The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. Well, that’s Sunday’s gospel. But it’s also today’s gospel lesson from the Daily Office (Luke 7:18-35). Sort of. Maybe it’s because I’m already thinking about what I’ll preach this weekend, but I’ve got that idea on my brain. And I’m seeing lots of parallels between the two passages.
In Luke, John the Baptist sends two of his disciples to Jesus to ask the popular preacher whether he is the one Israel has been waiting for. Jesus doesn’t say yes, but he comes close: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” I remember Graham Stanton stressing to me over and over in seminary how rare it is for the historical Jesus to make Christological claims about himself. This was one of his favorite passages. Once he got started on the subject, he furiously made connections with the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Essene community, this reading from the gospel, the passage Jesus is near-quoting in Isaiah, and our understanding about who Jesus is. It was fascinating. And I can’t really remember most of what he said, but I do remember one thing: if you’re making a case for yourself, you put the best argument last.
I remember that fact because I also learned it in 6th-grade English class. When you write an essay (or a sermon) and you make your three points, you should save the most convincing for last. Build up to the really powerful point, unleash it right before the end, and then wrap everything up while the reader (or audience) is still swooning from your big punch. Makes sense, right? Well, then why did Jesus end his series of self-descriptions with “the poor have good news brought to them?” If you wanted to go out on a high-note, wouldn't you end with “the dead are raised” instead?
Well, it depends on what the audience is looking for. We think of the messiah’s power in terms of the feats of wonder he displayed during his lifetime. The more unbelievable miracles are more impressive than the minor displays, and behind all of the miracles comes the counter-cultural teaching. But that’s not what Israel was hungry for. This Sunday’s lesson is from Amos, a prophet from Judah who went north to Israel to preach against the oppressive practices of the elite, who had built their wealth (literally their “houses of stone”) on the backs of the poor. Today’s OT lesson in the Daily Office (Micah 2:1-13) brings the same message to the Judeans of the south: “Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance.”
What was the #1 problem in Israel and Judah during the 800 years before Jesus was born? Well, some might think political strife (Babylonian exile, Roman occupation), but the prophets consistently point to a deeper problem. The rich are taking advantage of the poor. The powerful are oppressing the weak. No one remembers those who are being downtrodden. The prophets’ message was a) the oppressors are condemned and b) someday the poor will be raised up. Well, God’s people had been waiting a long, long, long time for the latter to come to pass, and Jesus came to make it so.
What’s the best news Jesus came to preach? Usually, I think of forgiveness, reconciliation, eternal life, entrance into the kingdom, etc.. Rarely do I consider the good news being brought to the poor, but that’s the kind of messiah Jesus was. How different does the goal (the end or the telos) of our faith look if we remember that when Jesus built a case for his messiahship he listed preaching good news to the poor last? Doesn’t that turn our understanding of God’s kingship on its head?