Jesus reads this text in the Nazareth synagogue and then preaches a sermon to open his public ministry in Luke’s gospel. “Today,” he declares to the listeners, “this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus points out that in his view this text extends the release and redemption in the text to those beyond the social boundaries of Israel. In response to that inclusive perspective, the home folks try to pitch the presumptuous preacher over a nearby cliff. So, it is a significant text for understanding the nature of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
It is literally a “messianic” text since the prophet claims to have been anointed with the spirit of the LORD God. The word for “anointed” is a form of the Hebrew Mashiach, from which we get the word “Messiah.” This anointing is a call to proclaim good news – liberty to captives and release to prisoners. It is to be the Jubilee year when all debts are forgiven and all in bondage can begin again. The word for “vengeance” has much more the sense of recompense, of paying another back in kind.
“The commission to ‘proclaim liberty’,” writes Elna Solvang in her workingpreacher.org commentary, “is language from the instructions for observing the Jubilee Year. During the Jubilee property and people held as payment for debt were returned to the families to which they originally belonged (Leviticus 25:10). The use of the Leviticus language in Isaiah 61 is a clear indication,” she proposes, “that the liberty proclaimed is intended to be made permanent in new social and economic relationships within the community.”
This great reversal will “comfort all who mourn,” a theme taken up in last week’s first reading as well. The ashes of grief will be displaced by a garland of joy. Mourners will be anointed with gladness and clothed with boisterous praise. The garden of paradise shall be restored, perhaps in the rebuilding of the Temple with a forest of oak pillars as had once been the case. But those pillars will represent the righteousness of the faithful, not merely the extravagance of the monarch.
But the real world of the prophet looks nothing like the vision. “The mourning in Isaiah 61 rises out of frustration and humiliation over the failure to rebuild the city and the temple to match its former glory,” Solvang writes “and the failure to reconcile the economic disparities and the religious and political factions within the city. The reality of life in Jerusalem was nothing like the expectations for a restored Jerusalem and a righteous community,” she concludes, “as proclaimed by the prophets and as envisioned by the returnees (e.g., Isaiah 60).”
Disappointment with reality on the ground – the first reading once again seems to connect so deeply with events around us in the present moment. We expected The Pandemic (by now I think it deserves capital letters) to be long over by now. We expected, perhaps, that something, please God – anything, would have been concluded on the day after the presidential election – either the pandemic or structural racism or snarky tweets or political ads or pleas for money. In fact, the day has come and gone, and the ruins still surround us. If anything, the mourning deepens as the death tolls mount. The reality of life for many of us is nothing like we had hoped.
The setting of the first reading may well be at the beginning of reconstruction after the return from Exile. The building up of the ruins and devastations seems yet to be in the future of this text. It’s necessary to note the omitted verses which put the restored Judahites in positions of royal power over the strangers and foreigners in their midst.
Perhaps these images are deemed uncomfortable and require too much explanation. In fact, these verses try to describe the “recompense” the prophet sees coming to the people who have suffered for so long in Exile. We can see that fact in verse eight, where the word “recompense” reappears in English but is a different word in Hebrew. In verse eight the people receive God’s faithful reward, the everlasting covenant with them. The fruits of that covenant are described in verse nine.
Verses ten and eleven show the response of the prophet, perhaps on behalf of the people, as a result of this reward. All that the LORD promised has happened, at least in the heart of the prophet. The prophet responds with joy and trust. The LORD’s goodness will produce a witness to all the nations that the LORD is faithful and just.
We are surrounded by those who “mourn in lonely exile here” (see the hymn). Have we ever lived in a time where that phrase is clearer than right now? This is the text about moving through mourning into joy. This is not a denial of pain and suffering, despair, and death. This is a witness to the overcoming of the darkness by light. We are anointed in our baptism to be agents in that ministry of overcoming through the steady and persistent works of love.
“This reading of the poem places the contemporary audience in a different conceptual location with respect to the text,” writes Corinne Carvalho in her workingpreacher.org. comments. “Rather than hearing these words as exaltation of a deity who serves my needs, we should hear them as divine command to go out and bring healing to our broken world. Or, to put it in Advent language, we are called to be Christ to others.” This is, of course, precisely the role for us that Luther describes at length in The Freedom of the Christian.
This text certainly provides an opportunity to talk about the importance of criminal justice reform as a priority for Christians in the United States. The cash bail and probation systems in most jurisdictions often increase the economic distress and disability of the accused, whether they are prosecuted or not. These systems serve primarily as cash transfer mechanisms, moving money out of poor communities and into the coffers of local jurisdictions. A different system would certainly produce “liberty to the captives.” I’d refer you to Michelle Anderson’s The New Jim Crow as one resource for understanding this issue better.
I am part of an anti-racism book study group. We are currently reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. This book is, among other things, a dark journey into a criminal justice enterprise broken by systemic, institutional, administrative, and individual racism. Stevenson writes “about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America.” He describes “how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.” It’s worth reading or at least skimming the book as you think about Isaiah 61.
The text proclaims a Year of Jubilee that is “off schedule,” that is, out of the scriptural sequence of every fiftieth year. The need for such a Jubilee Year is nowhere more evident among us than in the continuing disparity of intergenerational wealth between races in the United States. This disparity is due in large part to housing segregation and the educational, employment and health care segregation and disparities that have resulted.
I would suggest that you consider Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law for more detailed information. Rothstein writes, “Today’s residential segregation in the North, South, Midwest, and West is not the unintended consequence of individual choices and of otherwise well-meaning law or regulation but of unhidden public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States.” Oppression and extraction are no more accidental in the United States than they were in the first century Roman Empire. “The policy was so systematic and forceful,” Rothstein concludes, “that its effects endure to the present time” (page viii).
If this text is not an opportunity to talk about such topics, then so such opportunity will be taken. Good news means that things are going to change. Otherwise, as N. T. Wright observes, it is merely “good advice.” I wish I had preached more good news in my parish ministry and less good advice.
Resources and References
Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017.
Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (p. 14). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.