for the anawim. Jesus rebuked the haughty and brought down the exalted. His message of hope was to those who had no hope. The powerful, the leaders, and the self-sufficient rejected him. They were too proud to see how the Lord was moving. But the lowly could see. They were open to God’s work and followed Jesus. As well, some who were spiritually blind were given spiritual sight and followed him. Thus, the blind see (spiritually) and the poor in spirit receive the good news. Of course, Jesus also physically healed the blind too.
In this week’s gospel, Jesus is saying the future year of Jubilee Isaiah predicted is here, now, in him. Indeed, the messianic time has come. So, what about those skeptical people in the Nazareth synagogue? Did they miss out? A little later they try to throw Jesus off a cliff! They are blinded by their familiarity, what they think they know. Jesus himself said a profit is never accepted in his hometown. Perhaps that also applies to lifelong Catholics who grow up hearing this story but not fully understanding it. We take the Church for granted because we think we know, but do we really? Does familiarity blind you to the real possibilities of life in Christ? Is there something transformational in the Church you fail to understand and take hold of?
In this gospel, God is speaking to the humble who accept his blessing…who accept him as Lord. This is good news! Release, sight, liberty, freedom…but only for those who give up being everything and make Jesus the center of all things. Jesus preaches good news to the poor. What about you? Are you poor in spirit? Are you willing to let go of your pride and self-sufficiency to become lowly and trusting? This week, Jesus proclaims Jubilee. It’s extended all the way from the first century until now. All these things Isaiah promised are fulfilled in the Church and through relationship with Jesus. Freedom can be yours. All you have to do is ask God for it.
Marc Cardaronella is Director of the Office of Catechesis and Faith Formation.