The following sermon was preached by Pastor Andrew at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church as part of the Falls City Area Ministerial Association’s “Sermons a la Carte” Lenten series. No audio is available, but the prepared text is below.
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“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, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21, NRSV)
This Lent, our Sermons a la Carte series will explore Jesus’ sermon on Isaiah 61 preached at the beginning of his ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth, a text that reveals Jesus’ mission as God’s anointed and gives us pause as we consider our identity as those who bear the name of Christ and who seek to be his body in the world.
Today, we begin with the first item on God’s agenda: bringing good news to the poor. To understand what Jesus means when he talks about bringing good news to the poor, we need to know both who the poor are and what good news looks like for those who are poor. First things first: Who are the poor? In Luke’s gospel, defining the poor requires us to walk a narrow road. On one side of that road is the ditch of excessive spiritualizing, the idea that Jesus is referring simply to those who are poor in some symbolic way. (Think, for example, of Matthew’s “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”) On the other side of that road is the ditch of excessive literalism, the idea that Jesus is referring only to those who are poor economically. The truth, as is usually the case in Scripture, is somewhere in the middle. Jesus undoubtedly has concern for those who are destitute in material terms – in this, he is firmly in the tradition of the prophets, who railed against the excesses of the ruling class and the disregard among the elite in society for those who are in need of sustenance. Similarly, he warns those who exhibit poverty of spirit, and who fail to understand that the core of the Biblical narrative is the responsibility to promote justice, righteousness, and peace among God’s people. In Luke’s gospel, then, the poor are those who do not enjoy full standing within the community of faith, those who – for whatever reason – find themselves on the outside looking in.
With that in mind, the good news that Jesus comes to bring is this: that his ministry makes a way for all to be welcomed into community. Whether their “poverty” stems from some spiritual or religious concern or from their inability to make a living, Jesus’ presence and proclamation promise that those who are numbered among the poor will have a share in the goodness and mercy of God. Perhaps no story illustrates this more viscerally than the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, which is both a comforting and a terrifying passage of Scripture.
A lot of interpreters seek to soften this parable, to undergo all kinds of mental gymnastics to avoid what it says on its face, which is that the rich man is condemned because he fails to care for the poor man who sets outside his gate for… well, God only knows, but long enough for the rich man to know him by name. He is unmoved by the law and prophets, which speak repeatedly of the duty to uphold the poor and vulnerable, especially the orphan, the widow, and the sojourner. He does not recognize that he is enjoined to care for the neighbor, to ensure that no one is left outside or without the basic necessities of life, and Jesus’ parable makes clear that there are real consequences for him – and, by extension, for those who fail to uphold this mandate.
So where is the good news? It’s in the parable’s promise that the poor will, indeed, receive good things. God’s will, of course, is that they receive them in this life – that those with means will give out of their abundance so that others can be fed, and that those who enjoy the blessing of community will extend welcome and hospitality to those who sit outside the gates. Even if that doesn’t happen, though, the poor are assured that they will enjoy blessing, a place of intimacy with God born out of God’s special concern for them.
As with much of Scripture, this passage represents both a challenge and word of comfort. It is a challenge, of course, because it presents us with a vision of accountability for how we care for those who are poor in any way. Comfort can be found in remembering Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, which declares that those who seek to be faithful to the Son of Man and his mission, though they may be reviled or ridiculed by the world (and though they may sometimes fall short) will receive a reward. (Luke 6:22-23, NRSV) In Christ, God’s grace and mercy come to us and enable us to bear the good news of God’s abundant blessing to the poor, strengthening us to face whatever might come our way as a result of our obedience to the challenge laid before us.
Brothers and sisters, in his life and ministry Jesus proclaimed welcome and abundant grace to all who, like Lazarus, were neglected or left behind. As we journey through this Lenten season, may we seek to be Christ for others, and, by our acts of prayer and kindness and generosity, extend welcome and grace to those in need in our community, so that Jesus’ sermon might once again be fulfilled in our hearing. Join us next week as we consider how Jesus’ life and ministry were brought to bear on the brokenhearted. Until then, may we be blessed with God’s grace and strength as we continue our journey through Lent. Amen.