This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Release to the Captives.

Luke 4:14-21
            When Jesus goes back to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, he chooses to preach on a passage, or several passages, from the prophet Isaiah.  It becomes the inauguration of his whole ministry, in Luke.  Here he is announcing to the people the shape of what he was sent to the Earth to do.  It is Jesus’ mission statement.
            We see precisely these things then embodied in his on-going ministry.  The fact that he does these things is a validation of his being the promised Messiah.  These are the kinds of things the Messiah was supposed to do.
            I also think that, as his disciples, they are also supposed to characterize our own ministry.  We are called to do the same work that Jesus does.  He sends us out into the world with the same mission.  By his Word and Spirit he anoints us, he equips us, he empowers us, to continue his work.  This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
            The first thing in Isaiah’s list is bringing good news to the poor.  The good news that Jesus brings to the poor in his ministry is that they are no longer poor.  Not only does he favor a redistribution of wealth, as when he instructs people with wealth to sell it all and give the proceeds to those in need, but he inspires communities of sharing in which no one has any need that is not met by the resources of the whole group.
            Jesus does not say that the way to help the poor is to give money to the rich, who will supposedly create jobs and grow the economy.  Jesus knows this to be a self-serving mythology that wealthy people perpetuate in order to make themselves wealthier.  Neither does he have his disciples spend on social programs that help people only indirectly.  No.  With Jesus it is very simple.  If someone is in need you address the need to the best of your ability.  “Give to whomever asks of something from you,” is how he rather bluntly puts it elsewhere. 
            He doesn’t fret over whether he is instilling “personal responsibility” in people or not.  He is only concerned about instilling personal responsibility for other people.  He doesn’t seem to be at all concerned about rewarding laziness, or any of the other paternalistic rationalizations we like to weave around this issue.  For Jesus, if somebody needs food, you feed them.  If they need clothing or shelter, you provide those.  If they need health care, once again, you give people what they need.
            And I don’t think he’s talking just about economic poverty.  But we also find many who are impoverished educationally, emotionally, relationally, intellectually....  Wherever there is a lack of something we need to live happy, healthy, productive, and good lives, that’s what Jesus would have us do our best to provide for anyone who needs it.  Jesus is about wholeness. 

            The second thing characterizing Jesus’ mission is his proclamation of “release to captives.”  In his ministry, Jesus is not reported to have actually broken anybody out of jail.  The prisons from which Jesus sets people free from have to do with the captivities of disease, sinfulness, exclusion from the community, and hopelessness. 
            Captives are not necessarily the most popular people to minister or proclaim release to.  Whether you are held in bondage to a chemical addiction, or actually, physically languishing in jail or prison, people often tend to imagine that this is something you brought on yourself by your bad behavior or moral failings.  So we have ample excuses to ignore these folks.  And we do.  Raising money for agencies that provide services to prisoners or addicts is about the most difficult of all fund-raising tasks.
            It is interesting that Luke uses the same word here, “release,” that is elsewhere translated “forgive.”  Forgiveness is a setting free from a type of bondage, a liberation, a letting-go of someone from punishment.  To forgive is to release the anger, resentment, desire for retribution that you are holding onto about a person who has harmed you.  Forgiveness means releasing someone from punishment, even if deserved.
            Jesus calls on his disciples to be forgiving – that is, freeing, liberating, releasing – people.  We are to be a community that sets people free from whatever is binding them and enslaving them.  And often it is the community itself, in the way it welcomes, accepts, and includes people, that makes this liberation happen.  Most of the things that enslave us we cannot escape from on our own.
            I do feel led to add, at this point, that one of the greatest and most hidden scandals in our country is the absurdly and tragically high rate of incarceration.  A higher percentage of Americans is in jail or prison than any other country on earth.  It is higher here than in China, or Russia, or any brutal dictatorship.  It is higher here than in North Korea or Cuba.  And it has risen dramatically in the past 20 years.  This is probably our greatest civil rights problem today, and it is rarely talked about.  An overwhelming majority of prisoners in America are non-white.  And it is a corrupt and devilish system propped up by both a for-profit private prison industry and powerful corrections officer unions.  This is a major evil in our society which undermines our effectiveness in witnessing against human rights abuses in other countries.  Working on this would be a very good thing for followers of Jesus to do.

