Sunday, January 24, 2016

"Release to the Captives" (Luke 4:14-21)

Jesus goes into the synagogue, opens the scroll, and reads from Isaiah. Specifically Isaiah 61. “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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And then he says “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Today. This scripture has been fulfilled.
More than one person has said to me that the New Testament is about grace and love, while the Old Testament is about punishment and vengeance, and that the New Testament overturns the Old Testament.
But look and listen to what Jesus does in the synagogue. He reads from the prophet Isaiah, then says, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled. Jesus not only affirms what was said in Isaiah; he says: “What you read about in Isaiah, that is what I’m here to do.”
In Luke’s gospel story, this is how Jesus introduced himself to the world. We know from our reading last week that in John’s gospel story, Jesus introduced himself to the world by… changing water into wine. But in Luke, Jesus reads from Isaiah, and adopts what Isaiah said as his own personal mission statement. In Luke’s gospel, that’s how he introduces himself and what he stands for.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives.
He has sent me to proclaim recovery of sight to the blind.
He has sent me to set the oppressed free.

Now if you were a first century person hearing Jesus read these words in the synagogue, you would recognize them. If you were in the synagogue listening to Jesus, you would know, even if he didn’t say so, that he was reading from Isaiah. And you would know that Isaiah wrote during a very troublesome time.
The people in Israel had been in exile: captured, and made to live in a foreign land. In exile, their one great longing was to return home.
By the time we get to this part of Isaiah – chapter 61 – they had already returned home. The events that are described in Isaiah’s earlier chapters are now long since passed. In fact, this part of Isaiah wasn’t even written by Isaiah. It was written years later by someone else.
If you’ve seen the movie The Princess Bride, think of the Dread Pirate Roberts, a pirate of near-mythical reputation, feared across the seven seas for his ruthlessness and swordfighting… Except that he’s not really the Dread Pirate Roberts.
As he says, he inherited the title. And the man he inherited it from was not the real Dread Pirate Roberts, either.
As he says: “The Dread Pirate Roberts had grown so rich, he wanted to retire. He took me to his cabin and he told me his secret. 'I am not the Dread Pirate Roberts' he said. 'My name is Ryan; I inherited the ship from the previous Dread Pirate Roberts, just as you will inherit it from me. The man I inherited it from is not the real Dread Pirate Roberts either. His name was Cummerbund. The real Roberts has been retired 15 years and living like a king in Patagonia.'”
There are at least two – and probably three – Isaiahs writing in the book of Isaiah. Only the first 39 chapters belong to the real Isaiah. By chapter 61, we’re probably reading the writings of the third Isaiah.
And by the time of the third Isaiah, the exile is over, and the people of Israel are back home.
You might think that, now, back home, all their hopes and dreams would come true. But their return wasn’t all they had hoped or imagined.
Their return didn’t quite live up to their expectations.
They were home, but they weren’t really in charge.
They were home, but most of their land was now owned by someone else.
They were home, but they were oppressed by the powers in charge and by the people who now owned the land on which they lived.
Many of them lived in poverty. And they were still very much captive – captive, now, in their own land.
And as third Isaiah makes clear: poverty and captivity are unacceptable to God. Poverty and captivity are not a part of God’s vision for the world.
It is in this context that Isaiah says: “the Spirit has sent me to proclaim good news to the oppressed, freedom to the captives, release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor [the year when all this will be made right], so that all those who mourn will be comforted.”
The people who heard Jesus read Isaiah’s words would have recognized that Jesus was comparing their current situation to the situation of people in Isaiah’s time. Because in Jesus’s time, the people still lived in an oppressed state.
The Romans were in charge.
Their rule was corrupt.
The way the Romans ruled penalized the poor and benefited only a few elites.
The people were kept in poverty, and most were not able to own land.
They were taxed heavily, but benefitted little from the wealth that went to the government.
Rebellions came and went, each one crushed violently by the Roman army…
This was not what God had in mind when God created the world.
So God sent Jesus to the world, to save the world from the mess it was in, to save the people, to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed… to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, the time when all things will be made right.
So now that we see the similarities between Isaiah’s time and the time of Jesus, what about our own time? How does our own time compare to those times, the time of Isaiah, and the time of Jesus? Is there a need today for the Spirit? Is there a need for a proclamation of good news to the poor release to the captives, freedom to the oppressed?
