What I’m going to share today began as a request by the group that meets every month at my workplace for prayer, to share something at our January meeting. I agreed, not because I already knew what to say, but because I couldn’t find a good excuse not to try.
As the days drew closer to the January meeting, I still could not figure out what to say. Have you ever had that feeling of reading the Bible, and going away without understanding much of what you just read, or feeling uninspired? I get that a lot. And that was how I pretty much felt throughout November and December.
So when the organiser asked me for the topic of my January message, the best I could think of was “What Would Jesus Say?”. I figured that if I didn’t feel inspired to share on any particular topic, I could still randomly flip to Matthew, Mark, Luke or John and be sure find a quotable quote from Jesus.
As it turns out, one of the passages I flipped to was John 13 : 7. The scene is the Last Supper, and Judas is about to leave the dinner table to betray Jesus to the Pharisees. Jesus knows this, and He turns and offers Judas a piece of bread, saying, “What you are about to do, do quickly”.
But eventually – and I believe nothing happens by coincidence – one passage I got really comfortable with, was Luke 4 : 15 – 19. Luke 4 marks the start of when Jesus crosses a quiet life of anonymity into public ministry, the start of His ministry on earth. After Jesus had fasted and prayed in the desert for 40 days, Luke records the first sermon of significance that Jesus preached in verses 15 to 19 and here, Jesus claims a prophecy declared by the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, as applicable to Himself and to what He is going to do. Looking at what Jesus said at the start of His ministry, would be a good way to start the new year.
15 [ Jesus ] was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. 16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, 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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
I have read Luke 4 a number of times, but I have to confess that I only read it carefully about a month ago, and one of the thoughts to cross my mind was that if what Jesus said was to be understood literally, He sounded looney. Let’s look at the passage again.
“Good news to the poor” – Was Jesus saying that He would run a charity giving money and food to the poor? Well, we know that Jesus and His disciples did help the poor. But reading the gospels, we don’t get the sense that running a charity for the poor was what Jesus was about.
“Freedom for prisoners” and “set the oppressed free” – What prisoners? Jesus was not the king; He had no prisoners that He could set free. “Free prisoners” sounds more like an election campaign for governor, but we know from the gospels that Jesus wasn’t interested in becoming the political ruler of Israel.
“Recovery of sight to the blind” – We know from the gospels that Jesus healed the blind and sick but as in the case of the poor, we don’t get the sense that running a health and wellness clinic was what Jesus was about.
“Year of the Lord’s Favour” – That’s probably the craziest thing that Jesus said. The Year of the Lord’s Favour refers to a special celebration in the Old Testament known as the Jubilee. In Leviticus, the Israelites are told to celebrate the Jubilee at the end of every 7 x 7 years, which is the fiftieth year. In that year, the Israelites were the supposed to return the ancestral land that they had purchased from fellow Israelites, to the original owners. If you became poor and had to sell the farm that you inherited from your parents, this ancestral land would be returned to you in the Jubilee. And if you became so poor that you had to sell yourself and your family as servants to a richer family, so that you would have food and shelter, you were supposed to be released in the year of the Lord’s Favour. The Jubilee had never been celebrated throughout Israel’s history, and in fact has never been celebrated in any country in the world before. When Jesus “proclaimed the Year of the Lord’s Favour”, was he advocating for the implementation of the Jubilee? But we read in the gospels that celebrating the literal Jubilee was not on Jesus’ agenda either.
So was Jesus really looney? I don’t think so. I don’t think everything that Jesus said here is to be understood literally, so let’s take the passage apart and examine what it means.
In Luke 4, Jesus says He is here to “proclaim” four things : (1) Good news to the poor, (2) Freedom to prisoners, (3) Recovery of sight to the blind, and (4) the year of the Lord’s favour. And in addition to that He will do one thing, which is “set the oppressed free”.
Good News to the Poor
Who are the “poor”? When I did a google search on the Internet on Luke 4, I saw mostly two opinions – the “poor” are those who are materially poor and hungry who Jesus came to help, and the spiritually poor who Jesus came to forgive.
