Good News for the Poor?

by Rachel Tulloch

Watching the recent debate between Canadian party leaders, I was disappointed but not surprised that the issue of poverty was essentially ignored. Economic growth, tax rates, prisons, etc. – are popular topics because they affect people’s personal sense of comfort and security. Judging by election talk, we don’t seem to have much imagination for anything beyond that.

While the current election platforms seem rather under-ambitious when it comes to caring for those most vulnerable in our society, none of us want the overambitious platforms either — they are responsible for giving election promises such notoriously bad reputations. Canadian group Great Big Sea sings about the disparity we have all come to expect between the grandiose promises made in campaigns and what those with the power actually accomplish:

They said they’d stop the fighting
And they said they would bring peace
And they said they’d find a serum that can cure all our disease.
And they said they’d house the homeless
And put black and white in tune
And they said they’d feed a hungry child…
And I hope it’s someday soon!

The lyrics of that song remind us that the things we deeply long for – peace, healing, justice, home, reconciliation – are things that government should support and facilitate, but cannot provide. Jesus’ own agenda, the one he announced reading from Isaiah’s scroll in Luke 4, might sound just like another overly ambitious election platform:

Good news to the poor
Freedom for the prisoners
Sight for the blind
Release for the oppressed

I don’t know about you, but living a couple of thousand years after Jesus proclaimed the fulfillment of these promises, I have a hard time believing it. I see an awful lot of captives, an awful lot of blindness, an awful lot of poverty and oppression. How could Jesus say all that was fulfilled in their hearing? Was this just another campaign strategy where Jesus was making claims he could not possibly keep?

Well, that must have been what his hometown audience thought. Outwardly, they were singing his praises, inwardly, they were expecting the same disappointment they always got. The only thing they weren’t doing was taking these words seriously. They had totally missed the wildness of what had just been declared in their presence. This was a proclamation of the arrival of God’s justice and freedom and healing that Isaiah had prophesied hundreds of years before. They should have either been very excited or very angry.

The only thing you really couldn’t do if you had taken those words seriously was just say it was a nice speech.

So, not being a very good politician, Jesus calls their bluff. His is not the typical campaign strategy. At the point when he seems to have popular support, he picks a bit of a fight with his supporters. He gets behind their polite murmuring and highlights what is really going on – they don’t believe a word of it. Unless he can show them here and now what he can do, he is just another candidate with empty words.

Maybe it’s not just him they can’t buy into, maybe the promises themselves just seem too unlikely. They have an intellectual belief in the coming reign of God, but they are no longer awaiting it, actually expecting it to happen. It seems so distant from their experience. It’s not like these Israelites in Nazareth are exactly the privileged, they are the bottom of the heap – part of the lower social class in rural Galilee. This is Nazareth, the town that provoked the expression in John’s gospel: “can anything good come out of Nazareth?”. They are the lowest rung within an occupied country. The things Jesus was announcing just seem impossible given their circumstances.

Reading this story, I am aware of how much I react the same way as Jesus’ home audience. I expect God’s kingdom to unfold in the way and the timing I want it to, and withhold belief when it doesn’t. It can be hard to keep expecting good news for the poor, when many of my friends who are poor still struggle for daily survival in a nation as wealthy as ours.

Christians often talk about “the gospel”, the good news. But if we are talking about the gospel of Jesus Christ, then we are talking about good news for those who are poor. His arrival was that good news, but it would take time to unfold. His commitment to be with us in the midst of our brokenness, for better or for worse, is the arrival of the kingdom of freedom and peace. The Isaiah passage begins, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me.”

The Spirit is on Jesus, anointing him to be that good news. But Jesus has sent that Spirit to the church and that Spirit is alive in the world, calling us and empowering us to live in that same good news. Where there is no good news for the poor in our individual and collective ways of living, then the Spirit of Christ is being pushed out. When we live in the Spirit of Christ, then good news for those who are poor, blind and oppressed will take place in our midst.

Yes, the doing will take time. The freedom, the healing, will take time. If we had more power or if Jesus acted more like a superhero, it would still take time, because that’s how deeply broken we are. Any gospel worth its name is costly, not quick or easy. And Jesus does not violently impose his way, but he calls us to participate in it willingly.

But in the waiting for these promises to be fully worked out, will I stop taking them seriously? Will I give up or is it possible to live and act as though Jesus meant them? Will I believe against the evidence that whatever the results of this election are, there are some promises which are sure to come true because of the faithfulness of the one who made them? There is freedom for the captives, there is sight for the blind, there is good news for the poor and release for the oppressed; this is the year of the Lord’s Favour.

My friends who are very literally poor, blind, captive and oppressed continually teach me what it is like to believe in spite of the evidence of one’s experience or circumstances. They show me what it is like to celebrate the arrival of the good news while longing for it more fully. Many of them know in a deep sense two indispensable parts of the good news – it is found in Jesus and it is for them.

Rachel Tulloch

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