In today’s Gospel (Luke 4:14–21), Jesus has entered the house of worship in his hometown. Nazareth could not have been an especially large village. So I assume most, or all, of the attendees in the synagogue knew him. There’s a good chance that many people would have been related to him — aunts, uncles, cousins.
I do not know the requirements to become a lector at the synagogue. Whatever they were, Jesus met them. The text says that he stood up to read and was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
The scroll contains at least a partial reading of Isaiah chapter 61. It’s a prophetic text that contains a promise of future justice.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.
This reading contains two important words. “Good news.” These words form the basis of our word “Gospel.” More importantly, they form the essence of the mission of Jesus. He is the proclaimer and the bringer of the Good News promised by Isaiah.
The Good News of jubilee, freedom from debts, healing of blindness, liberation to prisoners. This is liberation theology. This message from Isaiah certainly would have sounded like good news to people in Nazareth.
Imagine the crushing poverty you might feel in an ancient Galilean village. Perhaps you’re a day laborer. (In his line of work, Jesus likely understood how uncertain life as a day laborer would have been.) If you weren’t waiting for someone to hire you for a day’s wage, you might be out farming the rocky soil. Either way, you’ve probably racked up some financial debts, including paying taxes to your local publican who is in league to the Roman overlords to squeeze every cent he can from you. You know all too well that if you fail to pay those debts that you may end up incarcerated with your property confiscated — or worse.
Now think about how your situation would be exacerbated if you couldn’t work. If you suffered from a disability such as blindness, you might be reduced begging. Begging from your poor neighbors, from your relatives, and from people under the immense burden they owed the empire. How could they possibly afford to give you anything?
Who wouldn’t want some good news in those circumstances?
Harsh living conditions due to cruel economic systems are not limited to people living 2,000 years ago. Countless people today suffer from homelessness, imprisonment, and the inability to have their illnesses treated due to their financial circumstances.
There are millions (billions) of people crushed by the empire. People unable to hop on a jet and head to Davos to cheer how strong the economy is. People who couldn’t qualify for an enormous tax cut. People who suffer unnecessarily from illnesses and injuries because they can’t afford to go to a doctor or pay for the medicine. Subsistence farmers tilling barren soil.
Maybe you saw the video of the people in the federal detention center in Brooklyn begging for the heat to be turned on. They and their families might like to hear some good news of liberation.
We also have day laborers in our society; many of them are migrant carpenters and farm workers who have fled their homes to escape violence. People today will walk a thousand miles or more just on the possibility of experiencing a bit of good news. Some cross the desert, and others cross the Mediterranean. But they are often denied entry. Or they are arrested and their children are confiscated and put into tent camps.
People are waiting to hear good news. People waiting to hear gospel.
When I read this passage from today’s Gospel, I can’t imagine Jesus working to build a wall. I can’t picture him arguing for billionaires to receive a huge corporate tax cut. I can’t envision him contending for a healthcare system that forces people to ration their insulin.
Do you really think someone who proclaimed liberation, freedom, and recovery would advocate policies designed to lock people up?
After Jesus read from Isaiah, he sat down. The text says, “the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him.” Today, the eyes of the world are on the church and followers of Jesus. What will we do? This Nazareth Declaration made by Jesus is what informs Pope Francis when he calls for a poor church for the poor. If we are going to take the gospel seriously, we have to proclaim and perform Good News.