The Way of Jesus Christ

Listen here.

The Australian politician walked onto the stage, glanced at his iPad, and said: “The spirit of the mob is upon me, because the mob has appointed me to bring good news to the rich. It has sent me to place boat arrivals into indefinite detention, to close the eyes of the clear-sighted, to extend mandatory sentencing, and to proclaim the day of violent judgement of our God … And this prophetic work is for the benefit of straight white middle class Australians who call themselves Christian—and no one else.”

Some days, it feels as if every time I look at the news, I see a version of this. That is, I see some self-righteous powerful white man invoking Christianity as he acts and speaks in ways which are violent, bigoted, judgemental, scapegoating and excluding. People who are female, Indigenous or LGBTI+ are verbally diminished and mocked. Children speaking truth to power are told to shut up and go back to school. People who rely on Centrelink are depicted as fundamentally untrustworthy and made to jump through endless humiliating hoops. Asylum seekers are locked up in hellholes; gay people are threatened with the loss of teaching jobs or access to hiring Anglican property; religion is conflated with nationalism; and a senator who claims we’re a Christian country attends a neo-Nazi rally and bills taxpayers for his flights.

These men are the voice of the nation; and they are anointed by the mob because, deep down, many of us share their values and think them somehow Christian. And even those of us who have rejected these values sometimes secretly suspect that they are actually more Biblical: that women shouldn’t really be in leadership; that people of diverse genders and sexualities aren’t really acceptable to God; that young people and poor people aren’t really central in God’s kingdom; that our nation and culture are, at heart, pretty decent, and critique of them is not really the work of the church; and that, even if Jesus came not to condemn but to save, a little judging, a little shaming, a little excluding, a little ‘loving the sinner, hating the sin’ will teach people the lessons they need to learn and turn them into the people we think they ought to be.

For many of us grew up believing that the Bible says women should be submissive; that being gay is a sin; that children should be absolutely obedient to their elders; that the poor are slackers; that we live in the land of the ‘fair go’; and that shame, judgement and exclusion are the tools of the righteous: and in fact the Bible does in places suggest some of these things. And so while we may have decided to live differently—to share power, to serve others, to withhold judgement, to embrace diversity—the old lessons we internalised create inner conflict. Loving acceptance, justice and equality for all persons feel like the way of Jesus Christ; but there’s so much judgement and exclusion in the Bible: what if we’re wrong? What if we’re on the wide road to hell? We wonder, and we feel so anxious that many of us are too scared to open up our Bibles.

So let me be clear here: Not every word in the Bible has equal weight or authority. The Bible must be read through the lens of faith: and our faith is not in Moses or Isaiah or John the Baptiser or even the apostle Paul. Nor is our faith set out, first and foremost, in Leviticus or Romans or Revelation.

Instead, our faith is in Jesus Christ, who is described, first and foremost, in the gospels. Everything else is secondary. Still important, but secondary. Therefore, we must always read the Bible through this lens: looking for the traces of Jesus Christ in every passage; noting how some texts echo and others contradict him; and observing how Jesus himself took the Scriptures and re-interpreted them in his revolutionary light.

Tonight we heard Jesus’ call narrative according to Luke, and it’s a perfect example of this practice. Jesus has just been baptized, then tested in the wilderness: he is filled with the power of the Spirit. He goes into the synagogue in his hometown, picks up the scroll, reads from Isaiah 61 —editing as he goes—and thus he declares his mission and purpose. But what he reads is not an exact quote.

Where the Isaiah passage brings good news to the oppressed, Jesus brings good news to the poor. This change emphasizes the oppressive nature of poverty and points to the year of the Lord’s favour: a year of jubilee justice, when the rich will cancel the debts of the poor, and restore to them their land. Jesus adds that he will open the eyes of the blind; but he leaves out the Isaiah promise to bind up the broken-hearted, and he leaves out any reference to the day of God’s vengeance. Then Jesus tells his listeners that this Scripture is now fulfilled, and reminds them that the ancient prophets served those outside Israel’s national, religious and cultural boundaries.

Notice what is not in his mission statement: Marginalisation. Judgement. Shame. Exclusion. A benediction on wealth. Punishment. Oppression. Insider-status. Borders. A violent God. The afterlife. And a whole lot else that we might associate with religion. Instead, Jesus proclaims that he is here to bring good news to the vulnerable: and that this work has already begun: for “today,” he says, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

This is his self-proclaimed mission and purpose: and therefore, individually as his followers and together as his body, it is ours. That is, we must proclaim good news, not fear. We must cancel the debts of the poor, not marginalize, mock and punish them. We must preach freedom, not just to white men, but to women and LGBTI+ people and people of colour. We must release asylum seekers from indefinite detention; and as for Indigenous people and persons with mental illness, learning disabilities or addictions—all of whom are grossly overrepresented in our prison population: we must release them from jail and travel with them on the path to life. We must abolish mandatory sentencing and other laws which discriminate against those who are young, poor and Indigenous. We must open people’s eyes, not blinker them. We must befriend national, religious and cultural outsiders, and cease portraying them as hostile threat. And we must engage in this work of the kingdom today. Not tomorrow, not next year, not next lifetime, but today.

It is easy to claim to be religious; it is easy to stir up the mob; it is easy to take verses from the Bible and use them to feed people’s fear of an angry and vindictive god, and to bind and control them. But to do this is not the way of Jesus Christ. So with Jesus’ words ringing in our ears, let us live out his self-proclaimed mission. And let us crack open our Bibles and read prayerfully, intelligently and confidently; let us test every text and every statement and every claim and every religious expert and every public leader who invokes Christianity; and let us look always for the signs of Jesus Christ. For we know what they are: Priority for the poor. Release for the captives. Clear sight for the blind. Freedom for the oppressed. Debt cancellation and redistribution of wealth. Not just for ‘us’, but for everyone. Today.

Freedom and forgiveness, jubilee justice, hospitality, healing and hope, an end to human exclusion, and all this to happen in this life now: This is the way of our Lord Jesus Christ. Two thousand years after he first declared his mission, it still sounds fresh and strange and wonderful and new: but it is old news. Yet it is very good news indeed, a gospel worth repeating. And it is deeply, deeply Biblical. Amen. Ω

A reflection on Luke 4:14-22, given to Sanctuary, 27 January 2019 (C13; Year C Proper 13) © Alison Sampson, 2019.

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