Jesus’ Shocking Inaugural Address
A few years before the birth of Jesus, a former slave of Herod the Great, a Jew by the name of Simon, he stepped forward and declared to his fellow countrymen, “I am the long-awaited messiah! I am God’s anointed one. And my God-given mission is to liberate our people from Roman occupation.” Upon hearing this, the people of Israel said, “Simon, you’re crazy. That aint what the messiah is coming to do! He’s coming to save the world from their sins.” OK, that’s not actually what they said. Their reaction was something more along the lines of: “Finally! The messiah has arrived!” Convinced that Simon was God’s messiah, many Jews joined his military rebellion. However, the Romans quickly crushed the uprising and killed them all.
We know of three other would-be messiahs during this time period. Like Simon, they each assumed their God-given mission was to overthrow the Romans. As with Simon, many Jews were convinced. And like before, they were all quickly defeated and executed.
Instead of asking WHEN will God’s messiah finally arrive, perhaps first-century Jews should have been asking “What is the messiah coming to do?” In fact, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the true messiah, we too ought to ask this question. What was Jesus anointed to do? What was His messianic mission? This may just be the most important question we could ever ask.
Now, if you want to discover the very heart and essence of Jesus’ earthly mission, there is perhaps no better place to look than His first recorded sermon. This sermon is found in Luke chapter four, starting with verse sixteen. This sermon, which Jesus preached in His hometown synagogue, functions as his messianic manifesto. This is Jesus’ inaugural address. And just like when our presidents deliver an inaugural address, in this sermon Jesus publically declares what His priorities will be as He steps into office. In this speech, Jesus explains what His messianic mission will be all about.
Now, even though this will be a familiar passage for many of you, I want us all to try and enter into this scene as if we are hearing Jesus’ speech for the very first time. Let’s imagine that we are there, sitting in the Nazareth synagogue, listening as Jesus delivers this speech.
Luke begins his account of Jesus’ speech by informing us that, “Jesus went to Nazareth, where He had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day He went into the synagogue, as was His custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. Unrolling it, Jesus found the place where it is 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 favor.”
Then Jesus takes a long, dramatic pause. “He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. [And] the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on Him.” And of course Jesus had everyone’s attention. He just read the most famous messianic prophecy in all of the Hebrew Scriptures. During this time period, numerous Jewish communities wrote about their longing for God’s messiah to arrive. And as they wrote, they quoted this portion of Isaiah 61 more than any other messianic prophecy. So when Jesus chose to read this portion of Isaiah, he immediately gained everyone’s attention. They all began to wonder, “Is Jesus about to announce that He is the long-awaited Messiah?” And let’s not forget that this is Jesus’ hometown. Some were probably thinking to themselves, “Oh my goodness! The rumors are true. Joseph’s son really is the messiah!”
Sure enough! Their wildest dreams came true! Luke continues, “Then Jesus began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, “I am the long-awaited Messiah!” At this, the crowd erupts in joy. They all take turns “speaking well of Jesus [Luke says]. They are amazed at the gracious words that came from His mouth.”
But, why were Jesus’ listeners so excited to hear that the Messiah had finally arrived? Why was His arrival such good news? What did they think the Messiah was coming to do? When Jesus stood before His hometown and declared, “I am the Anointed One who has come to bring good news to the poor, and to the captives, and to the oppressed.” Everyone present would have been thinking to themselves: “That’s us! Jesus is talking about us! We’re the poor ones who have been oppressed and taken captive by the Romans.” And that whole part at the end about the Year of the Lord’s Favor…that’s Jubilee language. As David taught us last week, the Year of Jubilee is about land being restored and liberation from all that keeps us in bondage. In other words, “The Messiah is going to win us back our land! We are finally going to be free to rule ourselves!”
This is really good news! Well, I mean, it’s bad news for the Romans of course. But that just makes it even better news for us! Bad news FOR THEM! Good news FOR US!”
So far so good! The people love this sermon. They love it, that is, until Jesus clarifies what His messianic mission will be all about. It is not what the people EXPECTED. Nor is it what they WANTED.
“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb,” Jesus said, “‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” “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.”
In other words, Jesus is saying, “You think I’ve come to bring Good News only for you! But it’s for foreigners too! My good news extends to even the most marginal of people, like this foreign, unclean widow.” If that’s not infuriating enough, Jesus takes it one step further….verse 27: “There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” Now, Naaman was not just any foreigner. Oh no! Naaman was the leader of an enemy nation’s military! He commanded Syria’s army!
