2004—Third Sunday in Ordinary Time—C
Jesus's mission is our mission
The Gospel today focuses on the dramatic beginning of Jesus' public ministry. Jesus enters the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth and steps into the pulpit. He unrolls the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and reads: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord."
The drama intensifies as Jesus announces: "Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing." Isaiah's words were written about him and Israel's hopes for a liberator are fulfilled in him. His sermon must have had quite an impact. Luke tells us that "they were astonished by the gracious words that came from his lips." Their deep longings were being met by Jesus, right there and then in Nazareth. Right now he was proclaiming liberty to all who were poor or afflicted.
This is an extraordinary beginning for Jesus's mission. Not even the most progressive politician in New Hampshire dares make claims to be able to do this if elected. Indeed we are probably tempted to think that such claims are not realistic. Just look at our world and you will see that the poor are still poor and the oppressed have not been liberated. I have recently returned from teaching for a semester in Nairobi, Kenya, and have seen many, many people who remain desperately poor and many, many oppressed who have not been set free. In Africa, there are many reasons to ask whether Isaiah's hopes have really been fulfilled in Jesus. There are plenty of reasons to wonder about the realism of Jesus's sermon right here in Boston too. What are we to make of the continuing reality of poverty and suffering when we hear Jesus say that Israel's deepest hopes for the poor, the oppressed, and the sick are fulfilled in him?
We will hear in next week's continuation of today's gospel that the people of Nazareth soon decided that they could not take Jesus's words seriously either. They end up running him out of town and even trying to kill him. So Luke's gospel knows all about the kind of reactions that can easily lead us to say Jesus's proclamation is unrealistic. The gospel itself has two responses to these reactions.
First, notice how Jesus says that the hopes of the poor and will be fulfilled in an "acceptable year." This is an echo of the Old Testament proclamation of a "Jubilee year." A Jubilee year occurred every seven years and every fifty years. It was a time when slaves were to be given freedom and the poor restored to their lands. This jubilee didn't happen just once. It had to be regularly repeated, at least every seventh year. The need for repetition is true of the fulfillment of our hopes in Jesus. The fulfillment has to be regularly reenacted in our world. The fulfillment has occurred in Jesus, but it has to happen again in us and through what we do. It is not enough for us to say that Jesus has come to bring good news to the poor, to liberate the oppressed. We are called to do this in our own day, just as the Jubilee had to be repeated every seventh and fiftieth year in Israel.
The gospel's description of the beginning of Jesus's ministry is also a description of the ministry we his followers are called to. It consoles us and at the same time it challenges us to work to bring good news to the poor by helping overcome their poverty. So when we seen the continuing poverty and oppression of our world, our mission, like Jesus's, is to work to alleviate it.
Second, we can only do this if we let the loving Spirit of God touch our hearts, just as this Spirit is at the very center of Jesus heart. Jesus began his mission at Nazareth with the words: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me." This Spirit sustained Jesus in his mission, when the people of Nazareth rejected him and tried to kill him. The Spirit raised him up when the "realists" finally crucified him. We need God's spirit of love in our hearts if we are to sustain the hope and have the courage to continue Jesus's mission today. So let's pray together that God's Spirit will be given to us so we can carry on Jesus's mission here and now. Let's pray that we may be able to say: The Spirit of the Lord is upon us; today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in us.
David Hollenbach, S.J.
January 25, 2004
Readings: Neh. 8:2-6,8-10; Ps. 19; 1 Cor. 12:12-20; Lk. 1:1-4,4:14-21