(Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19.1-6, 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a & Luke 4.14-21) – Year C
Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God for something incredible, so incredible that we might not even realise what we are asking for. We pray: “Thy kingdom come’.” That’s a powerful prayer indeed, but what does God’s kingdom look like? Not our kingdom, but God’s kingdom. Not how we would shape the world if we had the power, but what is the world meant to look like were it not for our dreadful disobedience and the lure of sin?
We get a glimpse of the Kingdom in today’s Gospel, as Jesus read from the book of Isaiah, and then simply said, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
What’s fascinating is that after Jesus delivers this pronouncement to the people in the synagogue, two things happened. Initially the people were amazed and spoke graciously of Jesus; however once they had begun to take on board the challenges of what Jesus was saying they grew so angry that they drove him from the town, up onto a cliff, and attempted to throw him off the top. That’s a big reaction.
Compare this to when the books of Moses were recited by Ezra to the people, which would have taken at least 5 or 6 hours. After the return from the Exile in Babylon, the city of Jerusalem was inhabited once again, but it was left in a state of disrepair. Finally, Nehemiah got the people to rebuild the walls and gates, and there is a sense of getting the city back on its feet after the trauma of the Exile.
Then Ezra read aloud the Law and the people listened in rapt attention. More importantly, they responded, first in worship, then in repentance and prayer, and finally in action. Their response to the Bible was not simply to listen, but to act: an example to us all.
So what is so shocking about the words that Jesus spoke?
The actions he speaks of are fairly challenging. At one level there is nothing to be upset about – of course, we should proclaim release to the captives. “Wait, what?” “Is Jesus saying we should open all the doors to the prisons?” “Will we be safe? Will criminals come and live here?”
This is actually really challenging, and for anyone working at a purely literal level, frightening. Now we are not called to judge, but in this fallen world we can’t ignore that our choices and actions in life have consequences. For punishment, protection and rehabilitation the prison system is part of our society.
However, imagine God’s Kingdom where all are freed from what binds them, including the mental chains of illness, abuse or poverty that leads people to places of captivity. Perhaps some people will refuse the offer; we leave them in the hands of our merciful and loving God.
But what a radical and loving Kingdom that would be. It might still be hard for us to grasp. Indeed such a thought might make us understand better those who got angry at Jesus. Nevertheless these words that Jesus spoke were so powerful that the early Church was known for having large numbers of ex-criminals who heard words of hope and love and a new beginning, and responded – just as the tax-collectors and prostitutes had responded to John the Baptist at the River Jordon.
And that still happens today: for example, Johnny Lee Clary (former leader of the Ku Klux Klan), Chuck Colson (President Nixon’s ‘hatchet man’), and Jonathan Aitken (former MP and convicted of perjury) all became Christians and have dedicated their lives to preaching the good news of Jesus Christ to others.
And we are called to be involved in God’s mission too, so how can we help free those who are oppressed?
It means helping the poor, the voiceless and the vulnerable. We’re called to think about poverty, addiction, and desperation, and the deadly sins. To learn to recognise the injustices of the world, greed, violence and exclusion; doing the best we can to remedy them through compassionate and merciful actions, whilst combining that with love of those who appear unjust in their actions, praying for transformation, repentance and change.
We’re called to live for a world where God’s Kingdom has come. When Christians embrace love and justice, we’re doing that which God commanded us to do: to love God and to love our neighbour, the very fulfilment of the Law.
If we were to respond to this Gospel with the same enthusiasm as the Jewish people listened to Ezra, what would that look like…?