In the opening scene of Jesus’ public ministry in Luke, he preaches in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. There he receives the scroll opened to the prophet Isaiah 61 and proclaims the “year of the Lord’s favor.” In doing so, he announces the end of exile and the coming of God’s reign. The signs of that reign are that the poor have good news preached to them, the captives find liberty, the blind receive their sight, and the oppressed find escape from their oppression (Lk 4:16-21).
This list of beneficiaries of the year of the Lord’s favor found in Luke 4, correspond in important ways to those already marked as favored ones in Luke’s opening chapters. We meet Zechariah and Elizabeth in the opening chapter, a devout, but barren couple who receive the surprising news that they will have a son who will prepare the way for the Lord’s anointed. In the ancient world, childlessness was not only a sign of a lack of God’s favor, but also a condition that was believed to be the fault of the woman who bore the shame of the circumstance. This is indicated in Elizabeth’s response to her being with child, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked upon me with favor and took away the shame I have endured among my people” (1:25).
When the angel of the Lord appears to Mary just a few verses later, he greets her as a “favored one,” and she was “perplexed by his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be” (1:28-29). A young teenage girl from Galilee had likely never considered herself “favored,” but now she is being addressed by a messenger of God as a “favored one.”
When Mary and Elizabeth meet subsequently, Mary breaks into “song,” “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed” (1:47-48). God’s favor is shown in relation to Mary’s low estate, which is then echoed in the verses that follow: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (1:51-53). God’s favor is with Mary, the lowly, and the hungry.
A chapter later, in the birth account of Jesus, an announcement is made by an angel surrounded by glory to a group of lowly shepherds watching their flocks by night. “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord” (2:10-11). At the announcement the angel is joined by a heavenly host, praising God, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!“
These early stories in Luke set the tone for understanding the movement of God in establishing his reign–the way the world looks when God does the arranging. Here, the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed, the lowly and hungry, a barren woman, a teenage girl, and lowly shepherds are favored by God. They are exalted by God, and the proud and those with power and privilege are brought low. As many have pointed out, the kingdom of God in Luke brings great reversals as God sets things to right.
Later in Luke, Jesus demonstrates in practical terms what this reversal looks like. When hosted for a banquet at the home of a Pharisee in chapter 14, Jesus calls out their banquet practices. “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the cripples, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (14:12-14). This looks a lot like the reversals we have seen previously in Luke. What is imagined here is an economy that doesn’t work on favor currying and reciprocity, but on the blessing of God who rewards at the resurrection of the righteous.
At this point, one of the guests no doubt offended by Jesus’ words, exclaims, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” This is surely the equivalent to responding to “Black lives matter,” with “All lives matter!” Jesus has just defined who has priority in God’s kingdom, the “favored” list we have seen before. Poor lives matter. Overlooked lives matter. Lowly lives matter. Blind lives matter. Crippled lives matter. To which the response of privilege is “All are blessed who eat bread in the kingdom of God.”
All of this leads Jesus to tell a parable in which the rich and too important are left on the outside looking in when the great dinner bell rings in the kingdom of God and room is made only for the poor, the lame, the crippled and the blind (14:16-24).
Simply put, in Luke the kingdom privileges those who are left out or overlooked in other kingdoms. Another way to say this is that those without power belong to God, and in the experience of an alternate form of power.
In Luke, Jesus ministers by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of the Lord is upon him. He is not, to use Charles Taylor’s language, a buffered self, or an autonomous, self possessing, rugged individual. He belongs not to those who can make their own way in the world through their cunning and resource. Rather, like the poor, he relies on power that he doesn’t possess, but a power that is given to him. In Luke’s story of Jesus, the rulers whose use of power killed the prophets from “Abel to Zechariah” is ultimately no match for the power of the Spirit. While the powers of kings and rulers include imprisonment, taxation, even capital punishment–powers of death, the power of the Spirit raises up the lowly and creates communities of sharing and care–the power of life.
To say that the “Spirit of the Lord is upon me” is to evoke the legacy of the prophets and their advocacy for the poor. Next blog, I will notice Jesus’ identification with the prophets, particularly in his death.