Toward the end of the first century, somebody wrote a two-volume work. The first volume looks a lot like the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. The second volume tells us about the work of the early church in the first few decades. Around the beginning of the third century writers tell us that this author was named Luke, and some of them mention that he was a physician. They don’t tell us how they know this. Apparently, they had heard it said, and that was enough “fact checking” to satisfy them. We’ve heard it said too, and we still call the Gospel we heard today Luke’s Gospel, because, well, why not?
But like the other Gospel writers, Luke doesn’t seem to be interested in having us focus on his name or his occupation. He wants us to focus on Jesus, his life, death, and risen life, and on what that means for us. So we honor him best by focusing on his message, his good news.
And here is how Luke begins his story of Jesus’ public ministry, the ministry he began right after his baptism and temptation in the wilderness. The way Luke tells it, before he even started calling disciples, Jesus was wondering around Galilee on his own, teaching in synagogues and building an admirable reputation. But we only get one snapshot of what his teaching was like, and that was when he wound up in his hometown. And I have to say, his sermon, if you want to call it that, leaves me puzzled at first. The sermon is actually shorter than the scripture lesson, and even the lesson itself is pretty short.
Here’s the lesson (it won’t hurt to read it again):
“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.”
It’s shorter than any of the lessons we usually hear.
Now here’s the sermon: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s it. It hardly counts as a sermon, if it counts at all. Now of course, Episcopalians like me are just fine with sermons that aren’t too long. But still, we expect at least a bit more than one sentence. And regardless of a sermon’s length, we would rather not be left wondering how it could possibly be true. But Jesus leaves us with a one-sentence sermon that at first glance sounds ridiculous.
But let’s back up for a moment and look at the lesson Jesus read. Luke wants us to know that this is what Jesus’ ministry is all about. Luke’s whole Gospel shows us a Jesus who cared deeply about the material world. Matthew’s Jesus reaches out to the poor in spirit, but Luke’s Jesus reaches out to the poor, period. Matthew’s Jesus reaches out to those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, but Luke’s Jesus reaches out to those who hunger, period. Luke wants to make sure we know that Jesus makes a material difference to material people. The good news is not just about making us feel better—it’s about making all of life go better, and not just some day but here and now. It’s about God meeting us in the flesh. That’s why Luke starts with Jesus reading this passage from Isaiah, announcing good news to the poor, release to prisoners, healing for the sick, an end to oppression, even the cancellation of all debts (that was what was supposed to happen in what Isaiah called “the year of the Lord’s favor”). If all that’s not a material difference, what else would you call it? Luke’s Gospel is the social activist’s Gospel.
By the way, just as important as what Jesus read is where he decided to stop reading. If you look up the main text in Isaiah (61:1-2), you find the text goes on: “to proclaim the year of the Lord‘s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus decided to leave out the vindictive part. I’m more than OK with that.
Now back to that one-sentence sermon: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” How could that possibly be true? The people in Jesus’ hometown knew that the world was still filled with poor people, people unjustly imprisoned, sick people, oppressed people, and people with unpayable debts. And Luke himself knew that the world was still like that even after Jesus’ resurrection. And of course we know the world is still like that today, and every day between Jesus’ day and ours. We know that especially in this year, the most threatening year that I, at least, have ever known. How can anybody say this scripture has been fulfilled?
In a way, of course, Jesus is just using different words here to preach what we know was his central, one-sentence message: “The time is fulfilled, and the reign of God has come near; turn around, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). But that raised the same question: How can he say that the time is fulfilled? All that’s wrong with the world was still happening and is still happening. Where is this promised reign of God?
Maybe it would help to know that in both passages, when it comes to the word “fulfilled,” we have some choices about what verbs to use in translation. That’s because there aren’t any main verbs in either passage. In Greek, when the main verb is some form of “to be,” they often didn’t bother to use it. The reader had to supply it. That’s not acceptable in English, but it is acceptable in Greek. So our translators supply the verbs “has been” and “is.” But we are free to supply another form of “to be.”
“The time is being fulfilled.” “Today this scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing.” The reign of God isn’t quite here yet, but it’s near, it’s in the process of arriving, over and over. Don’t let go of hope.
I don’t know if the top Bible translators would back me up on that. But still, doesn’t it ring true? Isn’t that actually what happened in Jesus life? Sure, his followers heard that the reign of God had come near, and they immediately jumped to the conclusion that Jesus was about to kick out the Romans and “make Judea great again.” After his death and resurrection most of them still held onto the hope that he would come back within their lifetimes with a conquering army. But even the earliest writers of the New Testament began to realize that this bombastic sequel would be totally out of character with the Jesus they actually knew (Philippians 2:5-11).
In Jesus’ life, before and after the crucifixion, his first followers began to realize that the reign of God was indeed arriving, but not bombastically. It started arriving as soon as a bunch of scruffy people started gathering to break bread and pray and take care of all who were in need. It started arriving over and over as they re-discovered Jesus himself inhabiting their gathering with the all-embracing power of God, transforming not just bread but the gathering itself into “the body of Christ, the bread of heaven” (BCP, 365). Its arrival was like yeast, said Jesus, “which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until the whole batch was leavened” (Luke 13:21).
And that’s what its arrival looks like today. It’s not showing up bombastically. It’s more like yeast. But don’t underestimate its power to transform. Did you realize that almost every movement that wound up making our common life more humane took inspiration from this vision of God’s reign that Jesus and Isaiah shared? Think of Martin Luther King, but also of Mahatma Gandhi, and even of Karl Marx. Even Marx’s working principle—from each according to their ability, to each according to their need—was fueled by Jesus’ and Isaiah’s yeasty vision, as well as by the book of Acts (which, let’s remember, Luke also wrote). Today it’s animating our drive to encourage everybody to vote in a few weeks.
The arrival of God’s reign is as unimpressive as yeast, but its power to transform is endless.
The spirit of the Lord is upon us. The reign of God has come near. The time is being fulfilled. Today this scripture is being fulfilled in our hearing.