Jesus’ Inclusive And Holistic Ministry

The story of Jesus’ visit to his hometown Nazareth acquires significance in the Gospel of Luke. The parallel accounts of Jesus’ visit of Nazareth in Mark and Matthew appear much later (Mk. 6.1-6; Mt. 13.54-58), whereas in Luke the episode follows the temptation and the time of preparation, and becomes the opening scene of his public ministry. This positioning of the episode demonstrates its importance to the ministry of Jesus Christ.

The inaugural preaching of Jesus Christ in the Nazareth synagogue is programmatic that defines his messianic holistic ministry of impartial grace.

Jesus’ Ministry in the Light of Isaiah 61.1-2 and Isaiah 58.6

Jesus defines his ministry by the quotation from the book of the prophet Isaiah. He quotes Isaiah 61.1-2, with a few modifications. This prophetic text begins with the designation or equipping of the agent of Yahweh with the spirit of the Lord. The reason for or the purpose of this anointment is articulated with a series of seven infinitives: to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to proclaim release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, to proclaim the day of vengeance of our God, and to comfort all who mourn. Not all these seven infinitives are included in Luke 4.18-19.

The focus of the mission of God’s agent is on the poor, the oppressed, the afflicted and the captives. The captives are those who are bound. This signifies not those in the exile, but those in prison and slavery for debts and the like (Cf. Lev. 25.10; Jer. 34.8 ff; Ezek. 46.17). A new era (“The year of the Lord’s favour” Is. 61.2) is announced by the God’s anointed.

However, Jesus makes two modifications for the quotation of Isaiah 61.1-2:

  1. A phrase from Isaiah 58.6 “to let the oppressed go free” is added in Luke 4.18. Isaiah 58 demands that God’s chosen people should practice a fast consisting of the loosening of chains of injustice, sharing of food with the hungry and provision for the poor (Is. 58.6-7). It insists on the coherence between liturgical practice and social justice. For the prophet, the fasting pleasing to God can not just be liturgical (Is. 58.1-5), but social as well (Is. 58.6-14).

The association of Isaiah 58 with Isaiah 61 intensifies the social dimension of the mission of God’s agent, and provides a striking corrective to any religious practice which is carried on in the name of Yahweh without any concern for the poor, or to any religious activity that oppresses them or fosters their oppression (Is. 58.3-5).

Therefore, Isaiah 61 in association with Isaiah 58 serves as a corrective to any misguided spirituality that focuses only on ritualistic practices such as worship, prayer and fasting and neglects the weightier matters such as justice, love and mercy.

  1. Jesus’ second modification to Isaiah 61.1-2 is to cut it short. He concludes the brief citation with the phrase “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Lk. 4.19), and omits the reminder of the sentence “and the day of vengeance of our God” (Is. 61.2). This is quite significant. Jesus also omits the reminder of prophesy which includes references to Gentiles tending Israelites’ flocks and working in their fields, and to Israelites feasting upon the wealth of the Gentiles (Is. 61.5-6). Thus, Jesus has excluded all references of hostility towards the Gentiles. Jesus reiterates this in Lk. 7.22 where he again declares his messiahship, this time in response to the query of John the Baptist, by merging together three passages from Isaiah (Is. 35.5f; 29.8f; 61.1). The contexts of these three passages contain references to divine vengeance (Is. 35.4; 29.20; 61.2), yet Jesus quotes only the good news of divine healing and deliverance. Thus, the messianic new era of God’s grace, which has dawned in the ministry of Jesus Christ, is impartial. That means, it is inclusive of Gentiles and outcasts, which Jesus affirms by retelling the stories in the ministries of Elijah and Elisha (Lk. 4.25-27).

Jesus explains that there were many widows in Israel during a severe famine, and Elijah was sent by God to none of them, but only to a Gentile widow of Zarephath of Sidon (Lk. 4.25-26).

In the second story, Jesus points out at Elisha healing Naaman, a Gentile, although there were many lepers among Israelites.

Both these stories depict God’s grace poured out not only on Gentiles, but upon the lowliest of the low class among the Gentiles – a widow and a leper!

God’s mission has a universal scope – transcending ethnic, cultural, social, racial, caste or confessional barriers. God’s preferential option for the poor is not for the poor of Israel only, and may even give priority to others.

The Object of Jesus’ Ministry: The Poor

Jesus proclaims the good news of a new era of God’s impartial grace to the poor (Lk. 4.18, 7.22). He promises to the poor the kingdom of God (Lk. 6.20 – It is “the poor” not the “poor in spirit”).

During the time of Jesus, certain Jewish sects, particularly the Qumran community, applied the term “poor” to their communities denoting the “pious poor”. However, the Old Testament term for the poor (anawim) refers to both social and religious humility. The poor are, in one sense, the victims of the unjust structures of society – powerless, vulnerable, insignificant, exploited, oppressed and economically deprived. In another sense they are the “pious poor” who are utterly dependent upon God.

The term anawim used in Isaiah 61.1 is translated in Jesus’ Nazareth proclamation with the Greek term ptochoi (poor) in Luke 4.18. The term “poor” is used by Luke in the same broad sense of anawim with reference to both social and spiritual humility.

