Jesus 2020: Poverty

Scripture: Luke 4:16-21

Maybe you’ve heard that there’s an election coming up here in the US. It’s kind of a big deal. Depending on who you listen to the fate of our great nation might hang in the balance. Not all of us may be able to vote; some of us may be more directly affected by the results than others; most of us probably feel pretty aware of our political reality these days.

So I thought it would be a good time to talk about politics in church.

There’s this idea that you shouldn’t do that, talk about politics in church. To be honest, I probably expect that response less here in DC than I would elsewhere. Here we’re used to politics being a fact of everyday life. It still feels like a bit of a landmine. Start getting too political and we might quickly learn that our unity in Christ is in fact kind of tenuous. And I’m sure some of us just want one hour a week when we can focus on something else.

The Bible, however, is a book about politics.

It’s not primarily about politics. It’s about who God is and who we are and the story of God’s relationship with God’s people. But you can’t tell the story of Exodus without telling the story of the uprising of an oppressed minority against an oppressor. And you can’t tell the story of Israel without telling the story of kings and queens and the shifting of power and empire in the Ancient Near East. And you can’t talk about Jesus without talking about a guy who spoke divine truth to power and paid the ultimate price.

This series that we’re beginning today is not about US politics. This is a series about the times in the Gospels that Jesus finds himself “getting political” in his own time and context. Now, of course, our politics are about our values and our moral choices made in community, and so I hope we will find that some of those Gospel values do make a difference in the choices we make in our lives today, inside the voting booth or out.

Jesus Christ is not running for president. But I want to start this series off today with what I think his campaign slogan would be if he was. And to do that, I want to back up. Today’s Scripture reading comes from the beginning of Luke. Jesus has just returned from the wilderness after his baptism and he begins to travel around the region of Galilee, teaching and gaining fame, and the people love him. He’s a rising star.

And then he comes to his hometown of Nazareth, and on Saturday morning he goes to synagogue, just like all the other Saturday mornings of his life, and he volunteers to read Scripture. Someone hands him the scroll of Isaiah, and Jesus opens it carefully and reads these words:

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,

And to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Silence.

And he rolls up the scroll and hands it back, and we read that “all eyes were on him.

He looks at them and says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

It gives me chills.

This is the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and his first public appearance in the Gospel of Luke. If we were going to use church language I’d call this Jesus’ mission statement, but since it’s election season I’m going to call it his campaign slogan. Obama had “Change we can believe in.” Trump has “Make America Great Again (Again).” Jesus: Good news to the poor. This is the lens through which we can understand the entire rest of Jesus’ earthly ministry, at least as Luke describes it.

If you went back and read this passage in Isaiah, in chapter 61, you’d know that it’s a prophecy of restoration after exile. The prophet is speaking good news to those who have been removed from their homeland, who have seen their holy Temple burned down to its foundations, who had a hard time believing that God was with them anymore.

By Jesus’ time, however, Isaiah’s prophecy has been fulfilled, at least in its original sense. Jewish people once again live in Jerusalem. The rebuilt Temple stands in the center of the city. And so it might be tempting to try to understand Isaiah’s words metaphorically as Jesus applies them to himself. This time around, “the poor” and “the oppressed” and “the captive” must mean anyone who finds themselves separated from God by sin.

Luke, however, will not let us make this language too metaphorical. Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus focuses his ministry on the actually poor and marginalized. He associates with women. He lambasts the Temple leadership for “devouring widows’ houses” and tells the story of a rich man sentenced to eternal damnation because he never acknowledged the beggar at his gate. In Matthew, Jesus preaches “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” In Luke, it’s simply “Blessed are the poor.”

Luke wants to make sure we’re clear: the Gospel of Jesus is literal good news to the poor.

And that’s political.

It’s not too political if we keep some neat limits on what good news really means. It’s not too political to say that God loves rich and poor alike. It’s generally not too political to try to help people in our own personal lives. We know that’s our Christian and even human duty. It’s not political to be sad at the plight of others, or to say we wish poverty didn’t have to exist.

There was a Brazilian priest, Dom Helder Camara, who served as archbishop during Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1970s. A quote of his used to hang in my campus ministry building in college. He said, “If I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

There’s nothing wrong with feeding people. We do it here every day. Jesus feeds people, too. To be honest, if you’re hungry, not that much else matters. Here in his mission statement, though, Jesus isn’t just talking about helping people get along from day to day. He’s talking about breaking chains. To proclaim release to the captives. To let the oppressed go free.

That’s political. And it’s also good news, to any and all of us who have ever felt the weight of invisible chains.

What if we, as Jesus’ followers, had the same mission statement: to proclaim good news to the poor?

I ask this knowing that we are a diverse group, and that we may or may not understand ourselves to be part of “the poor” ourselves. I ask it knowing that we may mean different things by that phrase, that part of the problem in our national political discourse is that we can’t even agree on who the poor are or who’s really being oppressed.  I ask it realizing that a phrase like “the poor” can come across as condescending these days, as if we are trying to define a hugely varied group of people – other people, of course – by one characteristic – though I’ll stick with Jesus’ and Isaiah’s language here.

I’ll ask it anyway: how is your life proclaiming good news to the poor?

I believe that, as Christians, when any of us walks into a voting booth, when any of us fills out an absentee ballot – again, recognizing that not all of us will be doing that in the coming months – the question we should all be asking is, who is this good news for? How does this choice I’m making affect those who are most vulnerable in our society? We may not all answer that question the same way. We can all ask the same question.

But Jesus never in his life got to vote, and surely we let ourselves off easy if we think that’s all that’s asked of us in the face of the world’s injustices. I’ll ask it again: how is your life proclaiming good news to the poor? To people being held in ICE detention centers on our border? To black men incarcerated in wildly disproportionate numbers? To communities still in the grips of the opioid epidemic in Appalachia? To people right here in Arlington who can’t afford to live here, to our neighbors on the streets, or who get out of jail with nowhere to go and no idea how they’re going to start over?

To be honest, I’ve been thinking lately that I may need to get a little more political in my own answers to this question. Feeding people is good. Maybe I need to be asking more about why people are poor.

Luke tells us that when Jesus is finished, everyone is amazed and everyone speaks well of him. Which is surprising, maybe, that he hasn’t been controversial at all. But then again, all he did is read from Isaiah, right? Well, spoiler alert: we’re not even to the end of chapter 4 before these hometown neighbors are trying to shove Jesus off a cliff. Talk about poverty and power is never really neutral.

But it is the stuff of God’s kingdom, where the mighty are brought down and the lowly lifted up. And it is the stuff of good news, ultimately, to all of us, loved fiercely by a God who breaks our chains so we can live as God’s children together.  

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