Good News for the Poor

Imagine you are one of the Jewish exiles living in Babylon circa 580 BC or maybe one of those left behind in Jerusalem, what keeps you going?

I suspect that what keeps you going is reading and rereading vital prophecies including these words from the prophet Isaiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;[a]
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;[b]
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.[c]
They shall build up the ancient ruins;
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.”[1]

 

Why do those words give hope? Well, Isaiah was a prophet who lived in the 7th Century BC. A few centuries earlier, Israel had experienced a golden age of prosperity and political power in their region under the rule of David and then Solomon. After them, the country had split in two, the South, Judah retained the capital city of Jerusalem, the Davidic line and the Temple. The north took the majority of the tribes and potentially the greater prosperity because it was on the key trading route through to the Mediterranean ports. However, it was ruled by a succession of kings who took power through violent coups whilst the south enjoyed greater stability.

During Isaiah’s lifetime, the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern Kingdom.  They threatened but did not destroy the south. However, Isaiah is clear in his prophecies, judgement is coming, one day the Babylonians will come, invade and take you captive because of your rebellion against the true and living God. This prophecy was fulfilled when Nebuchadnezzar invaded.

The first half of Isaiah warns about the coming judgement but after chapter 40, it switches gear. Chapter 40 announces comfort to God’s people. Their sin has been dealt with, a “servant figure” will arise who will be punished for their transgressions. The people will return to the land and their cities, farms and pastures will be restored.

This is the context in which we have Isaiah 61.  Verse 2 refers to the year of the Lord’s favour when the poor will receive good news and the captives will be set free. This speaks of the Year of Jubilee.  When God gave the people of Israel the promised land, he also gave them a law to live by in the land. One of the aims of this law was that there should be no poor among them. The law provided for the following.

–          There would be sabbath years every 7 years when the land would lie fallow. They were not to exploit and exhaust the land.

–          Slaves were to be given their freedom

–          Land that had been sold on was to be returned to their families.

The Jubilee Year was a kind of ssabbath (7*7 plus 1).

In addition, there were other laws to provide for people including gleaning rules, access to justice and mercy, levirate laws to provide for widows and a tithing system that also enabled people to be provided for.

Now, you are living in exile and you know two things. First of all, you know that there had been the poor and oppressed among you because along with idolatry came injustice, the kings had grown proud and self-centred, they had taxed for their own benefit. Secondly, because of your sin and idolatry, you were now in exile, you had no access to your land, you were therefore poor, you were therefore captives. Your heart was broken at the desolation of Jerusalem and you were in mourning for the death of your country.

Isaiah promises you that a new Jubilee Day is coming when your captivity and your poverty will end.

What happened next? Well, the people did return to the Land, they rebuilt their temple and they rebuilt their capital city. However, this did not resolve things. You were no longer in exile but:

–          Your own rulers and religious leaders quickly demonstrated their old habits of exploitation. This is seen in some of the later prophets and Jesus also points to this in Luke 20:45-47 where he talks about those who devour widows’ houses

–          You are once again under foreign rule via the Romans and Herod. You are under the oppression of unjust and corrupt tax collectors.

So, when Jesus picks up the scroll in Luke 4: 16-19 and begins to read those words from Isaiah 61, you hear them again as promising hope for poor captives. Then, Jesus puts down the scroll, looks at the congregation and says:

“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”[2]

In other words, he is saying “this is all about me.” Jesus is the one on who the Spirit of the Lord has anointed, Jesus is the one who brings good news to the poor, release to the captive and sight to the blind.

Hurray, you think. Here is someone who is going to take on our unjust, corrupt leaders and here is someone who might just defeat the Romans. God is on his side as his miracles testify. But Jesus had something greater in mind.

Why was it that the people experienced poverty and captivity? It was because they found themselves under the rule of kings that were not God’s King. They were under the rule of those who were just in it for themselves. Their poverty and captivity was an expression of that false rule. It was also caused by their own complicity in sin and idolatry.

The root cause of poverty and captivity is sin.

We need to go back further still than Isaiah’s day, right back to the Garden of Eden. God made man and woman to worship him, to rule over his creatures and to care for his creation. They were provided with all that they needed. They had a good God who loved them. They had a wise God who spoke truthfully to them.

Adam and Eve chose to disbelieve and disobey God. They rejected his kingship over them. They chose their own gods, their own rules, their own priorities. Sin came into the world and with sin came death. Poverty and captivity are expressions of the consequence of death reigning.

Jesus has arrived as the true and good king. Under him the poverty and captivity of sin are defeated. You see, a lot of people will agree with all I’ve said so far but they will reach a wrong conclusion. They will decide that poverty, captivity and ill-health are the problem and that the Gospel is about dealing with them. We see this in two particularly virulent forms.

–          The Prosperity Gospel which promises that I can be free from sickness, poverty and captivity by claiming certain promises, following certain rituals and paying my tithes.

–          The Social Gospel which sees it as our job to work to end poverty, captivity and sickness by campaigning against injustice and seeking to do good deeds.

Now, let’s be clear, the Prosperity Gospel is a false Gospel put about by charlatans who are just in it for themselves. The Social Gospel is a false Gospel too but for slightly different reasons. People who get caught up in this are well intentioned and compassionate. What is more, to be absolutely clear, I believe we should take our responsibility seriously to work for peace, to campaign against injustice and to help those in need. I also believe that it is appropriate from time to time to pray for physical healing and believe that it happens.

However, the Social Gospel misses the mark. CS Lewis would say that it puts a second thing first and when we do that we lose both the first and the second thing. Over 200 years ago, William Wilberforce campaigned to end the wicked slave trade. He succeeded in that cause after a long campaign but now 200 years later, we see modern slavery, girls trafficked for sex or domestic servitude across Europe, immigrants working for little if any pay long hours in terrible conditions etc.  We have failed to end slavery. Churches and other voluntary groups do fantastic work with CAP (Debt action), food banks and soup kitchens but we are a long, long way from making poverty history and whilst we are encouraged when someone gets better through medical treatment and/or prayer we know that this is temporary, they will get sick again and one day death will come.

Jesus was bringing something far greater, his gospel is something deeper and more wonderful.  Sin leaves us poor because we are dead to God, outcasts from his family. Sin makes us captives to itself and to Satan.  The good news is that Jesus sets us free from sin’s hold. He has defeated Satan.

Jesus offers not a temporary and limited fix in this lifetime but something permanent and into eternity. It means that I may have to face the struggles and trials of life now, injustice, hardship, sickness but I am free because I no longer belong to sin. I am not poor because I am a child of the King and through trials and persecutions in this life, I look forward to the day when my King will return and take me home to be with him for ever.

 

[1] Isaiah 61: 1-4

[2] Luke 4:20.

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