God’s Kingdom in the Midst of Empire, Part 2 of 5

Be sure to catch the short introductory post here.

After years of study and preparation Jesus comes to the synagogue a baptized man. He takes the scroll, opens it to Isaiah 61 and begins with the words, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,” Jesus is about to preach like an inspired man:

“because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Isaiah 61 is about Israel’s promised Messiah. Throughout this section of Isaiah there are pictures of this anointed one who will come and faithfully perform God’s will. This anointed one will be the long-expected Messiah, or King, and will give birth to a new society originating from the most unexpected people: the broken-hearted, the poor, the imprisoned, the blind and the oppressed. Once a marginalized and powerless people, they will go forward in the power of the King to do the priestly work of rebuilding the ancient ruins, restoring the former devastations, and renewing the ruined cities and the devastations of many generations (Isa. 61:3-8). A never-ending Covenant will be made between them and God and they will flourish under His reign (Isa. 61:9-11).

Jesus is drawing from a larger picture in Isaiah, and elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, which speaks of God fulfilling His promises to Israel. They will finally live into the vocation of their election and become a light to all the nations (this is consistent with what Luke has already written in chapters 1-3).

A New Society & New Way of Doing Things

“Today,” Jesus says, “this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” In Jesus’ first sermon, He offers not only a vision of His ministry but a vision of a new way of doing things in society ushered in by the new age. God’s grace is for everyone as His kingdom is breaking in. The poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed–all are welcome to come to the most gracious Host. There is a place for them in God’s life. If that isn’t enough, the Lord’s Jubilee has finally come where the ground is leveled and powers restructured in light of this new age; this new world; this new beginning. Jesus is offering a new vision of a new society for a new age, an age where God’s promised kingdom breaks in to the audience’s world. This is an inspired message from an inspired man with a prophetic imagination.

No wonder Luke tells us that the audience was astonished. The message is shocking. But the crucial part of the text comes next. Jesus senses that His hearers aren’t hearing clearly. As the crowds often do with Jesus, they want to argue, perhaps with proverbs, or better still, ask Him to perform magic tricks.

“22 They were all speaking well of Him and were amazed by the gracious words that came from His mouth, yet they said, ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’
23 Then He said to them, “No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me: ‘Doctor, heal yourself. So all we’ve heard that took place in Capernaum, do here in Your hometown also.’”

It is as if they are say, “If you can heal all people, start by healing the folks in your own backyard!”

God is on the Wrong Side

By way of defense for His prophetic words, Jesus turns their minds to two of the most significant prophets in Israel’s history: Elijah and Elisha. Listen to how Jesus reminds them of Elijah and Elisha’s ministry so you can see what He is subversively saying about his own.

24 He also said, “I assure you: No prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 But I say to you, there were certainly many widows in Israel in Elijah’s days, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months while a great famine came over all the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them—but to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 And in the prophet Elisha’s time, there were many in Israel who had serious skin diseases, yet not one of them was healed —only Naaman the Syrian.”

Elijah was sent to help a widow, but not a Jewish one. Elisha, who healed one leper, one who happened to be the commander of the enemy army. Elijah and Elisha helped non-Jewish people–the wrong people. In choosing these two prophets as a response to their arguments not only did Jesus identify himself as a prophet, he was taking up their kind of ministry. By pointing back to Elijah and Elisha Jesus undercuts the dominate powers of His day, those capable of inflicting violence and oppression: ethnic and religious superiority and privilege. This subverts the old familiar way of doing things in society along with it’s delusions of peace and prosperity, and infuriates the hearers–that age is passing away. In the Lord’s jubilee God is rescuing the “wrong” people. Again. No wonder why in verse 29 they wanted to throw Him over the cliff!

So what are the implications today? We will give that some thought in the next post.

About Fred

I am a follower of Jesus, the husband to Alison Glenn, daddy to my little man Ian. I am a son, brother, friend, bi-vocational pastor of Williamsburg Christian Church, ethnographer, activist and justice seeker, founder and president of 3e Restoration Inc, adjunct professor at Regent University, and mission specialist of church renewal with Mission Alive. I received my B.S. in Ministry/Bible at Amridge University and my Masters of Religious Education in Missional Leadership (MREML) from Rochester College. I am currently working toward my Doctorate of Ministry in Contextual Theology at Northern Seminary.
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