Sunday, June 23, 2013

Luke 4: Good News for the Rich or for the Poor?

(adapted from a chapel address at Eastern Mennonite University, Feb. 2011)

When I was 20 years old, I was with Mennonite Voluntary service in Honduras. For one week during that time, I accompanied a colleague to a remote village where he was trying to promote better nutrition by teaching the residents how to garden. I was to train them in setting up a cooperative to sell their excess produce and along with better nutrition, enhance their economic power.

There were no roads or public transportation, so in order to get to the village we travelled by horseback for a full day. The place where we were to stay was a thatched-roof hut with a dirt floor. We slept on “petates,” mats made out of reeds. Our diet was rice, beans and tortillas. There was no running water or toilet facilities. The conditions were so primitive, that I couldn’t wait to put in my week and get out of there.

One night when I was trying to sleep on the hard dirt floor, Luke 4 came into my mind:

‘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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

I think the Spirit of the Lord was upon me that night as I couldn’t sleep. For the first time I had to examine my own life as I contemplated the misery of the people with whom I was living that week. What brought them to these conditions, and how was the church preaching the “good news” to the poor? To be sure, I could leave those primitive conditions and return to my normal life after a week, but they were stuck there. Years of exploitation and oppression by wealthy land owners and greedy multi-national corporations left them in virtual slave-like conditions with little hope for the future. As I lay there trying to sleep, I wondered how differently these people would hear these words from Jesus.

Robert McAfee Brown, in his book Unexpected News, claims that in the overdeveloped world, this passage is one of the most spiritualized in the New Testament. That good news to the poor means those who are poor in spirit, not materially poor, that release to the captives, is release from our sins that keep us captive, that recovery of sight to the blind is a cure for our spiritual blindness, that liberty for the oppressed is liberty from our psychological obsessions and ills, and that the year of the Lord’s favor is for some future time when Jesus would return to make things right.

When I looked around me at the churches who were ministering to the poor in Honduras, indeed this seemed to be the interpretation. Accept Christ as your savior, and the Spirit will help release you from your sins and that justice was to come in heaven. Be patient and endure your lot. Somehow I couldn’t buy that logic. Jesus had already begun his ministry doing many of the things he said he would. When John the Baptist wondered if Jesus was the Messiah he told his disciples to, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Sounds like the kingdom he was pronouncing in Luke 4 was already happening. Seems more than spiritual healing.

When I returned to States after my 2.5 years of service in Honduras, I decided to enroll in college to prepare for a return to Central America to help work at missing piece of Jesus ministry—the social justice piece. Those were heady times for understanding doing more with this passage than spiritualizing it. Liberation Theology used Luke 4 as the defining passage from the New Testament to support their preferential option for the poor, for liberating them from disease, from their oppression, and speaking out against the structures and world systems that kept them oppressed. In addition, John Howard Yoder’s book The Politics of Jesus had just come out and in it he argued convincingly that “the year of the Lord’s favor” referred to the year of Jubilee; the year when, according to Leviticus 25, debts were forgiven, slaves were set free, and land was returned to the original owners. That was indeed social justice.

Thinking about the people in the remote village in Honduras, I took to these new ideas about Luke 4 like a duck to water. The Spirit of the Lord was upon me as I became a herald for the poor and the oppressed. I am not so sure that it was the Spirit, however, that made me become outright hostile to the spiritualizers of this passage. I had become so focused on social justice and the problems of oppression, that I forgot who had given the Good News. I forgot that Jesus’ message was proceeded by being anointed by the Holy Spirit.

So often there is this split in what should be the whole gospel of Jesus Christ. I have seen this over the years not only in churches, but also at EMU. On the one hand there are those who think the Spirit is only for freeing us from the oppression of our sins. It is easy for Christians in the overdeveloped world, who control two-thirds of the world’s wealth, to justify their comfort by wanting to focus on being freed from spiritual poverty. On the other hand there are those who argue that it’s difficult to present the message of salvation to someone when they are starving, and that this passage refers to working for and freeing the oppressed social justice. It is just as easy for Christians in the underdeveloped world, who wallow in dehumanizing squalor, to justify their use of whatever means to focus on being freed from their poverty.

Though I still lean heavily on the social justice side because of how often the poor and marginalized are mentioned in Jesus’ ministry, over the years I have come to see the importance of both sides of the issue. The one without the other, is not good news. 

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