The Jump Up, near Itjinpiri in the Pitjantjatjara Lands

Becoming unhappy, and finding peace

Week of Sunday 27 January - Epiphany 3|
Gospel: Luke 4:14-21

14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 

18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ 

20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ 23He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ 24And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

 - - -

It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness. Viktor Frankl

I cannot say that I have forgotten what happiness is, (Lamentations 3:17) but I notice a certain churlishness within me toward those who seem carefree and happy. I am not happy. Despite this, I find life more meaningful than ever.

Viktor Frankl wrote

This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to their existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a person has for their existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A person who becomes conscious of the responsibility they bear toward another human being who affectionately waits for them, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away their life. They know the "why" for their existence, and will be able to bear almost any "how." (alt.)

As the crisis in which I am living deepens, I can only hope he was correct!

I am beginning this First Impressions with Frankl, not only because of my own crisis, but because he saw something about us all.

"To the European," Frankl wrote, "it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to 'be happy.' But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to 'be happy.'"

This is also true of much Australian culture. We have begun to live for the self. A concentration on personal happiness inevitably degenerates into selfishness.

By contrast, the Jesus presented to us by Luke is very clear about a calling beyond himself.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ 

This is Jesus’ sense of meaning. It was concrete, and it was now.  ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ It is no sometime in the future, half baked statement to which he does not really adhere in practice. This is who he is. As the Gospel of John might say, “I am....”

Jesus has a reason for living. It truly enables him to bear all things (1 Cor 13) as we will see when he walks to Calvary.

He is presented to us as one who is uncompromising in his vision and sense of calling. “Today this scripture is fulfilled….” He makes no apology.

Then Luke deals with the rejection of Jesus by his own people and his own home town. All the gospels need to do this; it was clearly a problem for people.

Again, Jesus’ statement is unvarnished and uncompromising: “It just is. This is how God has done things. It happened with Elijah and it happened with Na’aman.” His statement enrages the people. He flies in the face of what we might call Israeli exceptionalism and slaps it down.  

The problem of Jesus’ rejection is turned by Luke into a foreshadowing of the mission to the Gentiles which he will detail in Acts.

Returning to the picture of Jesus that we are given here: if we are to follow him, can we be any less committed? Can we be gentler, or more compromising, less direct and blunt, perhaps? We need to look at this question not in terms of “niceness,” but in terms of holding onto meaning. Holding onto meaning, says Frankl, is about survival.

In the article about Frankl which I have been referencing, it is plain that this survival was not a selfish thing. He understood his first calling was his duty to God. The Nazis were sending Jewish people to the camps, and although he was able to flee to America, Frankl deliberately chose to stay and support his parents. Duty to God was not about doing the achievable, or conditional on one’s own safety. He must have known that he could be separated from them even at the moment of arrest, and that his survival was uncertain.

The problem with my suggestions so far is that we have all known Christians who are uncompromising, and clear about their calling. We know those who consider they are the most important, or indeed, the only necessary part of the Body. (1 Cor. 12) Such attitudes are destructive.

The uncompromising warrior types of the church tend to be those we remember with horror, or shame; closed minds, abusive sects, the least compassionate of all His people. How do we avoid this? What will stop us tweeting "Praying for our president, who today will place his hands on a Bible he does not believe to take an oath to a God he likely does not know," or worse?

The short answer is that the meaning of our life is found, most of all, in uncompromising compassion. Compassion; that is, mercy, points meaning and purpose unerringly in the direction of the Christ.

A longer answer is found in the verses Jesus reads in the synagogue in Luke 4. They are the introduction to his ministry; all else is to be seen through them.

Jesus deliberately opens the scroll to Isaiah 61; he has to find it, it is not a lectionary reading set for him. In fact, the verses he “reads” are a conflation of Isaiah 61:1, and a part of verse 2, and Isaiah 58:6 (“to let the oppressed go free.”) As Loader says, this is not therefore an historical story in the strict sense. The verses are chosen for the message about Jesus which Luke sees within them.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ 

This text is not some kind of “spiritual poetry.” It means what it says. It will be that good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and the freeing of the oppressed have a deep psychological and inner effect on people who meet this Jesus. They will see and understand that to which they were blind. They will be released from deep and undesirable behaviours, and will be set free from oppressive memories and past traumas.

But all of this happens only because of the literal truth of what Jesus proclaimed.  A man in prison who has psychological healing is still not free. A poor oppressed woman who has gained freedom from debilitating hatred of her overlord, is still oppressed until the overlord is overthrown. The verses that Jesus quotes from Isaiah looked forward to the literal restoration of Israel.

