“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor….” (Luke 4:18)
The highlight of any U.S. Presidential inauguration is the speech delivered at noon, January 20, on the front steps of the Capitol in Washington D.C. This inaugural address is, traditionally, filled with inspirational lines designed to set the tone for the new administration, and perhaps go down in history, like John F. Kennedy’s memorable: “And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
Today’s gospel reading from Luke describes another inaugural address of a new leader. It’s Jesus’ inaugural address delivered two thousand years ago in the synagogue at Nazareth as he begins his mission as Savior of the world. And it is certainly filled with inspirational lines, not just memorable, but prophetic too. Here’s what he says:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord…Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:18)
His words are filled with hope for the poor, the helpless, and the oppressed. His words are taken from the prophecies of Isaiah, reflecting the recurring and urgent summons found throughout Hebrew scripture to pursue justice — a divine commandment based on the precept of love first recorded in the Book of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18)
In the Book of Deuteronomy the Israelites are commanded to behave justly toward others, especially the neediest among them — orphans, widows, aliens, poor neighbors, debtors, and the enslaved. “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdorf,” Justice, justice you shall pursue.” (Deut.16:20) In the Books of Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Isaiah, and Micah, for example, the Israelites are admonished to share bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and homeless, clothe the naked; to be honest in using standards of weight and measure; to refrain from coveting or seizing fields or houses or cheating people of their inheritance.
Through the prophet Isaiah, in particular, the Lord commanded the pursuit of justice: “Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes…make justice your aim.” (Is. 1:16-17) Through the prophet Amos the Lord commanded: “Let justice surge like water, and goodness like an unfailing stream.” (Amos 5:24) In Hebrew scripture, insuring that people have what they need to live a decent life and to play an appropriate role in society isn’t a matter of charity, it’s a matter of justice.
It is perfectly logical, therefore, that when Jesus, who was born, lived and died a Jew, formally begins his public ministry and declares himself to be the fulfillment of the chosen people’s messianic expectations, he chooses pursuing justice to be the cornerstone of his mission statement.
Why should you and I be concerned about the plight of others, especially the poorest and weakest members of society? St. Paul in the second reading from First Corinthians provides a compelling explanation, namely, the interrelatedness of all humankind. In other words, what happens to one of us affects all of us. In the words of an old Beatles song: “I am you, and you are me, and we are here together.”
Employing imagery of the body as a means of understanding the human community, St Paul says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I do not need you.’” “…if one part suffers; all parts suffer with it…” (1Cor. 12:16-30) Simply put, baptized into the one body of Christ, we are all responsible for each other, even people outside our comfort zone.
The words Jesus chooses to begin his public ministry are filled with hope for the poor, the helpless, and the oppressed. His words, however, are not self-executing. His dream of a just society,” a peaceable kingdom,” where, among other things, the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb and the calf and young lion shall browse together (Is. 11:1-10), see photo supra, can be realized only if we, his disciples, make it our dream as well. But, of course, we must be more than dreamers. We must be pursuers — doers –of justice.
Not all Christians realize that pursuing justice is a fundamental part of our faith. Many fail to see, for example, that genuine discipleship is a three-legged stool — believing, worshiping, and loving, loving in action. Take away that third leg and our faith crashes to the ground. Such faith, according to the Letter of James, is “lifeless.” (James 2:14-26) In short, leaving the pursuit of justice to others is a cop out!
History chronicles, for example, that too many Christians before and during the Holocaust, which happened in overwhelming Christian Europe, failed to measure up to the Gospel of Love. The inescapable conclusion is that 6 million Jews, including 1.5 million children, were murdered because too many Christians failed to practice what Jesus preached about loving neighbor and pursuing justice.
Justice, justice shall you pursue is God’s command to His people. Those words echo down through the ages to us today. It is up to us now to work toward actualizing the dream of a just society expressed in Jesus’ inaugural address. So that nothing so horrific as the Holocaust can ever happen again.
Anthony J. Sciolino
Nehemiah 8:2-4, 8-10: 1 Corinthians 12:12-30: Luke 1-4, 4:14-21. 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time. January 21, 2001. (Cycle C)