When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
"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 favour."
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.
They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?"
He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian."
When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour, and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion - to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
The suggestion that we should study the whole passage, Luke 4:16-30, is significant. After all, Jesus' reading of the words of Isaiah and his explanation and application of the text led to his being rejected. His commitment to all the poor, irrespective of origin, made the people who were listening want to kill him. The same feeling of death also pervades Isaiah 61. In the exile, or probably after it, there was extreme poverty. There was no longer anything in people's purses with holes in them, as Haggai expressed it (Hag. 1:6). Verses 1 and 2 of Isaiah 61 are repeated in Luke. But after verse 2, Isaiah 61 continues on its own course: Zion is exalted, with the presence of the Lord God in the midst of the people and community. We need to pay attention to the whole of Isaiah 61 and thus become more aware of the privileged position of the poor and the weak in this "year of the Lord's favour".
That is what it is also like here in Brazil! That is what people here say today when they listen to passages like these from Isaiah and Luke. They are not alien to us. These things are happening here and speak of our experience. They were happening in the time of Isaiah 61 and, some five centuries later, in the time of Jesus. And equally, they are happening today in our world. That is how the Bible comes across to us. In recent decades we have been discovering it on our own soil, in our lives and hopes. We feel ourselves to be much closer to that world of the Bible than to the great shopping centres which, beautiful though they are, are not our real world. The struggles in the Bible are much closer to our own. The Bible is a present contemporary reality in the hearts, eyes and feet of people here - women, children and men. It is a gracious gift of God to us that we can actually experience this in our own land. The Bible is among us.
As we go about our daily lives, in this world of people without hope, these narratives can be seen in living forms in people's bodies. As we listen to people with nothing to call their own, we are hearing the holy words of God. As we live in our communities, we are living by God's grace. Indeed, the Bible comes alive for us by way of these people who are suffering and hoping for better days. People in poverty are calling us in the churches to wake up as we travel on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem (cf. Luke 10:25-37 and Acts 2-6). A link has been made between the Bible and those who suffer. We cling to that.
Sheer observation would not enable us to speak like this. We can say it because we are empowered by the Spirit. Ultimately, it is the Spirit who guides the course of events in Luke 4:16-30. In the Spirit, Jesus comes to Galilee (Luke 4:14-15) and places himself within the sphere of the Spirit (Luke 4:18-19); and, anointed by the Spirit, he utters striking words. He quotes them in part from Isaiah, but in such a way that they become his guiding stars for a journey, both old and new. What Jesus makes clear to see was already there - it had already been said by all the prophets - but now it can no longer be ignored. This reinterpretation of Isaiah that Jesus makes is a revival of prophecy, and he applies it to daily life and its challenges. This way of reading scripture inspires us to adopt a method that encourages "popular reading of the Bible", in which you may read the message behind the words and beyond the words. This is a passage that strengthens and affirms the poor in their reading of the Bible. It becomes possible to recover the vitality of the narrative, beginning with the stance taken against the structures that imprison and oppress people.
Access to land, essential for life in dignity
There are five tasks for the Messiah, the anointed one, the last of the five, "proclaiming the year of the Lord's favour" (Luke 4:19) being the decisive and ultimately important one. The year of God's favour is a celebration of the right of all people to a share in social goods, especially land (cf. Lev. 25). A life of dignity entails access to land. If people are landless, they live a dehumanized life. The tragedy of Brazil is that there are millions with nothing, and land is owned by a few. Five hundred years of life without land to call one's own has resulted in wretched favelas and impoverished settlements. Oh, that God would grant us a year of favour by opening gates and breaking down fences!
The year of the Lord's favour is the supreme blessing. Four details stand out: two take the form of words and two take the form of acts; in the world of the Bible, word and action are two aspects of the same reality. The poor have the good news preached to them, since in God's grace their misfortune is dispelled. The prisoners will have freedom proclaimed to them. These two prospects vie with each another in the people's ardent desire for a new life. The year of the Lord's favour also manifests itself in recovery of sight for the blind and in release for the oppressed. The year of the Lord's favour is worth striving for because the words describing it are amazing, and its liberating actions are a joy. They all are "gracious words" (Luke 4:22).
With his words favouring the poor and hurting, women and children, Jesus is excluding no one. The problem is that many of us prefer an exclusive space. The more things are the exclusive preserve of some, the less remains for the poor. Jesus founded a church and not an exclusive club for its members.
Prophecy had already declared this. We read it everywhere in the Bible. We pray it in the Psalms. The wisdom literature inculcates it. If there is no place for the widow and the oppressed in the community, it cannot be the people of God. The whole book of Isaiah cries aloud: little children, the widows and the poor are "my people" (cf. 3:15) and "the Servant" is the sign of God's presence (Isa. 42:1-4,52-53). Indeed, hope itself has its roots in those fragile beings, children, who are "signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord" (Isa. 8:16-18; cf. Isa. 7:10-17, 9:1-6, 11:1-5).
This is the context of Isaiah 61 and of prophecy in general. It is the foundation of Jesus' words at Nazareth. Moreover, these prophecies form more than the foundation: they define the structure itself. There is no need to see disagreement between the First and Second Testaments. In both, life is seen so comprehensively that we discover it is faith that nourishes it. The best approach is to open ourselves lovingly to both Old and New Testament teachings so as to bring peoples together. In fact, Luke 4 is permeated with suppositions drawn from the Hebrew scriptures.
Isaiah 61 speaks of a people in the midst of cruelty, of an exile that had become for them all a valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37). They are slaves with bruised, wounded and tortured faces (Isa. 40-55). But it is from this condition that a new people emerges out of ruins and weariness (Isa. 40). It is impossible to read the whole of Isaiah, passing through the experience of exile in Babylon, without linking this body of prophecy with our own history. Sometimes we see it, and at other times we ignore it. In the end, it sometimes becomes more pleasant for modern Brazilians to harken back to our trans-Atlantic origins: to dream of Europe is to seem more sophisticated. Our wounds are too many, and there seems to be no solution. Indigenous and African-Brazilian women are still weeping and lamenting. We frequently feel that Latin America and the Caribbean are not good places. We do also have many joys, but there is also weeping in our fields and hovels.
It is thus our duty to seek refuge in Zion. Verses 1 and 2 of Isaiah 61 are quoted in Luke 4:18-19. But Isaiah 61 in verse 3 goes on to emphasize Zion. And this emphasis helps us to make the vision in Luke 4 a reality, where it might have remained no more than a beautiful and good intention. Luke 4 could have inspired us to a purely individual conviction, without communal reference, without involvement with a group of persons who together can strengthen one another to become "fit to join in the struggle", as we say. When we see the prophet referring to Zion, we see that we need to unite with one another in order to move out from beneath the burden of our suffering. That can happen only if we join hand in hand! This form of power overcomes; the child in the manger unites. If we do not all come together, we shall be thrust into endless misery. That is the difference between "ashes" and "crowns", as expressed in verse 3. If we remain alone, even with the best of intentions, we simply dissipate our efforts. But if, by the grace of God, we become "Zion", "the oil of gladness" will be spread abroad. Our communities must become "oil of gladness" for our lives.
Finally, verses 3 and 4 are a wonderful invitation. If we do not pay attention to them, we shall be missing an extraordinary ecumenical opportunity. After all, some use the Bible itself to create division. They use its words to play people off against one another. The most ancient division is what distinguishes and separates Christians from Jews. It is thus essential for us to pray to God for new ecumenical paths along which the different churches and the different religions can journey together.
Here is the encouragement that grace gives us. The anointed, crowned and liberated bodies will be called "oaks of righteousness", or of justice (Isa. 61:3). This prophecy evokes a vision of a new creation. Once again, the creatures are welcomed and given names (cf. Gen. 2:19). Life is recreated on the foundation of the experience and practice of justice, and on the basis of that justice people are reintegrated into the fabric of society. They are new creatures and are relocated in a garden of justice.
God of many names, we pray:
Come to us, come and journey with us,
so that we may walk in your grace and peace.
Fill us with hope, so that we may break through barriers.
Inspire us on our ecumenical journey, making possible encounters and dialogue.
Send your Spirit to strengthen us in our prophetic role of proclaiming liberation.
May your Spirit be a gentle breeze when we need comfort and security.
But let it be a strong wind when we are too settled and need to speak out.
Let your life-giving peace come into our bodies and be expressed in action for peace between people, between churches and religions, and between nations.
May your world-transforming grace inspire us to join hands and declare the freedom given by your love.
Shower your blessings upon us as we journey on, announcing the good news of justice, caring and acceptance. AMEN.
Milton Schwantes and Elaine Neuenfeldt
Translated from Portuguese, Language Service, World Council of Churches
The authors are Lutheran pastors with a PhD in biblical science. Prof. Milton Schwantes is the coordinator of the periodical RIBLA (Revista de Interpretação Bíblica Latino-Americana), the review of Latin American interpretation of the Bible. He teaches at the Methodist University of São Paulo in Brazil. Prof. Elaine Neuenfeldt is the co-director of the CEBI (Centro de Estudos Biblicos), the Brazilian Centre of Bible Studies. She holds the chair of feminist theology at the theological faculty in São Leopoldo, Brazil.
How to work with these texts
After reading Luke 4:16-30 and Isaiah 61:1-4, do you agree with Milton Schwantes and Elaine Neuenfeldt that we may feel closer to the world of those passages than to our "great shopping centres"? Where does your own daily experience relate to this?
Inspired by the Spirit, Jesus sets out the purpose of his ministry in Luke 4:18-19. How should this guide the ministry of the church with the poor, those in captivity, the blind and the oppressed? What are our churches actually doing to bring good news, release, recovery and freedom? Make a list of specific examples and comment on them.
Imagine that you are a non-believer with the sounds of natural disaster, of war and the cries of the poor in your ears. Then you hear Christians talking about the "year of the Lord's favour". What might you think? How does our ministry make the proclamation of the "year of the Lord's favour" credible?
Milton Schwantes and Elaine Neuenfeldt describe Isaiah 61:3-4 as "a wonderful invitation" and talk about the "encouragement that grace gives to us". Tell one another stories of how you experience God working in and through us to bring hope.
How does this Bible study help us understand and respond to the assembly theme "God, in your grace, transform the world"?