A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 4:14-21 for Epiphany 3C
When Alice famously asked the Cheshire Cat which way she should take, the Cat replied by asking her where she wanted to go. “I don’t much care where–” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. I remember, when I was learning how to share my faith with others as a shy teenager, being told to ask the following question: “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?” There is no question that human life is best when it filled with purpose and intention. As James smith argues, in his brilliant book Desiring the Kingdom, human beings are primarily intentional beings, people who engage the world with a sense of direction, of purpose. However, when this purpose is reduced to an otherworldly destination when we die, we miss the glory and life-giving power of Jesus’ mission and message. So, it would probably be very helpful if we could discern something of how Jesus understood the best of human purpose.
In Luke’s Gospel, as Jesus begins his ministry after his baptism and then his trial in the wilderness, the sense of intention is remarkable. The Gospel notes that he is “filled with the Spirit’s power”. This, of course, resonates with Luke’s particular emphasis on the work of God’s Spirit in the life of Jesus, and in the lives of his followers. The power of the Spirit is a confirmation that God’s Reign has indeed come, as Peter confirms in his sermon in Acts 2, and that Jesus is really the “Servant of the Lord” of Isaiah. It also means that there can be no doubt that Isaiah’s words – “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” – are legitimately claimed by Jesus. But, the Gospel also notes what this power of God’s Spirit achieved in Jesus’ ministry. He taught regularly, and was praised by the people. By the time he gets back to his hometown, Jesus has developed quite a reputation. It was common, in the synagogue of Jesus’ day, for visiting preachers and teachers to be asked to read and teach, and so the scene depicted in Luke’s Gospel is a familiar one for the people of the time.
But, it is significant, especially for the purpose of the Gospel of Luke, that Jesus picks a reading from Isaiah which speaks about God’s purpose for God’s chosen one, and for God’s people. This reading, which includes some words from Isaiah 61:1-2 and Isaiah 58:6, is perhaps one of the best descriptions of the Reign of God to be found in the scriptures, and references back to the Day of Jubilee in the Old Testament. This is no, “where will you go when you die?” purpose statement. This is all about the state of the world now, and how we choose to live in it. It is Jesus taking as his mandate the call to bring God’s justice, equality, liberation and grace to all. Then, by claiming that the Scripture is fulfilled, he states that this Reign of God is here. It’s just another version of the first sermon in Mark’s Gospel: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the Good News.” (Mark 1:15)
It’s one thing to have a purpose for our lives. It’s quite another to ensure that the purpose we have is worthy of our time, energy and commitment. The purpose of Jesus is a grand and transforming one. His purpose is not to form a religion, or even start a church. It’s not to provide a way to escape the world for some heavenly bliss. From the beginning, by quoting Isaiah, Jesus proclaimed that his mission is the way to a healed world. As the church grew in their understanding of what this meant, they proclaimed a vision of the entire cosmos becoming whole and united in Christ (See Ephesians 1:10).
The question we must face is whether we will believe him. And, if we do, whether we will have the courage to follow him into this mission. If so, we will have to face the struggle to live in community, the challenge to live with simplicity, and the call to participate in the work of justice, healing and transformation in our world. We will have to release the simple, selfish, childish faith that sees Jesus as nothing more than “my Saviour” who “saves me and ensures I will go to heaven when I die”, and we will have to open ourselves to the uncomfortable values of the Reign of God. It may not all be sunshine and roses. It may not be easy and comfortable. But, for a human life, I can’t think of a better way to go.