Loader says this week,

Luke is not introducing these ideas here for the first time. As we have seen in the infancy narratives, Luke begins his gospel with the freedom songs and sighs of God’s faithful people. They are oppressed by the ‘world system’ and look for liberation and true peace. They are the poor, the lowly, the hungry who wait to be lifted up. They are more than economically poor. They await the coming of the promised anointed one, the messiah.

The proclamation of a gospel which is limited to some kind of spiritualised internal liberation, followed by some kind fulfilment in the far future, is the curse of much of our current church. It also allows, even condones, the very abuses of power which so horrify us, and from which Jesus came to set us free.

I want to repeat the above by quoting at length from Edward Markquart, himself quoted in Brian Stoffregens notes for this week. This text in Luke 4 is not only the introduction to Jesus’ public ministry. It is also the final, crowning statement of the birth narratives where Jesus is carefully, deliberately and repeatedly announced to us as the one God ordained— anointed— to set Israel free.

If we get this wrong, everything else we do will be coloured by our failure to understand. We will be like “most interpreters in the past[, who] have tried to spiritualize this text or have ignored its plain meaning.” (Walter Pilgrim, Good News to the Poor quoted in Stoffregen’s notes.)

Good news is only good news when it meets the needs of the people. As Edward Markquart states in the course Witnesses for Christ:

God's story is always related to human need. For example, if a woman is dying of cancer, the gospel is God's strong word of resurrection. If a person is permeated with guilt, the gospel is God's assurance of forgiveness. If people experience extreme suffering, the gospel is the prayer: "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble." For the starving, the gospel may be bread. For a homeless refugee, the gospel may be freedom in a new homeland. For others, the gospel may be freedom from political tyranny. The gospel is always related to human need. It is never truth in a vacuum, a theologically true statement which may or may not relate to one's life. The gospel is God's truth, God's message, God's action, God's word to a particular person, to a particular need, to a particular historical situation.  (Edward Markquart,  Witnesses for Christ  via Brian Stoffregen

Although we have tended to over emphasise the spiritual, it is possible to compensate with something which looks more like a political program than a discipleship of Jesus. More from Stoffregen’s notes:

Who are the poor? Numerous attempts have been made to find here a reference to the "spiritually poor" or, more recently, reflecting the concerns of a materialist-oriented interpretative method, to the economically poor. Both of these definitions of the "poor" are inadequately grounded in ancient Mediterranean culture and the social world of Luke-Acts. In that culture, one's status in a community was not so much a function of economic realities, but depended on a number of elements, including education, gender, family heritage, religious purity, vocation, economics, and so on. Thus, lack of subsistence might account for one's designation as "poor," but so might other disadvantaged conditions, and "poor" would serve as a cipher for those of low status, for those excluded according to normal canons of status honor in Mediterranean world. Hence, although "poor" is hardly devoid of economic significance, for Luke this wider meaning of diminished status honor is paramount.

It is thus evident that Jesus' mission is directed to the poor -- defined not merely in subjective, spiritual or personal, economic terms, but in the holistic sense of those who are for any of a number of socio-religious reasons relegated to positions outside the boundaries of God's people. By directing his good news to these people, Jesus indicates his refusal to recognize those socially determined boundaries, asserting instead that even these "outsiders" are the objects of divine grace. Others may regard such people as beyond the pale of salvation, but God has opened a way for them to belong to God's family. [pp. 210-211] Green (The Gospel of Luke, NICNT in Stoffregen’s notes.

In short we are to emulate the Jesus who saves Zacheaus (Luke 19) That story shows us a Jesus whose influence on Zaccheus results in immediate restitution and reparation; physical justice. But it is clear that the “salvation [which] has come to this house” is spiritual. He is a son of Abraham. He is restored from his poverty; that is, being poor in the sense Green has been teaching us.

 I understand that despite the relative material comfort of my childhood, I too grew up “poor.” I was on the outer, slightly weird; the object of teasing that traumatized me for decades. Perhaps in our hearts we are all poor, alone and uncertain, longing for acceptance and happiness.

Jesus has not made me happy. He has given me meaning, which is a great freedom, and a deep peace. The only way I have found to hold on to that meaning, and for it to be able to persist, is to attempt to follow him. In some poor sense, it is up to me to say not only that

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ 

but also for it to be true to say, even if only in a poor way,  ‘Today this scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing.’

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical! 


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