In just 45 seconds Jesus caused the crowd to go from loving Him to hating Him. As soon as Jesus mentions Naaman, Luke writes, everyone in the synagogue is “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.”
This was not the kind of Messiah the Jews were expecting. Nor was it the kind of Messiah they wanted! To be honest, Jesus may not be the kind of Messiah we want either. Think about it: Jesus is saying that His good news is not just for SOME; it’s for ALL. It’s Good News for those who are not like us. And it’s Good News for those who do not like us. It’s Good News for those who are different than us. And it’s Good news for those who feel enmity towards us.
Indo Story: A few years ago my family and I were living in a poor slum community in Indonesia. Early one morning while living there, I made a delicious cup of instant coffee and I went outside to enjoy the relatively cool morning air. Soon, my neighbor joined me and with tears in her eyes she said, “Pak Jason, why do Christians hate us Muslims so much?” Obviously this was not going to be an easy conversation. So I took a long sip of my instant coffee, because I knew that I needed time to think and because I knew I needed caffeine to think. Finally I asked her, “What makes you say that?”
“Why does an American pastor,” she said, “want to burn our Holy Book?” “I honestly don’t know why this pastor wants to burn the Qur’an,” I replied, “But I assure you he’s just one man.”
“Just one man!,” she blurted back. “If that’s true, then why aren’t the Christians in your country speaking out against this man? If that’s true, then why aren’t American churches speaking out against the war in Iraq? And if that’s true,” she continued with momentum building, “then why did Dutch Christians come and enslave us Indonesians for 400 years!”
My neighbor was right. For many Muslims throughout the centuries, the arrival of Christians has meant the beginning of some very bad news. Yet this is deeply ironic and tragic since we claim to follow the One who said He came to bring Good News! Good News TO ALL!
But you know what? I think you and I already know this to be true. We already know that Jesus came to bring Good News to ALL. Right? This is Christianity 101. But if we already know this, then here’s the conundrum, here is the million dollar question: If we know that Jesus came to bring Good News to all, then why do we so often religiously justify actions and policies that inflict harm on others, like my neighbor in Indonesia? Why are the proclaimers of good news frequently the authors of bad news?
Omission: I believe the answer to this predicament is hidden within Jesus’ sermon. For you see, when Jesus quoted from Isaiah, He stopped reading the text at a very odd spot. Jesus stopped mid-thought. In our English translations, Jesus stops at a comma. The passage actually says, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of the VENGEANCE of our God.” Jesus omitted the part about vengeance!
Now admittedly, this omission could have been unintentional. Jesus had to stop reading from the scroll of Isaiah at some point, right? Maybe Jesus didn’t mean anything by it. This is why it’s usually problematic to interpret someone’s message based on what they don’t say. It’s like last week when I caught my three-year-old son sneaking another muffin from the kitchen counter. “Luke, did momma say you could have a fifth muffin?” To which Luke so cunningly replied, “Momma didn’t say I couldn’t have a fifth muffin.” For a moment, Luke almost outsmarted me. But eventually I realized the flaw in his logic. Just because momma didn’t explicitly forbid Luke from having a fifth muffin, it doesn’t mean she approved of him doing so. Right?!
This is why reading too much into an omission is usually ill advised. Having said that, there are four very convincing reasons why I believe we can rest assured that Jesus’ omission of this part about vengeance was indeed intentional. It was no mere accident.
First of all, later on in this very sermon, Jesus selectively avoids condoning vengeful behavior and instead He promotes two acts of mercy.
When Jesus spoke of Elijah helping a foreign widow and Elisha healing an enemy general, Jesus chose two prophets whose lives were almost entirely dedicated to reinforcing Israel against her enemies. In other words, Jesus selectively chose practically the only two examples of Elijah and Elisha extending mercy to outsiders. As you may recall, Elijah and Elisha were not always great at showing mercy. Do you remember that story from 2nd Kings chapter 2, where some youth from the city of Bethel start mocking Elisha? “Hey baldy! Go up, you baldhead,” they shouted at him. So what does Elisha do? He curses them, and then immediately two bears come and maul forty-two teens to death. Elisha wasn’t exactly the poster child of mercy. Thus, it is quite telling that Jesus selectively chose to make normative a very rare instance of Elisha helping a foreigner.