            Jesus also knows himself to be empowered to bring “recovery of sight to the blind.”  Jesus in his ministry heals several cases of blindness, and we are called to engage in ministries that bring sight to people.
            At the same time, the church is also called to address the more pervasive moral and spiritual blindness we encounter around us.  People who refuse to see the truth because they are blinded by various ideological, political, or economic assumptions.  Fear and anger are great blinders of people, preventing us from seeing our neighbors as they are, and instead turning them into something we can more easily hate, reject, and even kill.
            Jesus repeatedly lamented the moral blindness of his opponents, who claimed to be able to see better than anyone, but who really failed to see what was most important.  People find it very difficult to see what they don’t want to see.  When our loyalties and commitments are challenged, we don’t want to know about it.  We are often blind to the evil in ourselves, and blind to the good in others.
            Or we can be blind to the truth about ourselves, like the anorexic young woman I used to know who would look in the mirror and see a fat person, even though at the time she weighed less than 90 pounds.
            Jesus comes to connect people with a vision of the truth, which is God’s love for the whole world.  When we see the world as a place of scarcity and violence, we are not seeing the truth… but we are at the same time creating a false world where scarcity and violence reign.
            The truth about each person is that they are a beautiful, miraculous, cherished, valuable, and blessed child of God.  That is the truth we need to communicate and help people to see about themselves and others.
            We are oppressed by our negative and false vision.  We think we see a world divided into enemy camps, a world of competition and jealousy, a world of fear and hatred and anger and violence.  The tragedy is that when that’s the world we see, that is the world we create.  When that is the lens through which we perceive reality, it determines our actions, and our actions project and maintain the world that we and others live in.  If we think we live in hell, we will act like we live in hell, and then we will actually live in the hell our actions have generated.
            So we who follow Jesus have to help people see the truth, and to do that we have to become the truth by enacting and embodying a community where this blessing and goodness and forgiveness and love is made real.  We see Jesus, who is God’s love for the world revealed in all its fullness. 

            When Jesus proclaims the next part of his mission, which is to “let the oppressed go free,” he seems to be repeating himself about the captives… and he is.  All these are basically restatements of the same chronic condition that affects humanity, as exemplified in those who suffer under them physically.  To be poor, to be captive, to be blind, to be oppressed… these are all symptoms and manifestations of the same disease, which is sin, the state of being cut off from God and from others.
            Cut-off from reality, we collapse and implode into our own little, false, but somehow comfortable, worlds, worlds of our own making, worlds that are really hermetically sealed little boxes allowing us to wallow in delusion.
            Finally, Jesus summarizes his mission as “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  This is something that also had an inward and an outward manifestation.  Preaching the Lord’s favor means proclaiming and living in the world as God made it, in love, justice, peace, sharing, healing, forgiveness, and blessing.  It means announcing through word and deed that God is love, and in him is no darkness at all.  It means creating together a community where this actually happens in the way people interact together.  It means addressing the poverty, blindness, bondage, and oppression of people both on the level of our spirits and our physical circumstances.
            At the same time, there is nearly universal agreement among scholars that what Jesus and Isaiah are referring to when they talk about “proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor” is the Jubilee Year from Leviticus 25.  The Jubilee Year was supposed to happen every 50 years or so… but it probably never actually happened, which is part of Jesus’ point.
            The main characteristics of the Jubilee Year were the cancellation of all debts, and the reversion of all real estate to its original Israelite families.  The Jubilee Year basically hits the “reset” button on the economy.  And the point of it was to prevent the unequal distribution of wealth that happens when you leave people to do as they please.  God’s intention was that every 50 years all debts, all mortgages, all loans… were simply nullified.  It was bad news for bankers and creditors; but it was very good news for debtors, and those who had lost wealth in the previous half-century.
            The idea that it is integral and essential to Jesus’ mission that he came to proclaim wall-to-wall debt relief, is not something we hear about very often.  And yet that is the case.  Jesus knows that debt is one of the most unjust and pervasive manifestations of bondage, oppression, poverty, and even blindness, that can corrode the heart of a whole society. 

            Jesus’ message is about release.  He uses the word twice in this short passage.  It is about freedom.  It is about real freedom, not the counterfeit “freedom” that the wealthy and powerful preach to justify their oppression of others.  Neither does he advocate the kind of false “freedom” by which people supposedly choose to remain in bondage and captivity.  An addict isn’t free.  Neither is a debtor.
            But for Jesus, freedom and release had to do with being in resonance with the truth of God’s infinite love for the world.  We are only free when we are operating according to God’s Word and Spirit, which are the foundations of all creation and reality.
            On May 20, we are going to go out and spread some of the freedom.  We are going to bring some of that release to people in need.  We are going to defeat a little bit of people’s bondage, whether it be the bondage of loneliness or poverty or the bondage of simply having a body that doesn’t work as well as it used to.  We are going to be emissaries of God’s freedom, Gods release, God’s liberation in some small but important ways.
            I hope you will all find a way to join us.



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