I think that’s generally correct. The good news for those who are in spiritual poverty is that a Saviour has come who can forgive their sins, and in whom we have a future hope of heaven. The good news for those who are materially poor is that God is concerned about their immediate physical suffering.
But I think this perspective misses out a lot of “in betweens”. That is, the people who are in between spiritual and material poverty. The Greek word for “poor” refers to not just the materially poor, but people who are powerless and marginalised, and people who are emotionally broken. These are people who you can’t help just by saying “your sins are forgiven” or, “here is $10 for your next meal” or, “here is $50 for you to go and see the doctor”.
What crushes the human spirit is not poverty, or suffering, or setbacks alone. That is why we see people who may be poor, but who are happy with the little that they have.
What crushes the human spirit is the sense of hopelessness that goes together with poverty, suffering or setbacks – a sense that no one understands or cares, that people have judged or rejected you, or that there is no second chance.
If you look at the life and ministry of Jesus, the “good news” is not that He gave everyone food and money, or made poverty disappear in this lifetime. The “good news” is not only that Jesus forgave sin as well. The good news is the infusion of grace and hope into the lives of people who felt hopeless, or which society rejected as hopeless.
This “good news” is Jesus’ identification with us : a Saviour who gave up His divine privileges, and who came to live with us not as an unapproachable, high and mighty king, but as a commoner who experienced the same hardship, suffering and rejection that we do. The “good news” is also Jesus devoting a significant part of His life to, hanging out and taking risks with, people that society ignored or rejected as hopeless : the lepers, the prostitutes, the tax collectors and even Judas Iscariot who betrayed Him to death.
In doing all this, Jesus was saying “I have walked the same path that you have, I understand what you are going through, and I will not leave you alone in what you are going through, no matter what everyone else thinks about you”. In Matthew, one of the names given to Jesus is “Immanuel”, which means God with us. Jesus demonstrated that to mean God with everyone, and not just God with the people on the right side of society – God who came to personally identify with us. In Hebrews, Jesus is known as the High Priest who is able to sympathise with our every weakness, because He had experienced hardship, suffering and temptation, just as we have, but was without sin.
So this is the good news for the “poor” – not just that God is concerned about material poverty, not just that we have forgiveness and a future hope in heaven, but that in the here and now, our God is a personal God who knows, understands, and sympathises with our brokenness, and who responds with a reckless grace that gives second chances where others will not.
Freedom to Prisoners
What about “prisoners”? This cannot mean literal prisoners because Jesus did not come to establish a political kingdom in which He would declare an amnesty for criminals after He became king. In fact, some of His followers wanted to make Him king, but He refused.
So “prisoners” must mean something else. People can be physically free, yet prisoners in other ways. A perfectionist is someone who is trapped in the idea that everything needs to be perfect, and who gets very agitated when something doesn’t go according to plan. An addict is a person who is trapped in a particular habit – abusing drugs or alcohol, even over-eating – because he cannot feel rested without engaging in that self-destructive habit.
So at one end of the spectrum you have the absolute liberals who believe that there is no God and are prisoners of their unbelief. At the other end of it are people who are very religious, who believe that by following certain rituals in religion like going to church regularly, or who believe that by their own righteous standards, they can please God. And in between, you have people who struggle with their belief in God and moral conscience because they feel trapped by shame and guilt of their addictions, past mistakes or for rituals that they were supposed to but didn’t follow.
Jesus came to proclaim freedom to people at both ends of the spectrum. The truth that sets us free is that we have acceptance in Jesus. There is forgiveness for our past, and freedom from having to prove that we are good enough for God because, on the one hand, we know that nothing we ever do will ever meet the standards of a perfect God but on the other, that perfection is attributed to us by God’s grace through Jesus.
“It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not something you can do, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2 : 8, 9)
The difference between someone who understands that perfection is given through Christ rather than won through performance is like two artists, one who paints in his prison cell, and another who has paints after he has been released from prison. The former desperately tries to paint the best painting he can come up with, in the hope that his painting will be good enough to please his captors so that they will set him free. The latter paints for the joy of painting, because he knows that he is already free. The latter represents the person who is no longer a prisoner of self-performance, because he knows that whatever perfection he needs has been given through Jesus Christ.
