What Does Jesus Promise?
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
January 21, 2007
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12: 27-13:31; Luke 4: 14-21
“Today this prophecy has been fulfilled in your hearing” –Luke 4:21
Some of you might remember a theological movement that was fashionable in the sixties of last century known as Liberation Theology. It arose in Latin America among Catholic champions of justice for the poor and it used Marxist thought as a vehicle for Christian truth. The passage we have just read in the fourth chapter of Luke’s gospel was its anchor in the NT while the story of the Exodus of Israel from slavery in Egypt anchored it in the OT. The fundamental message of the Gospel for these interpreters is that God acts in history to set free the poor and oppressed from their bondage to the rich and oppressing. It took its cue from the Magnificat, that in bringing Jesus to birth God has brought down the mighty from their seats and exalted the humble and meek (Luke 1:52).
Pope John Paul II opposed this theology and effectively put and end to it within the Catholic Church, nevertheless, it has an afterlife, not only in Catholicism but also in Protestantism, as what we Protestants are accustomed to call the “Social Gospel.” The Pope did not discourage concern and action to liberate the poor, but he did regard Marxism as an unsuitable vehicle for this aspect of Christian truth, especially because it tended to eclipse other aspects and make the church an agency of social and political action on behalf of the “have nots.” The political and social work of the churches goes on apace today, and has become of great concern in this country to those of us who think that the congregations of the church should not be agents of particular political parties as the so-called Christian Right has become for the Republicans, and the traditionally non-religious federal government has become with its funding of “faith-based,” social service initiatives. Liberation theology has morphed into its opposite, a theology that wants to make sure that people and not liberated from the laws of the land in private matters like sexual gender preference and abortion rights.
Our religious scene is currently complicated in this regard and generalizations are not very helpful, but it might be worthwhile to spend some time with this pivotal passage and see what it might tell us about the purpose and promise of God in Jesus Christ. So I ask you today to ask, “What does Jesus Promise?”
Our first question should be, “What does Luke intend to say by quoting this passage here?” Note that he places it at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, right after Jesus returns from forty days of reflection in the wilderness. Jesus comes directly from the wilderness to his hometown and home church (synagogue) and is asked to be the lay reader on that Sabbath. We can imagine the situation quite easily; our young people go away and learn new things and come back to instruct us oldsters who never go anywhere and never learn anything new except what passes through our local church. Luke presents this reading from Isaiah 61:1-2; 58:6 instead of Jesus’ announcement in Matthew and Mark, “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel (Mark 1:15/ Matt 3:2).” So it is intended as a summarizing statement, and epigraph over the whole Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus is “good news for the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, liberty to the oppressed, and the announcement of the jubilee year.”
Is this a program of moral action in the public world? Is this a list of social projects? Are we to take the Gospel as a call to moral and social action? In answering this we should note two things, that the text specifies that Jesus is to announce these various items not actually effect them, and that Jesus fulfills this announcement in the reading of the prophecy on that day. In the light of these two phenomena we must say that the Gospel is an announcement of the centrality of Jesus himself, before it is a program of action. Jesus is the good news of the poor, Jesus is the release of captives, Jesus is the sight of the blind, Jesus is the liberty of the oppressed and Jesus is the sweet time of jubilee.
It is understandable that a pragmatic civilization like ours prefers a “to do” list to a personal relation. We find it especially hard to experience another person as the truth of good news, release, new sight, and sweet time with God. We are a civilization of engineers and we want to be up and doing, “making the world a better place.” Habitat for Humanity is the emblem of our Protestant piety these days, where men can put their back into building houses and delivering the homeless from the wind and weather. Let me not denigrate such good service, being myself a dreamer not an actor, but let me ask whether such action is the intent of Luke’s summary of the Gospel of Jesus.
Recently I have been reading Henry James again, and yesterday I watched the movie of “The Wings of the Dove” for the third or fourth time. I was astonished again at the genius of James, and the skill of the moviemakers, in recreating and representing the most subtle and powerful movements of human spiritual life. Millie Teal, the dying American heiress, loves her English friends Merton and Kate during her last days, which they all spend together in Venice. With the lightest of light touches James conveys that Kate wants Merton to seduce Millie so that when she dies Merton will get her money and be able to marry Kate and keep her in style. Well, that is the cruelest imaginable scenario, but the artists play it with such finesse that one feels they are prisoners of a dark power. No one ever seems to make the dire decision to do such a dastardly thing, and when some cruel oaf tells Millie the apparent truth of the scheme, the truth seems to be less horrible than it seemed. Millie loves Merton, but she also loves Kate and knows that they are intended for each other after she is gone. Her love seems adequate to the horror. She dies and leaves Merton all her money so he can marry Kate, but in the mean time Merton has fallen in love with Millie and can no longer marry Kate. As Kate says, he who never loved Millie when she was alive is now fallen in love with her memory. The movie closes with Merton returning to Venice alone.
The title of the novel comes from Psalm 55, which goes as follows: “My heart is in anguish within me, / the terrors of death have fallen upon me. / Fear and trembling come upon me, / and horror overwhelms me. / And I say, O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; / yea, I would wander afar, / I would lodge in the wilderness, / Selah / I would haste to find me a shelter / from the raging wind and tempest (Psalm 55:4-8).” These words are in Merton’s mind as he follows Millie’s coffin to the famous cemetery of St George in the lagoon of Venice. The last we see of him, he is making a shelter from the raging wind, there in Venice, in the lee of Millie’s grave.
So what’s the point? If Henry James can see so much of love and horror in one human triangle, how much more can Jesus show us the deliverance, insight, good news and good time there are in the triangles of our lives? The good news is that he is here. So, to answer our question, “What does Jesus promise?” He promises Himself; and he fulfils his promise; he comes to us, and is for us the wings of the dove and the shelter in the wilderness. So the Gospel is not a to do list, but rather a list of the blessings we receive now that Jesus is here. “Today, this prophecy has been fulfilled in your hearing.”