“You Call that Good News?”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
In Luke 4:18-21, Jesus proclaims the arrival of God’s Day of Jubilee. Jubilee is more than aday. It’s a new reality. Jubilee is like doing a system restore on a computer. It returns everything to original condition. Slaves are freed. Land returns to original, God-designated owners. Debts are forgiven. It’s God’s great Do Overof grace.
After that bold teaching, Jesus crosses numerous sacred boundaries. He personally forgives sin. He eats and drinks without fasting and praying. He harvests grain on the sabbath. He heals on the sabbath. To the legalistic Pharisees, it appears that Jesus is intentionally flouting the law. To them, this rabbi’s actions declare that nothing is sacred, nothing matters. And when the fundamentals of faith are ignored, there’s nothing left to believe or trust.
Jesus’ truth is exactly the opposite. To him, allpeople matter, allthingsmatter – allthe time. The whole of creation has sacred worth in the eyes and the heart of God. Still, when Jesus preaches his Sermon on the Plain, which is Luke’s stark and jagged-edged version of Matthew’s more palatable Sermon on the Mount, he makes some distinctions that disturb people like the Pharisees, and perhaps like us, people of comfort, privilege, and pride.
17[Jesus] came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21“Blessed are you who are hungry now
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24“But woe to you who are rich
for you have received your consolation.
25“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26“Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
In this teaching, Jesus clearly distinguishes between poor and rich, empty and full, those who weep and those who laugh, and those who are hated and excluded and those who seek public affirmation and praise. According to Jesus, those for whom life is the most bitter struggle now, are those who live closest to the kingdom of God. Because their emptiness allows them to know the fullness of God, they’re far less susceptible to feeling numbed underneath the fear-wrought calluses of individualism and material excess because, as Peter Eaton says, The God revealed in Jesus “is the God of those who have nothing butGod.”1
Biblical theologians call it The Great Reversal.Jesus comes to upset the artificial stability of life in a world that has given itself to the idolatries of power, wealth, and indulgence in distractions that blind human eyes to suffering and need in the world. Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6 says, unequivocally, that one cannot know and love God while ignoring the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the hated and excluded. And when he says these things, Jesus looks intentionally at the disciples. Luke’s point is that Jesus is speaking to the Church, to those who claim to know him and follow him.
You, he says, youwho call me ‘Lord,’ you are the ones on whom the mantle of responsibility falls. Your ministry is to declare audibly, visibly, and tangibly to the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and those whom the world hates and excludes that God is on their side.
An unsettling message creeps through: Not to respond in welcoming grace to those who are poor, hungry, broken, and walled out by whatever means is to deny Jesus and crucify him all over again. Indeed, he says, Woeto those who sit back in comfort and ease, for they are far from the kingdom of God.
How is this GoodNews for us?
The call of this passage is not to bepoor, hungry, grief-stricken, hated, and excluded. The call of this passage is for the Church to recognize that God calls us into the lives of those for whom suffering is the daily reality. Reach out in fearless, healing, embracing love to those who are broken and desperate, and in the reaching, in the touching, in the relationships of compassionate response, we experience the living Jesus. Thatis where he is followed, known, and loved.
In his book The Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne writes about his experiences living as a fearless and unfettered disciple of Jesus in the inner city of Philadelphia and beyond. In a section of the book called “City of Brotherly Shove,” he tells of feeding the city’s homeless.2After a number of groups began feeding the homeless in city parks, Philadelphia passed an ordinance that made public distribution of food a crime. Struggling with how to respond to a number of such laws, Claiborne and his brothers and sisters from their intentional Christian community called The Simple Way, decided that the call of Jesus was stronger than any civil statute against caring for the least of these. So, they flouted the law. They held a party in a city park called Love Park, a known gathering place for the homeless.
In Love Park, they “worshiped, sang, and prayed. Then [they] served communion, which was illegal.” They slept overnight in the park with the homeless. After a number of nights of this, the police surrounded the group, arrested and handcuffed them, and took them to jail. When the group got out of jail, they went straight back to the park and slept out in the open with the homeless again. And they got arrested again.
Eventually, the group had to appear in court. Some sympathetic and high-profile attorneys offered their help, but Claiborne and company decided that they would rely on the help that the homeless could expect. So, a homeless man named Fonzwould speak for them.
Standing before the judge, Shane Claiborne wore a T-shirt that read, Jesus Was Homeless. The judge looked at the shirt and asked if it were really true. “‘Yes sir,’ said Claiborne, ‘in the Scriptures, Jesus says that “foxes have holes, and birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”’”
Impressed, the judge said, “‘You guys might stand a chance.’”
Prior to that day, says Claiborne, “we read all the Scriptures where Jesus warns the disciples that they will be dragged before courts and into jails, and they had new meaning for us. [Jesus told] them not to worry about what to say, so we didn’t. When the time came…to testify, Fonz stood up…and said, ‘Your Honor, we think these laws are wrong.’” He got a loud Amenfrom the rest of the group.
The DA had prepared carefully to see that these “criminals” felt the full weight of the law – jail time, steep fines, and, ironically enough, many hours of community service.
Then the judge said, “‘What is in question here is not whether these people broke the law; that is quite clear. What is in question is the constitutionality of the law.’”
When the DA objected to that premise, the judge said, “‘The constitutionality of the law is before every court. Let me remind [you] that if it weren’t for people who broke unjust laws, we wouldn’t have the freedom that we have. We’d still have slavery. That’s the story of this country from the Boston Tea Party to the civil rights movement. These people are not criminals, they are freedom fighters. I find them not guilty on every charge.’”
After that, the judge asked for a Jesus Was Homelesst-shirt.
That was hardly the end of the struggle. Caesars and Herods passed more laws that added insult to injury to the homeless. And The Simple Wayfolks, along with many others, picked up where they left off.
The struggle never ends for those who love the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and who love their neighbors as themselves. And not every confrontation with the powers goes the way of justice and righteousness. Nonetheless, Jesus calls us to engage those powers on behalf of those who are poor, hungry, grieving, hated, and excluded. And at times, our only reward in the here and now is to know that we are following Jesus in that work. But what Jesus promises is that in that struggle we will see him. We will feel his presence, share his love, and, most importantly, we will proclaim, and we will inhabit the kingdom of God.
1Peter Eaton, “Homiletical Perspective” from Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 4, David. L Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. P. 361.
2All references to Shaine Claiborne, The Simple Way, and their work in Philadelphia come from The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, by Shaine Claiborne. Zondervan, 2006 & 2016. Pp. 222-228.