To many people today I appear quite Zen, very calm and even a little smiley in the most stressful circumstances. The only exception being when my Better Half is upset. But I have to confess that I used to be a perfectionist who would mentally beat myself up whenever I made a mistake, and who would get depressed when criticised for a less than perfect job. I eventually came to terms with the fact that no one can be perfect all the time, and what really helped was understanding that all the perfection we ever need has been given to us on the cross through Jesus Christ, and all that is needed is for us to do the best that we reasonably can for God, and not for our sense of self-worth.
Recovery of Sight to the Blind
What about “recovery of sight to the blind”? Again, this is not a sentence that can be taken literally because the focus of Jesus ministry was not just healing the blind or sick.
To find out what “spiritual blindness” was, I searched the Internet. The top hit was a website which talked about spiritual blindness as a disbelief in God, and indulgence in sin.
But there is another and perhaps more serious type of blindness, and that is where a person thinks he is so good, that he is blind to his own faults. I see this a lot in workplaces with a culture where employees dare not question supervisors. Therefore, when people attain a high level of seniority, no one dares to point out how stupid or petty they sound, and this begins a self-reinforcing cycle of stupidity in which senior managers think that whatever they do or say must be correct.
Jesus preached against a similar type of blindness too, and this was the spiritual blindness of self-righteousness perpetuated the Pharisees. The Pharisees formed the religious class during Jesus’ time, and everything that they taught and did became the standard of what it meant to be “good”. And so the Pharisees became very proud of how righteous or good they were because outwardly, they had complied with religious rules, such as washing the cup before each meal. But Jesus said that inwardly, their hearts were far from God, and that their actions did not demonstrate a generous love that should have overflowed from an understanding of what it means to be unconditionally loved by God.
Maybe because I am such an imperfect person, self-righteousness always bothers me. A book that I’ve started reading recently is “One Way Love”, which talks about how the grace of God flows unconditionally in one direction – towards us as sinners. One of the hard hitting says that the moralism prescribed by the Pharisees -
“can be relied upon to create anxiety, resentment, rebellion and exhaustion. It can be counted on to ensure that [ it hurts ] the precise people whom Jesus was most concerned with : sinners.”
How does Jesus heal this blindness? First, by reminding us that even the best of us fall short of God’s perfect standards. Secondly, through a love that forgives both the best and the worst of us unconditionally, so that we will be motivated not to deal with and judge people by how bad they are, but to love people based on how God has loved us despite of how undeserving we are. Finally, through the light of scripture, which guides us to check for the plank in our own eye against God’s expectations of us, before we start to criticise others.
Set the Oppressed Free
Moving on to “set the oppressed free”, this is the only part of the passage in which Jesus goes beyond mere proclamation, to say that He would do something (“set …free”).
First, what is “oppressed”? The Greek word for this, which I can’t pronounce, refers to people who are “bruised”. In other words, people who are hurting. And this hurt can be because of events beyond our control – a business that fails despite our best efforts. Or it can be self-inflicted, something that we know is foolish but which we do anyway.
I would cross-reference this to Matthew 20 : 20, in says this of Jesus –
“a bruised reed He will not break, and a smouldering wick He will not quench … an in His name the Gentiles will put their hope”.
Jesus did not come to crush those that are already broken and hurting. He came to restore. When the Prodigal Son returned home after living a wild life wasting his father’s wealth, the father didn’t reject away, or mock him for his foolishness. He threw a welcome home party, and restored the prodigal son.
Psalms 103 says that God “does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us according to our iniquities … for He knows how we are formed, He remembers that we are dust”.