Jesus in Luke is fundamentally concerned with those who are outcast or marginalized, a social state imposed on them, which was sanctioned by religion (Lk. 4.18, 5.30-32, 6.20, 7.22, 14.13, 21, 16.20). The term “outcast” is related to issues of power, privilege and social location. So “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” are the outcast in the society. The inclusion of lepers in this social category means that these are considered ‘untouchables’ who are forced to live on the periphery or outside the periphery of the society (Lk. 7.22 cf. 5.12-16; 17.11-19). This is evident by the phrases “streets and lanes” (14.21), which refer to narrow streets and lanes where one would find beggars of the town and “roads and lanes”, which refer to the area immediately outside the wall of the city inhabited by those involved in menial occupations and prostitutes (14.23). They are forbidden from having social relations with those “at the center of the society” (I QSa 2. 5-7 cf. I QM 7. 4-6). Since they are considered unclean, they represent a possible source of contamination to the community at large. Pharisees are particularly concerned about protecting the community against such dangers by upholding the purity rules of the community and in that way keeping the boundaries of the community strong. That is why there is constant conflict between Jesus and the community religious leaders, particularly Pharisees, over the boundaries and purity of the community (Lk. 5.30-32, 7.36-47). It shows that it is a common knowledge to follow the above regulations (cf. Lk. 5.30, 6.2, 7.39, 15.2, 19.7) and leaders have invoked commitment to this common knowledge. That is why the outcast are to be “compelled” (Lk. 14.23) to partake in the dinner, for they have immediately understood that the invitation is an inexplicable breach of the social system. Luke thus presents the traditional pattern of the society that has given legitimacy to oppressive structures. These strong social barriers have restricted the outcast from entering into the society and confined them to the periphery or outside of the society.

Thus, the outcast are those who are the victims of oppressive structures, which in turn have deprived them socially, economically and religiously.

Jesus Brings Good News to the Poor

As noted above, Isaiah 61.1-2 and Isaiah 58.6 define the messianic ministry of Jesus Christ. The determinative word in these Old Testament texts is the Greek word aphesis, which means “release” or “free”. This word links the two quotations. Out of the four sentences in Isaiah 58.6 (“to loose the bonds of injustice; to undo the thongs of the yoke; to let the oppressed go free; and to break every yoke”), which say essentially the same thing, the one chosen in Luke is the one that in the Greek translation of Isaiah 58.6 uses aphesis. This word is prominent in Luke’s writings – Gospel and Acts. In these writings, aphesis is particularly associated with the release from sin. It is forgiveness (Eg. Lk. 1.77. 7.36-50, 24.47). The oppression from which Jesus sets people free is the tyranny of the evil one. The chains that Jesus breaks are the bonds that enslave them to sin in all its forms.

Isaiah 61.1-2 and Isaiah 58.6 enable us to understand that the release which God began in the ministry of Jesus Christ is not only from sin, but also from all those concrete kinds of physical, social and economic oppression. This holistic ministry of Jesus is spelled out and illustrated in Luke’s Gospel. It is among and to the poor that Jesus comes and brings good news (Lk. 7.22). He constantly commands and approves the sharing of wealth or giving of wealth to the poor (Lk. 14.13, 21; 16.19ff.; 18.22; 19.8). Jesus gives sight to the blind (Lk. 7.21; 18.35ff.; 14.13, 21) as well as deliverance from other physical illnesses and incapacities (Lk. 7.1-10, 11-17, 18-23). He also breaks the religious barriers, which enslaved the outcast, by healing them on the Sabbath (Lk. 6.6-11). Thus Jesus not only proclaims but also practices the holistic mission as God’s anointed messiah (Lk. 4.18-19; 7.20-23).

There is, therefore, a clear holistic liberation emphasis in Jesus’ mission: the aim is to radically change the spiritual, personal, social and economic conditions of all the victims, of all those who have been put aside by religious, social, political or economic developments in society. The categories are clear: the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed. The aim is clear: good news, release, sight, freedom. There is no priority within this holistic vision and mission of God’s messiah Jesus Christ.

This messianic holistic mission has already happened: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk. 4.21). However, what God has accomplished in the ministry of Jesus, he continues through the history of humankind through those who have identified with Jesus Christ and his ministry. To live and work as ministers of God and disciples of Jesus is to proclaim and enable people to find forgiveness. It is to carry on Jesus’ liberating work in church and society, to help persons find the free, obedient and responsible life.

There has been a sad tendency in evangelicalism to reject the holistic and inclusive ministry of Jesus Christ through oversimplifications or interpretations of biblical texts that are irrelevant to real life. However, the new era of God’s impartial grace, dawned in the ministry of Jesus Christ, calls the people of God everywhere to embrace the holistic mission of Jesus by engaging in the real world through Jesus’ spiritually and socially inclusive mission of justice, mercy and love.

 

Sources

Hugh Anderson, “Broadening Horizons: The Rejection at Nazareth Pericope of Luke 4:16-30 in Light of Recent Critical Trends.” Interpretation  18 (1964), pp. 259-275.

Jeffrey S. Siker, “”First to the Gentiles”: A Literary Analysis of Luke 4.16-30.” Journal of Biblical Literature III/I (1992), pp. 73-90.

Paul Hertig, “The Jubilee Mission of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: Reversals of Fortunes.” Missiology: An International Review XXVI/2 (April 1998), pp. 167-179.

“Luke 4:16-30 – The Spirit’s Mission Manifesto – Jesus’ Hermeneutics – And Luke’s Editorial.” International Review of Mission LXXXIX/352 (January 2000), pp. 3-11.

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