In other words, are people still being economically oppressed – are they still being held captive – in our time? We need to know the answer to this, because if the answer is yes, then we – the body of Christ – clearly have our work cut out for us. After all, poverty and captivity are unacceptable to God. After all, the one we claim to follow declared it his mission to end oppression and poverty and captivity.
Are people today economically oppressed?
Today, the gap between the rich and the poor is at record levels. The Walton family which founded and controls Walmart, has as much wealth as the bottom 40% of American people. That’s one rich family with as much wealth as 128 million Americans.
Yet somehow, they – and other wealthy business owners – have convinced our government that they – and not the poor – are most in need of tax breaks.
So our government gives huge tax breaks to corporations, so that companies like Walmart pay very little in taxes. And a number of major corporations even have a negative tax rate, meaning they receive more in subsidies from the government than they give in taxes.
Meanwhile, the Walton family uses their considerable influence to fight against things that would help their workers, like increases to the minimum wage.
Here’s another example of how current laws oppress the poor. Last year, Martin Shkreli, the CEO of a big pharmaceutical company, raised the price of Daraprim by over 5,000 percent, from $13 to $750. Daraprim is a lifesaving drug that thousands of people with AIDS depend on, but that didn’t matter to Shkreli. And what he did was perfectly legal.
A few months later, Shkreli was arrested for securities fraud. This time, his victims were Wall Street executives. For that, he was arrested.
This shows that, in this country, you can cheat the American public, no problem, just don’t cheat the people with money.
We live in a system that economically oppresses the poor.
Almost one hundred years ago, we had a similar situation. The Roaring 20s were a remarkably good time for wealthy business owners. But the economy could not sustain such a huge gap between the wealthy and the poor that existed then, and it all came crashing down in October of 1929.
Is our own economy sustainable? History teaches that it’s only a matter of time before it crashes down once again. Unless we can fix it.
And we need to fix it, not just to avoid another crash, but because Jesus calls us to proclaim good news to the poor, to end economic oppression in our time.
Jesus also calls upon us to proclaim release to the captives. In Jesus’s time, many were imprisoned unfairly by the Roman government because they challenged the government’s policies, because they stood up to Roman oppression. And even those who weren’t in prison were captive to the unfair and unjust treatment they received from Rome.
In our own time, we know that African-Americans are incarcerated at a rate more than six times their representation in the general population. Clearly, Black lives don’t matter in this country, which is why the church needs to proclaim that Black Lives do matter.
And speaking of incarceration, our laws allow a person to be put away in prison for using marijuana, but not one major Wall Street executive has been prosecuted for unethical practices that led to the near collapse of our economy in the last decade.
In addition, many prisons are now being run by for-profit companies, which use their influence in the courts to maintain a certain number of prisoners simply because they need those prisoners in order to remain profitable. People thrown in prison for corporate, economic gain.
Clearly, the need is great for people who recognize the Spirit’s presence, people who recognize the Spirit’s anointing upon them, to preach good news to the poor, freedom to the oppressed, and release to the captives.
Jesus read the words of the prophet Isaiah, and adopted them as his own. The prophet, in making his declaration, is uncharacteristically bold and self-affirming. He affirms the Spirit’s presence within him. He declares what the Spirit has called him to do.
That’s what Jesus did, and it’s what we need to do as well.
We need to recognize and affirm the Spirit’s presence among us. We need to declare, boldly, what it is that the Spirit is calling us to do. We need to put before our world the vision of the prophets, the kingdom of shalom described by Jesus.

Finally, if we read just a little further in Isaiah 66, we discover that the prophet then goes on to give praise to God. The prophet’s final word is a word of praise.
The same needs to be true for us. We give praise to God, because in the face of oppression, inequality, poverty and injustice, our God is not silent. Our God demands a more just society. Our God insists that everyone gets to share in the benefits of a growing economy.
We give praise to God, because God does not look the other way when people are being mistreated or abused.
We give praise to God, because the words of the prophets are fulfilled in Jesus.
We give praise to God, because the words of the prophets are fulfilled in us.

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