This is the first column in a 13-part series by Little Rock Scripture Study.
By Clifford Yeary, associate director, Little Rock Scripture Study
Pope Francis has proclaimed a Holy Year of Mercy to begin in Advent 2015 and extend through November 2016. This coincides with the new liturgical year that features the Gospel of Luke in our Sunday readings.
God is always merciful, but this is a year to contemplate God’s mercy anew. We rejoice in God’s faithful love and open ourselves more readily to become active agents of God’s mercy in the world, in our communities, and in our homes.
On Mount Sinai God reveals himself to Moses as “the Lord, the Lord, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity” (Exodus 34:6). In Luke, Jesus’ ministry begins on the same note, with a declaration of God’s mercy.
Luke’s first detailed account of Jesus’ ministry describes Jesus reading from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue of his childhood home in Nazareth. Just prior to this, Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, pronounced by God “as my beloved son” and then led into the desert for 40 days of fasting before triumphantly resisting the temptations of the devil (Luke 3:21-22; 4:1-12). Fresh from this victory, Jesus sets out on his mission that will culminate in his death and resurrection in Jerusalem.
Jesus begins his mission with a very brief but powerful inaugural address. “He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘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 favor.’ And 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. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’” (Luke 4:17-21 NRSV).
The stirring passage from Isaiah 61:1-2 was originally a promise made to God’s beleaguered people in ancient Judah. They had recently returned to their homeland after decades of exile in Babylon. In fact, most of them would have been born in exile and returned to a homeland they had only heard about from their elders, parents and grandparents.
Having heard of a land flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:8), of Solomon’s glorious temple, of the magnificence of the king’s palace, what could have prepared them for a dry, parched land, the charred ruins of a temple, or the strewn rubble of the king’s palace? The words of the prophet were meant to instill hope in them.
God would pour out his spirit on a chosen one and the people would receive God’s mercy. Good news for those suffering in poverty: people in bondage were to be unshackled! The blind would see again and wherever there was oppression there would be glorious freedom instead!
The people were being urged to have hope and to undertake the difficult task of rebuilding the temple when many among them were scavenging for food and shelter for themselves.
And they did rebuild the temple, but those few who had seen the glory of the former temple wept to see what had been built in its place (Haggai 2:3; Ezra 3:12-13).
The year of favor Isaiah proclaimed must have seemed very far away. And yet the people did not doubt the words of the prophet; they kept them in their hearts and pondered them for generations. If they were not to be fulfilled when they were first heard, they were still the word of the Lord, spoken through a prophet, and the day would come when God’s mercy would be fully revealed.
In telling his fellow Nazarenes that, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus was announcing that he was there to fulfill the prophetic promise, that he was the one anointed to bring glad tidings to the poor, to free the captives, to give sight to the blind. The time of mercy had arrived!
As it was for them, the challenge for us is to believe in the messenger in such a way that we also become agents of God’s mercy, announcing the good news of God’s kingdom, bringing God’s mercy to the poor, the blind and those held captive to the materialism of the world.
What are the signs of God’s mercy that Jesus quotes from Isaiah (Luke 4:12-21)?
In what special ways have you experienced mercy?
In what circumstances have you most recently felt called to help demonstrate God’s mercy to others?
Where in the world today do you most see the need for God’s mercy? Where in your local community?
– This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic Dec. 12, 2015. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved.