“Your Spirit anointed him to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
and to announce that the time had come when you would save your people.
He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners."
From the "A Service of Word and Table I," The United Methodist Hymnal, Copyright 1989, The United Methodist Publishing House, p. 9. Used by permission.
This week we will look at the first one: "Preach good news to the poor."
There are at least two troublesome terms in this deceptively simple description of the practice of Jesus. The first is the word "preach." We in "church world" have often assumed that "preaching" equals "give a sermon in church," and so some of us have limited the intended activity here to folks we call "preachers" or "pastors" or "professional Christian leaders" and its timing and place to "the worship hour" on Sunday morning, or maybe to evangelistic crusades and other "extramural" evangelistic modalities (such as radio, television and the internet). But the biblical term behind this word has almost nothing to do with sermons or churches or worship for that matter. The word is "proclaim" or "announce" or "herald the message." It means "get the word out," plain and simple. It's a directive for the whole body of Christ, and primarily in its mission in and to the world.
Which brings us to the second troublesome term: "poor." In some Christian circles, this term often gets translated "lost" or "poor in spirit" (importing Matthew's version of the Sermon on the Mount into Luke's quote from Isaiah), and the whole action thus gets translated something along the lines of "proselytize people who aren't yet Christians like us."
Put the two "church world" readings together, and it looks like televangelists may have the corner on the market. But if we remember these words from their original languages and context in the ministries of Isaiah and Jesus, we get something much different and so much simpler that we all can do it. Make sure that poor people are getting good news from us. We all can do it, but let's think together about how, specifically, we might do it better as the "body of Christ."
"Make sure that poor people are getting good news from us!" What kinds of messages and realities would constitute "good news" for poor people? It's not just food and clothing pantries, or places where folks can get financial help for past due bills, although all of these are indispensable. In my experience in working with community service, the top two pieces of good news poor folks could receive would be about access and connections.
"Access" means jobs that can help them and their families get out of poverty, safe, reliable child care, medical care, and legal help that actually helps, and schools that help their kids perform well. Every single one of these is a real challenge for poor people in the United States.
"Connections" means real, personal relationships with people who are not stuck in poverty and who will stick with them as close or closer than those who are.
Programs that help provide access are a start -- although, frankly, what we need at a community level in most places are not more programs, but better resourcing for and coordination among existing ones.
But programs are not enough. It is ultimately personal connections that see people through and beyond poverty for themselves and their families. If we're serious about being sure that people are hearing good news from us, we'll find ways not only to advocate for social change and fund and improve programs, but also to be personally involved and connected reliably and over time with the lives of people who are poor.
But as we seek those personal relationships, we must be diligent not to do what so many "program solutions" do -- reinforce what those who are poor do not have or cannot do. I don't know of anyone who finds a recitation of personal limitations and deficits to be good news or empowering in any way. Yet that is exactly what so many programs require. People have to prove in writing that they're deeply lacking before any help is given at all.
We have better news -- much better news. God draws near to the poor and blesses them abundantly. We mustn't only say that to folks -- that's no better than to say, "Be warmed and filled." Instead we can come with appreciative questions that help others realize, name, and build on the abundant blessing, the deep giftedness, they have received. And we can believe in these people and their gifts because we have first believed the good news that Jesus proclaimed in the very first beatitude: "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God."
To proclaim release to the captives.
In the original context of this prophecy in Isaiah, the captives were the people of Judah taken from their homeland and forced into exile in Babylon. "Release to the captives" meant something palpable -- a homecoming for exiles and prisoners of war. Isaiah's prophecy was fulfilled in his day when Cyrus, the leader of the conquering Persian Empire, made it possible for many to return to their homeland. In the time of Jesus, many in Judea continued to experience their entire nation being in captivity to the Roman government, and before that to the Greeks, Seleucids and Persians. When Jesus declared that this prophecy is now fulfilled in their hearing, while some may have interpreted it broadly to mean deliverance from spiritual or other forms of captivity, others may have been looking to Jesus as the Cyrus for that day.
But the message of Jesus about deliverance from captivity was not about earthly political regime change. The signs Jesus pointed to for God's deliverance were signs of a Lebanese woman being provided for in the midst of famine, and a Syrian army commander being healed from leprosy, both through Jewish prophets. In this context, deliverance from captivity appears to be much more about intentional initiatives to love and care for enemies -- much like the prophet Jeremiah's admonition to work for the welfare of the Babylonian cities in which the exiles of Judah would find themselves. If enemies become the object of love and care, captivity loses its power.
In his book with Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens, Bishop William Willimon describes a conversation he had with students at Duke University about what a Christian response toward the people of Libya might have been at the time that President Reagan decided to bomb Muamar al Q'adafi's palace. He wrote:
"A Christian response might be that tomorrow morning the United Methodist Church announces that it is sending a thousand missionaries to Libya. We have discovered that it is a fertile field for the gospel. We know how to send missionaries. Here is at least a traditional Christian response."
"You can't do that," said my adversary.
"Why?" I asked. "You tell me why."
"Because it's illegal to travel in Libya. President Reagan will not give you a visa to go there."
"No! That's not right," I said. "I'll admit that we can't go to Libya, but not because of President Reagan. We can't go there because we no longer have a church that produces people who can do something this bold. But we once did." (From Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989, p. 48).
How, then, practically might we embody what we pray at Eucharist, become the body of Christ that is bold enough to proclaim release to the captives? Certainly ministries of compassion to prisoners of all sorts are in view, as Wesley rightly required of the leadership in the Methodist Societies. But even more to the point will be for us, as congregations and as Christian denominations and systems, to begin to be clear about who our enemies are and offer multiple paths for ensuring that we are extending intentional care toward them. Currently, apart from groups like Christian Peacemaker Teams, I know of few examples of this kind of thinking or practice.