Friday, January 20, 2017

Jesus' Inaugural Address

At one point in each of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus enters the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. While Matthew and Mark place this scene later in Jesus’ ministry, Luke has Jesus in Nazareth’s synagogue early in Jesus’ ministry. In Luke’s Gospel, these are Jesus’ first public words. One could say that this is Jesus’ inaugural address in Luke, where he lays out his agenda as the Beloved Son of God who brings in the rule of God.

What is interesting about Luke’s version is that Jesus actually takes the scroll, finds the reading from Isaiah, and reads that portion:

“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,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”(Luke 4:18-19)

But, what is important about this reading from Isaiah is that Jesus is not going rogue here; he situates his agenda within the prophetic tradition of Israel that emphasized the eschatological salvation that God had promised to bring about; an eschatological salvation that would bring about a reversal and a turning upside down of the norms of a society that favored the rich and powerful over the poor and oppressed.

In other words, Jesus understood Isaiah’s prophetic words as coming to fulfillment in his own coming and he understood his own agenda in terms of Isaiah’s prophecy. In that sense, Jesus centered his agenda on the Jewish Scripture, but not just any Scripture, but the one that placed emphasis on the reversal and turning upside down of the norms of a world that placed authority in the hands of a few and that treated the poor, the sick, the lame, and others with disdain, suspicion, and oppression.

While we should not push Jesus’ use of this particular reading from the prophet as giving us a full picture of how Jesus read and interpreted Scripture, I do think it is important, at least for Luke, that Jesus’ reading of this particular passage and his application of the passage to himself at the beginning of his ministry tells us something about what the author of this Gospel was saying about Jesus. Jesus’ agenda would side with the poor over the rich, with the oppressed over the oppressors, and with the sick over the well.

Indeed, if we jump over a couple of chapters in Luke we find Jesus saying these words:

Looking at his disciples, he said:
"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

"But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets. (Luke 6:20-21; 24-25)

Jesus’ inaugural address at Nazareth, and his agenda that he sets forth there, challenges the powers that be. It challenges the status quo of a world that is built on authority that favors the rich, powerful, and influential and forgets those on the margins of society. Indeed, in all three accounts of this event in Nazareth’s synagogue, the people are perplexed, offended, and in Luke, enraged at what Jesus has to say.

But why? Why would they be enraged to the point of wanting to cast him off a cliff?
Perhaps the simple answer may be the one that still rings true for us when we hear Jesus say certain things. As Mark tells of the response of those who hear Jesus in the synagogue, he says they took offense at him; literally they were scandalized by Jesus. And so are we.

We may not want to take Jesus to the edge of a cliff and toss him off, and we may not speak ill of Jesus when we consider the words he spoke and the actions he carried out concerning the rule of God, for that, for us, would be sacrilegious, even blasphemous. No, we would not do these things. Instead, we just ignore what Jesus says or try to explain it all away.

What I think Jesus’ inaugural address confronts us with is our own unwillingness to take up his agenda instead of our own. Our agendas are filled with self-preservation instead of self-sacrifice. Our agendas are filled with superiority instead of humility. Out agendas are filled with power instead of empathy. Our agendas are filled with fear of the other instead of faith in God. Our agendas are filled with the Jesus we create instead of the Jesus that comes to us through the Gospels.
Our Jesus is our ally in the face of our enemies.  He is always on our side, answering our prayers and blessing us. This Jesus tells us what we want to hear, makes us comfortable, even complacent, and looks pleasingly at our self-righteousness. 

This Jesus we create in our own minds and answers to our demands and specifications. He permits us to wage unjust violence against our enemies in the name of national security. He allows us to hoard money and possessions in the name of financial security. He consents to our prejudices against people of other races, genders, nationalities, sexual orientations, and religions in the name of cultural security.

This Jesus is the one who gives us easy teachings that fail to challenge us to think outside our own insular lives. This Jesus, and indeed, this form of Christianity, settles on the simplistic answers that comfort our minds, but that fall short of calling us to authentic discipleship. Yes, this Jesus, the easy Jesus is the one we prefer; the one we can affirm and worship.

But this is not the Jesus we find in Luke 4 or in other parts of the Gospels.  

This is the Jesus that calls us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to sell all we have and give to the poor, and to take up the cross and follow him.   

This is the Jesus who calls us to reach out to others and cross the boundaries of race, religion, culture, and gender and all the other socially constructed ways we have created to divide humanity.  

This is the Jesus that dined with tax collectors, beggars, diseased, and various persons of questionable social standing.   

This is the Jesus who compels us to repent of our insular lives and to commit ourselves to work for justice, peace, and hope in our world. 

This is the Jesus who set forth his agenda in his Nazareth inaugural address; an address that set forth not his own agenda for himself, but the agenda that he called his followers to live and fulfill.

For those of us who are Christian, we must always remember that we can be both faithful to the kingdom of God and good citizens of our country; indeed we must be both. But, our ultimate allegiance must be to Jesus and his agenda of bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, and setting free the oppressed.
Today, a new President of the United States will take the oath of office and take his place as the new leader of our country and the free world. He will set forth his own agenda through his inaugural address. Let us listen closely to see how much his agenda cares for the least of these, and more importantly, that his actions in the coming days demonstrate a commitment for justice- the kind of justice for which Jesus gave his life.


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