“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 second and third.
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.
And recovery of sight to the blind(ed):
In the Septuagint version of Isaiah and the Gospel of Luke, the Greek text reads "to those who are blind the ability to see again." The Hebrew refers to "opening for the bound," which has often been translated "setting prisoners free," which would be in parallel with the previous line, simply adding prisoners to captives (political, military) as those for whom God is declaring new freedom. Threading between these two traditions -- Greek and Hebrew -- an alternate reading emerges: "opening the eyes of the blinded," that is, those who were made blind through bondage.
Certainly, ministries of healing for literal blindness, a regular part of Jesus' own ministry, are part of what is intended here. But if the "threaded" reading I'm proposing is on track, another part of the embodiment of this text through the church will be that of helping the church and the world name the ways we live in blindness and the ways we have been blinded and seeking to overcome the blindness we discover. There are many forces that blind us to our calling to see the world through the lenses of God's kingdom -- materialism, racism, consumerism, the list goes on. We might consider adding a new phrase to our prayer of confession where we say "we have not heard the cry of the needy" now to read "we have not seen the plight or heard the cry of the needy."
But if we are careful what we pray, we will do more than modify our prayers. We will be intentional about keeping the situation of the needy always before us and before the world -- not the way the news media do, by "leading" with the "bleeding," which only overwhelms and numbs, but by learning and educating ourselves and those around us about their lives and what keeps them (and us!) so blind and in such bondage that we remain unaware of, ignore, prevent, or even block pathways to improving their situation. This is the necessary work of learning, consciousness raising and advocacy that augments the work of programs and personal relationships described earlier, so that the voice of the needy is no longer only one among a thousand other voices and agendas that keep their voices unheard and their situation unseen.