15 January 2018Luke 4:16-30
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” (v. 18)
Psalm: Psalm 149:1-5
The words quoted by Jesus from the book of Isaiah as his ‘mission statement’ support the understanding of ‘God’s preferential option for the poor’. This theme is particularly marked in Luke’s Gospel but, following his reading of these verses from Isaiah, Jesus goes on to speak about something which was much more explosive in the context of 1st-century Judaism.
The extension of God’s mission to the Gentiles was foreshadowed in the work of the Old Testament prophets, and particularly Isaiah. Jesus stands in that tradition when he points out how God’s blessings were given through Elijah and Elisha to Gentiles, who were singled out ahead of Jews. The furious reaction of his hearers needs to be understood in the context of the history of the preceding centuries when, after suffering destruction and exile at the hands of the Babylonians, Jews had returned to rebuild their devastated nation through the favour of the Persian emperor, Cyrus.
The project of restoring the Jewish nation and religion proceeded under Ezra in the face of the threat of jealous surrounding nations. In the opinion of some scholars, the book of Jonah was written as a counter to the ethnocentric, anti-gentile attitudes which developed within Judaism after the return from exile. The subsequent invasion by Greek-speaking successors to Alexander the Great, and the attempt to wipe out Jewish culture and religion hardened attitudes. Greek overlordship was followed by that of the Romans, and this was the situation in which Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God. The understanding that Israel’s calling was to be the means of bringing God’s salvation to all nations – going back to the promise to Abraham that ‘through you all nations of the world will be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3) – was lost.
The reaction to Jesus’ words in Nazareth was to have a parallel in the response to Paul’s declaration that he had been sent by God as a missionary to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21-22). The letters of Paul can only be properly understood in the light of his continuation of Jesus’ ministry in proclaiming what Rowan Williams calls God’s ‘universal welcome’. Subsequent Christian history has all too often demonstrated just as much a failure to grasp this essence of the gospel as we see in Luke’s Gospel and Acts.
- To what extent do you, as a disciple of Jesus, take his ‘mission statement’ as yours too?
- What does the ‘universal welcome of God’ mean in your own Christian experience?
- What contemporary expressions do you see amongst Christian of the exclusive spirit that Jesus and Paul set themselves against?