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.
When one finds themselves with a platform to speak, first words are critical. First words set the trajectory for the public journey ahead. A presidential candidate’s announcement of their candidacy reveals who they are, laying a foundation of values, intentions, and worldview. In his first public address, above, Jesus lays such a foundation. We might expect Jesus’ sermon to be about saving souls; he begins with social justice.
The Roman Empire of the first century was plagued by economic stratification and inequitable taxation resulting in severe poverty, unjustly distributed incarceration, no social safety net for people with disabilities, and a political system designed to keep the powerful in power—thankfully things have changed so much since “Bible times.” It was into this political and cultural power structure that Jesus stepped as an ethnic minority, teaching publicly among a people occupied by the greatest imperial military superpower the western world had ever known.
A favorite seminary professor of mine often reminded our class, “If you are a citizen of a global superpower and you don’t wonder where your next meal will come from, you do not stand in the shoes of the Biblical protagonists.” If Jesus’ words are to be taken seriously, his followers are to reorient their life and join him in bringing good news to the poor (is that not independent economic security?), freedom for the prisoner (is that not an end to mass incarceration of black and brown bodies?), recovery of sight for the blind (is that not cessation of ableist structures?), and freeing the oppressed (is that not transforming systems and structures that support the growing stratification of wealth, power, and opportunity?). It would seem that Jesus was woke, even if his followers often slumber.
The year 2020 witnessed an awakening for much of drowsy-America. May 25 marks the one year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd; an evil that the world witnessed repeatedly in graphic HD video. Many of us who have had the privilege of educating ourselves about racism rather than experiencing it were shaken out of sleep, beginning to see the truth of the nation and the world in which we live. For those who pledge allegiance to Jesus, reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement were mixed. Some majority-white churches woke up and began to see the truth, seeking to be allies in the centuries long struggle of the African American Church. Others retreated into self-deluding platitudes of color-blindness, loving all people equally, and separating religion from politics.
People who profess even an interest in Jesus find ourselves at a crossroads. Will we seek the comfort of our beds, closing our eyes to the injustice and inequity that surrounds us, or will we do the hard work of awakening and springing to action, seeking to participate in the revolutionary mission of Jesus?
Rev. Robby Olson is a Presbyterian Pastor in Watsonville.