Our journey through the pages of Scripture exploring its teaching on justice has shown that justice is far more than a retributive posture towards the wrongdoer, but actually envisions a positive vision for all of creation. This vision for justice, for shalom, is woven into the very structure of creation and God’s intention for his creation, and is thus not an afterthought in the pages of Scripture. As humanity strays from God’s good intention for the flourishing of all of creation, he sends prophets, poets and storytellers to prompt the imaginations and prick the consciences of the hearers. God is relentless and creative in his calling humanity back to engage in the work of shalom, of restorative justice. Thus is the vision of the Old Testament.
The story in no way ends there but moves towards a conclusion in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Often, our consideration of the work of Jesus is limited to his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. His virgin birth, atoning death and victorious resurrection are crucial elements to the Christian faith. Consider the Apostles’ Creed: Jesus Christ… “Born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again from the dead…” As a young Christian, I always wondered about what was missing in that creed about the life of Jesus. After all, the four gospels we have in the Scripture give us much more detail between the birth of Jesus and his trial, death and resurrection. Thankfully, I discovered New Testament scholars such as Herman Ridderbos and N.T. Wright who give attention to the understated importance of the life of Jesus.
As we ponder the life of Jesus, a host of concerns await us. For this reflection, I’d like to look at the way Luke presents the initiation of Jesus’ public ministry. We find the account in Luke 4, at the synagogue in Nazareth. Standing to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, we read that Jesus “found the place where it is written…” In other words, Jesus intentionally focuses in on Isaiah 61. What he is about to read, he will say, is fulfilled in the hearing of the people; he has come to do this work.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Isa. 61:1-2; Isa. 58:6)
This is the messianic manifesto which will guide the life of Jesus. He is anointed to do this work by the power of the Spirit. To put it briefly, the work of Jesus will be to counter the chaos, the shalom-depleting effect, of a creation set against God and his intention for the world. The poor, one of the classes of the vulnerable we looked at last week, hear the good news of God. This message is not an other-worldly, distant message of a one-day-it-will-be. No, Jesus comes in the here and now to work to relieve the physical suffering caused by sin. The blind receive sight. In the final line quoted here by Jesus, he will proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. The year of Jubilee will come with the footsteps of Jesus on the earth, Jubilee in all its comprehensive fulness of a vision for the flourishing of all things. Jesus will not come doing something out of accord with the Old Testament vision of shalom for all things. No, he will walk the earth as the fulfillment of the vision.
Jesus “sneaks” one little line into his quotation from the scroll of Isaiah, and while we do not read about it in Luke 4, we might wonder whether those who knew Isaiah 61 well would have noticed that one line from Isaiah 58:6 is folded in. Did that raise a few eyebrows in Nazareth? Look at the context of Isaiah 58:6, with the line quoted by Jesus in bold:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter –
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isa. 58:6-7)
Jesus sets out his vocation for his earthly ministry in this small synagogue in Nazareth, and it includes a mission of comprehensive shalom-restoration, justice, for all of creation. He goes so far as to fold in the concerns of worship with this vocation of shalom, something we saw clearly in a previous Old Testament reflection. Fasting, religious devotion, is not other-worldly pietism. Justice-oriented, faithful devotion to the God of the Bible involves a radical commitment to the poor, the suffering, the foreigner, the sick. In a word, the vulnerable.
Of course, our Lord goes one step further in Luke 4 by teaching that this restoration is not just for the expected, those we might say constitute the “in group.” Rather, he points out two healing, shalom-restoring miracles done by two great Old Testament prophets, Elijah and Elisha, as impacting far beyond the narrow “in house” scope of Israel to the Gentile world (the widow in Zarephath, and Naaman the Syrian). Shalom, justice, is not exclusive to those we expect it to come to. Those familiar with the story will know that the crowd, the “in crowd” we might say, did not appreciate this outward-facing perspective on the extension of the shalom of God. Indeed, they tried to throw Jesus off the town cliff for making this radical suggestion! But Jesus does not back down, escaping this crowd and proceeding in Luke’s narrative to bring shalom to the suffering, the unclean and the unexpected. Later, in Luke 7:18—23, John sends two of his disciples to Jesus, inquiring about this surprising ministry of the Messiah. Jesus replies to these messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
Should we expect someone else, the messengers inquire? No, this is what the kingdom of God looks like as it comes to the soil of the earth. Do not expect anyone else. And do not expect a calling, a life of justice, out of accord with the very life of Jesus Christ who said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21)
The Bible’s teaching on justice is much more comprehensive than simply punishing the wrongdoer. A life following Jesus will bring us to the most difficult corners of the world, ministering in deed and with his Word to those encountering the greatest suffering and marginalization. To follow Jesus in the world is to join in his story of restoring all of creation to its God-intended flourishing. Our labors following the perfect shepherd will be partial, flawed and prone to setback, sure. But the direction of the story is comprehensively forward, so let’s follow Jesus in his full work of restoration. Of justice. Of shalom.