What does this mean practically? In “One Way Love”, Tullian Tchividjian – who is Billy Graham’s grandson and now a senior pastor of a church – wrote about how as a rebellious teenager he had dropped out of school and moved out of home, and engaged in all sorts of irresponsible behaviour, to the pain of his family. Several family friends met up with him try and turn him around, and each time they would lecture him about how irresponsible he was, or how much he was causing hurt and shame to his parents. But there was only one particular meeting that made a huge difference in helping him turn around eventually –
“And I thought, oh no, another one of my parents’ friends trying to set me straight. But I didn’t want to make things any worse between my parents and me, and the free meal didn’t sound too bad either, so I agreed to get together to meet with him.
Once we were at the restaurant, he just looked at me and said, ‘Listen, I know you’re going through a tough time, and I know life must seem very confusing right now. And I just want to tell you that I love you, I’m here for you, and I think God’s going to do great things with you. Here’s my phone number. If you ever need anything, call me. I just want you to know that I’m here for you.’ And then he switched the subject and started talking about sports. That guy … is still a friend of mine to this day. He will forever be marked in my personal history as an example of amazing grace.”
And I think that illustrates what Jesus meant by setting the oppressed free. It means, as in the case of the father of the Prodigal Son, waiting for and standing by someone who is broken and hopeless, because God knows that we are broken by nature, and He takes no pleasure in crushing an already broken spirit.
However we struggle with this because we live in an instant noodles and Internet age where we expect solutions almost immediately. When my kids click on the Youtube button on the iPad, they get very agitated when the video doesn’t start playing in the next ten seconds.
I get the impression that we expect God to do the same for us, and for the people around us. We think that if God doesn’t turn someone around quickly, it must be because that person is either beyond hope or a waste of our time, and we move on to something more productive. When I was still a teenager in another church, and this was before the Internet though we already had instant noodles, one of our youth leaders seemed to be quite mercilessly task-orientated in his approach to ministry. If someone wasn’t responding to his efforts to disciple them, he said that we should move on to someone who would.
Our time and resources are limited, and I agree that we should be wise in making productive use of the resources that God has entrusted to us. It makes sense to discuss whether it would be better use of our time and resources to offer tuition to primary school or to secondary school students, or whether to distribute Christmas presents to families in block 45 only or to both blocks 45 and 46.
But we cannot approach people as projects measured by the returns that we get from our investment in them. We cannot approach people as objects to be abandoned if they don’t demonstrate the change that we expect to see. Jesus rescued the woman caught in adultery from stoning and told her “go and leave your life of sin”, without knowing whether she would indeed leave her life of sin. As Christians, we would certainly like to believe though the Bible never confirms that. This because it is so tempting to think that the first priority for forgiveness goes to those who are genuinely prepared to change. This reflects human-to-human relationships, in which we are more likely to forgive a person who apologises or appears truly sorry for offending us or who, even better, compensates us for your loss. On the other hand, we are more likely to write off a person who does not appear remorseful.
To the assumption that Jesus had responded graciously to the woman because she was repentant my question is this : would Jesus have treated the woman any differently assuming He knew she would fall back to her life of sin? Would He have told the Pharisees to go ahead and stone her? I don’t have the answer to that question; I can only ask you to search your hearts and ask God to reveal to you what He would have done, in the light of scripture.
The Year of the Lord’s Favour
As I explained just now, the Year of the Lord’s Favour refers to the celebration of the Jubilee, that was supposed to take place every 50 years in Israel. In that year, debts were forgiven, ancestral land was returned, and slaves were set free.
And that is where we get the word Jubilee in SG50. It’s Singapore’s 50th year of independence, and as a country we are rightly celebrating it in a big way.
Churches in Singapore are making it a big deal too. In preparing for this sermon I did my best to read and listen to sermons online, and spoke to friends from other churches about what their churches were doing. From what I see and hear, there is a sense that God will do something different, and something greater in this year of the Lord’s favour. There is the expectation of exponential growth. Christians are being exhorted to give more generously and sacrificially, both in their time as well as money. The good work that church social programs have done, such as helping families with debts, are also given greater visibility in the media.
What makes me pause is the fact, as mentioned just now, that the Jubilee as envisaged in the Old Testament was never implemented even celebrated in the history of Israel, or of the church, and that Jesus did not attach any significance to once-in-fifty-year celebrations either.
