24 January, 2016

Homily for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) - Start as you mean to go on

Luke 1:1-4, 4:14-21
The spirit of the Lord has …sent me to bring the good news to the poor,
to proclaim liberty to captives. (Luke 4:18)
In many editions of the Bible there are headings that summarise, often quite badly, each paragraph in order to give the reader a broad idea about the content of the following verses. In the NRSV Bible the second part of today’s gospel is titled quite prosaically ‘The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry’, which pretty much sets the scene but gives away very little about the outstanding claim Jesus makes about himself and, implicitly, about his Church. I personally think that a far more pithy way of describing this passage could be the proverb “Start as you mean to go on”. In today’s gospel Jesus inaugurates his preaching ministry by outlining a programme of action. Nowadays we would call this a “mission statement” or even a “vision” but unlike any Parish Mission Statements I can think of, Jesus doesn’t try to come up with something catchy and fancy; Jesus doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, as it were, instead he begins his ministry by slightly adapting ancient words from Isaiah 61:1-2, words that he will later put into practice, bringing to life the prophecies of the Old Testament in his teaching and in his actions.

“Start as you mean to go on”. By adapting the words of Isaiah Jesus accomplishes a number of things that will bear significant relevance later on in the gospels. First, he reveals his own unique authority in interpreting the Scriptures; something that immediately puts him at odds with the local population much in the same way that it will do at Jerusalem with the people who will crucify him. Secondly, by affirming that Isaiah’s words have been fulfilled as the people heard them being read out, Jesus doesn’t just draw a direct parallel between himself and the mission of a prophet, no; Jesus affirms that he is the one anointed by the Spirit (as we have seen at his Baptism two Sundays ago); that he is the one sent by God to bring liberty to captives and sight to the blind… and consequently that he is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Thirdly, by inaugurating his ministry using Isaiah 61, Jesus also establishes in the same programme of action those whom he will send – if he is the one who was sent to proclaim liberty to captives, then we, his Church, the community gathered around and sent by Jesus, also share in the same mission statement. 

Therefore, continuing this pattern set by Jesus the words of Isaiah 61 are often read at the ordination of priests, that is at the formal inauguration of their preaching ministry, when they are given authority to preach the Word of God, so that they may always be reminded about their responsibilities towards Jesus’ own mission statement. But should the example of Our Lord be a pattern only for priests and with those charged to preach? Have we not all been anointed by the Holy Spirit at our Baptism? Are we not all sharers in Jesus’ life through the Eucharist? Then, shouldn’t Isaiah 61 be the mission statement of every Christian and of every Church?
Let’s start as we mean to go on and let us read again the words quoted by Jesus.
The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me,
for he has anointed me.
He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor,
to proclaim liberty to captives
and to the blind new sight,
to set the downtrodden free.
We all know someone who experiences these dreadful conditions – because each one of us, at some point or another, has been through them as well. We all know someone who is poor, and I don’t just materially poverty – though we are in a fairly deprived area – but individuals deprived of affection and joy. We all know someone who is captive, trapped in fear of being rejected, or held hostage by addictions. We all know someone who is blind, maybe blinded by their anger or grief, or maybe bitterly resentful towards religion. We all know someone who is downtrodden, made to be the least in our judgemental society.
In today’s gospel Jesus inaugurates his preaching ministry by making these people his priority and reaching out to them; and so should we.

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