Set the Captives Free

Water into Wine
January 21, 2019
February 10, 2019

Let us imagine the scene outlined by Luke’s Gospel, Ch.4.Verses 14-21 as Jesus launches his ministry. All eyes are on Jesus when he comes into the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth.  Jesus has arrived home with a growing reputation for his preaching and is being praised by everyone who has heard him.

Jesus has talked to multiple crowds and groups since his baptism and time in the wilderness; teaching in synagogues and outside with crowds and there is no dissent. There is no doubt, this man is an extraordinary teacher and preacher. He has now come to his own synagogue.

Luke tells us this is happening directly after Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, battling with the devil and on emerging from his wilderness, we are told he is filled with the power of the Spirit. His prayers and facing his temptations have renewed and refreshed him with the Holy Spirit.

Luke also tells us Jesus is a devout Jew, well versed in the Torah, in the writings of the Jewish prophets and teachers. He stands up to teach in the Synagogue and was handed the scroll of Isaiah. Jesus searches the scroll to find the verses he wishes to read.

There must have been deep silence in the synagogue. Questions looming large and loudly in people’s minds.  What was Jesus going to say?  Why had he chosen these verses?  Has he been set up by those around him in authority in the synagogue, or has he set the scene himself deliberately?

For those of us who stand up and preach, and read, I am very clear that whether God shows up when we preach is not up to us. I am truly nervous and apprehensive about this. What we try to say, with our hearts and minds, is not Grace but it is in the service of God’s Grace.  What we do know, though, is that Jesus is Grace.  We point to the love of God, but Jesus is the love of God.  This must have made his preaching electric.

As Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah, he focusses on key statements. When you’ve time at home, get out your bible and compare the text from Isaiah 61:1-2a with what Jesus read out as described by Luke.  There are differences.  For example, Jesus leaves out the second half of verse 2, where Isaiah promises the vengeance of the Lord.

Jesus leaves the stories of God’s judgement to John the preacher and baptiser at this point and focusses instead on other things:

good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight for the blind and he is promising to let the oppressed go free’ and finally, ‘to proclaim the start of the year as demanded by God, described as a Jubilee year, as a year of the Lord’s favour’ where wrongs are righted, justice is restored and balance to the community and individuals is returned.’ And Jesus finishes his brief reading of these two verses of Isaiah by then concluding: ‘Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

Jesus has made an extraordinary claim. He would have had a short time to speak his piece before the questions started, the rejections began, outrage emerging at the apparent hubris; and the few who might have been listening with hope to be drowned out.

Alongside this, we are reminded in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians Ch.12:12-31 what a refreshed and balanced world might look like in the year of the Lord’s favour which is emerging more clearly, as we acknowledge all who live in God’s creation as unique and contributing, loved and valued as a member of our community, each of us with different gifts and blessings.

We are reminded each community needs to value all members, not simply the preferred members of the community.  And as we think about what our role and our gifts are as a community and individually, the reflection must always be: how are we proclaiming the good news, how are we releasing the captives, ensuring recovery of sight, offering freedom from oppression and the year of the favour of the lord.? Would those who we meet, see and experience any of that Grace?

As I was reading and preparing for this reflection, I read a story by a priest who was writing about justice and the death penalty with this reading in mind and its implications.

Apparently, the United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, but it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.  The priest reflected on what that meant for him and his country.

The US imprisons more than any other country on earth.  Some benefit directly from this fact and most are complicit with it; and so, most people in the US are both indicted by the scripture Jesus quotes and frightened by the fact God intends to do something about it. And so, many look the other way and ignore Jesus’ teaching.

The priest goes on to tell a story about how he visited a man in a US prison for killing a teenage girl. He’d been on death row for 21 years.  The prisoner talked at length about God’s grace and the priest asked him if grace had overwhelmed his sense of guilt.  The prisoner said:

The gospel requires us not simply to be sorry, but to be transformed by our sorrow. For me this is a daily transformation’.  For the prisoner, guilt and grace stood in tension.

Forgiveness had not erased the memory of his sin, yet the prisoner insisted Christ had freed him from it.

I will never forget my crime, but there has to come a point where you receive forgiveness and then forgive yourself. Not to justify your actions, but to accept God’s love.  It does not matter where you are, it is who you are that matters.  I am a person who is loved and forgiven by God.’

The priest reported at that point he finished the interview. He left, he couldn’t bear the discussion.  Not because the killer had done anything to him or said anything awful, but because he had claimed God’s love as his own.  He claimed Jesus had set him free and the priest could not stand it.

The priest reflected he had gone to the prison expecting the worst from a man who had committed a dreadful crime. Instead, he found a broken sinner redeemed and pieced back together by the love of God. He said:

Instead of a monster I found grace, a power strong enough to transform monsters into gentler men. I could not tolerate it.

So we need to be asking ourselves:

  • what does this mean, to believe in a God who brings good news to the poor, where your wealth, self-centred greed and deliberate blindness to keep the status quo which benefits you through structural injustice is not what God is about; or
  • a God who brings sight to the blind, where people inconveniently start to see the truth about God’s love and challenge your beliefs and sense of entitlement and privilege; or
  • a God who seeks to set the oppressed free and proclaim restoration of justice, equity, love and generosity in the year of the Lord’s favour?
  • What does this mean to believe in a God who opposes imprisonment, whether its behind iron bars or bars of guilt?

It is good news to the captives, but those of us who think we are already free, tend to receive this news as the opposite.

How dare Jesus remove our prejudices and entitlements and then share them with the undeserving? It was no wonder Jesus’ next words caused the world to shift on its axis and people wanted to kill him to shut him up rather than listen to his good news and put our burdens down.

My sisters and brothers, Jesus stood in the synagogue and preached the good news. Let us be open to the radical nature of Jesus’ message and start to, dare to, hope and believe in God’s love for all of us.

The Lord be with you.

Ref: Matt Fitzgerald, 2014. p.101-103. ’Feasting on the Gospels. Luke. Volume 1 Chapters 1-11. Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville. Kentucky, USA.

Lucy Morris
Lucy Morris
Anglican Priest, International Speaker, Published Author, Social Justice Advocate and Activist.

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