In His lifetime, Jesus did not advance the Jubilee as a social or political agenda, and get people to donate their wealth, forgive debts and return property. Rather, when Jesus proclaimed the “year of the Lord’s favour”, He meant that there should be release from the slavery (sin), restoration of our God-given inheritance (blessing), and the establishment of social justice, on an ongoing basis. In other words, the Jubilee is to be celebrated by Christians on an ongoing basis as an outpouring of God’s love from their hearts, rather than mandated by special programs instituted by the Government or by the church.
Last week, Parliament passed a new law regulating foreign worker dormitories. It is a law which benefits foreign workers in the sense that it ensures certain minimum standards of living in large dormitories, and which requires dormitories to provide health and welfare facilities that foreign workers can enjoy or use without having to go outside. Leaving aside the important issue of security after the Little India riots, what has been left unsaid is this is an attempt to confine foreign workers inside their dormitories as much as possible, because Singaporeans are just not comfortable with them. To put it harshly, we are trying to discriminate against them.
I wonder how many Christians approve of these new measures, on the basis that they would prefer not to have to mingle with foreign workers in public. If so, I find it ironic that the year that we call the Jubilee and which God originally intended for freedom for slaves, is the very year that we discriminate against foreign workers even more. I’m not saying that the law is wrong. It may be that, after serious consideration of security and other issues, this law may be the most practical measure that we can adopt as a country. But that is no excuse for wrong attitudes inside our hearts, which partly motivates such a law.
The point I’m trying to make is that the Jubilee that Jesus proclaimed is supposedly greater than a once-in-fifty-year program, and has to come from an outpouring of God’s love from our hearts. The objectives we have for helping the poor are good, but have we been blind to how narrowly we define the “poor”, and excluded people who are not like us? Have we, against the spirit and intent of the Jubilee, excluded foreign workers and other people who are hurting in less obvious ways and who simply need a personal touch from Jesus – through us – by standing by them and being prepared to give them a second chance when no one else will?
Before we close l want to summarise what we just heard today, and look at what it means for us. First we heard that the message that Jesus preached was not to be understood literally. Instead, Jesus meant to say that –
1. He has a message that will bring hope to those who are materially, emotionally and spiritually destitute.
2. He has a message that can free those who are prisoners of sin / guilt / shame and of religious legalism.
3. He has a message that can open the eyes of unbelievers and those blinded by self-righteousness.
4. He has come to bring comfort and deliverance to those who are materially, emotionally and spiritually oppressed.
5. He has a message that is greater than the hope promised in the Old Testament Jubilee and that applies year after year, and only just once every fifty years.
What that means for us is that God is not a distant God, but a personal one. That we do not walk alone, and that in Jesus we have a saviour who identifies and sympathises with our experiences.
What that also means is that the message of the Bible not only frees us from unbelief, but also from sin, guilt and shame, and legalism and self-righteousness.
As for those people around us who are broken, hurt or rejected, it means that God desires to bring comfort and freedom from the issues they are struggling with, personally through Christians who are prepared to stand by them when no one else in society will, patiently as we wait for positive change to bear fruit in their lives.
Finally, God’s favour is ongoing; it is not a once-in-fifty-year event in which the church makes special effort to help the poor. The message of grace and hope applies at all times, and God desires Christians to be generous to the poor – in every sense of the word and not just to those in material or spiritual poverty – year after year, on an ongoing basis.
The Christian faith in the United States is perceived very negatively in some quarters of society, perhaps because it is much easier to remember what Christians strongly stand against (eg. abortion) than what they stand for. In such a polarised society, it can be very difficult for Christians to share their beliefs meaningfully. However, Philip Yancey observed a change when Christians responded with grace and compassion, unconditionally and without discrimination, to support the relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina swept through Louisiana and Mississippi. In closing I want to share with you this quote from his book, which sums up what is required of Christians if we wish to effectively proclaim good news to the poor, set the oppressed free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour –
“The storm [ Hurricane Katrina ] laid bare an unmistakable truth. More and more Christians have decided that the only way to reconquer America is through service. The faith no longer travels by word. It moves by deed.”
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