And Jesus does the same with Elijah. Jesus highlights an atypical example of Elijah extending mercy to a foreigner. In fact, just a few chapters later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ disciples justify their desire for vengeance by appealing to Elijah. In Luke 9, we read of a Samaritan village refusing to welcome Jesus. In response, the disciples say to Jesus, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” Oh yeah, do you remember that story? The time Elijah slaughtered 450 prophets of Baal. It wasn’t exactly the embodiment of mercy! Yet, listen carefully to Jesus’ reply, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” Most likely Jesus’ omission of vengeance from Isaiah 61 was intentional, because later in the very same sermon, Jesus demonstrates his disapproval of vengeance by promoting two rare examples of mercy.
There’s a second reason we can rest assured that this omission was intentional: This is not the only case of Jesus omitting references to vengeance when he quotes from the Old Testament. In fact, numerous times Jesus quotes an Old Testament passage that approves of vengeance, yet each time, every time, without exception, he omits the part about vengeance. The frequency, consistency and precision by which Jesus cuts out references to vengeance can only be explained as intentional.
Third, and even more convincing still, if you look at all of the times Jesus quotes an Old Testament passage, you’ll discover that the two topics Jesus quotes most often are: (1) “Do not seek revenge,” and (2) “I desire mercy”. These are the two themes Jesus extracts most often from the Old Testament.
The fourth and final reason is probably the most convincing of all. Simply put, when you look at everything Jesus taught throughout the Gospels, He always forbids vengeance, condemnation, judgment and the like. And in their place Jesus commands mercy! “Do not judge or you too will be judged,” Jesus says, and then He immediately commands its opposite, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful!”
Those four observations make it quite clear that Jesus intentionally distanced himself from the notion of vengeance when He quoted from Isaiah 61. And He did this because mercy is the foundation upon which all of His Good News is built. And herein lies the answer to our question. Now we can make sense of our conundrum: As Christians, when we religiously justify actions and policies that inflict harm on others, we do so out of a spirit of judgment, not mercy.
A judgmental spirit gives to others what they deserve. Or more accurately, what we perceive they deserve. But a merciful spirit gives to others that which restores.
Human instinct is to give to others what they deserve. This is the spirit by which most of the world lives and operates. When your treatment of others is determined by what you think they deserve, then for a few recipients, you’ll perceive they deserve something good. Some sort of reward. Usually these are the people who are like us, or who are allied with us. But for the undeserving and the unworthy, we tend to perceive that they deserve something bad, something punitive in nature. Usually these are the people who are not like us or who are not allied with us. So, even though we confess with our lips that Jesus came to bring Good News TO ALL, because we are still guided by a spirit of judgment, we only extend Good News TO SOME, while inflicting bad news on the rest.
Yet Jesus calls us to be a people of mercy. Our treatment of others is not determined by what we think they deserve. That’s not how we operate in life. As Christians, we are guided by mercy. In other words, it does not matter what others do to us. Did you hear that? No matter what others do to us, good or bad, we care for them in ways that promote their restoration, healing and wholeness. When you encounter people who live by this restorative spirit, you’ll notice that their vocabulary is filled with words like: mercy, forgiveness, grace, unconditional love, and compassion. This is Gospel language! This is our vocabulary! Or at least, it ought to be.
Jesus came on a mission of pure mercy because on the cross He took upon Himself all that we justly deserved, so that we could be the recipients of God’s lavish mercy. God has been graciously unfair to us, imparting not what we deserved, but what we needed in order to be restored to all that God intends for us to be.
Mercy is the foundation upon which all of Jesus’ Good News is built. His was a mission of pure, undiluted, super-concentrated mercy. And He calls us to be a people of mercy. Always mercy. Never judgment.
Friends, this makes all the difference in the world!
For example, when our nation or even our Christian leaders declare, “This war is justified!,” may we be the first to speak up and say, “Even if it is justifiable, no war will ever be merciful. That’s why we will labor for peace in ways that seek even the loving restoration of enemies. ”
And when the media bombards us with the message, “Illegal immigrants don’t deserve any help from us,” may we as a congregation be quick to reframe the discussion, asking instead how our church might extend mercy to the strangers in our midst.
Living by a spirit of mercy changes everything. Jesus’ hometown recognized this, and they wanted nothing to do with it. But oh how I dream for the Church to embrace Jesus’ mission of mercy! If we live this way, the world will take notice. And one day my Muslim neighbor in Indonesia will pose a very different question. Instead of asking, “Why do Christians hate us Muslims so much?” She’ll ask, “Why do Christians love us Muslims so much?”
Let’s Pray: Oh Jesus have mercy upon us and empower us, as we go out from here, to be a people who extend mercy to all! Help us bring good news to those who expect to receive the opposite from us. Amen. Let it be so.