What is the heart of the gospel for you? What is central to your understanding of the gospel? For some it is following a set of rules that guide one through life seeking to resist or over-come temptation, sin. For others the heart is Jesus’ healing as they seek cures for what ails them. For others it is mission in the sense of telling anyone and everyone about Jesus.
The New Interpreter’s Bible notes that when Jesus stood up in the synagogue and read from Isaiah Luke presents it as the “keynote to the entire ministry of Jesus (showing) the perspective from which it is to be understood.” It is the center of the gospel. Think of it as Jesus’ job description.
In his telling of the story, Luke implies that Jesus himself chose to read the particular passage from Isaiah to emphasize his ministry to the poor. As he does so he reads 61:2a, …”to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” but Jesus leaves off 61:2b, “and the day of vengeance of our God.”
From the very beginning, Jesus’ work was to bring good news to the poor. For Jesus, the liberation of the oppressed and brokenhearted is paramount. This is the heart of the gospel story. It is to be the central force in shaping the life of faith for Christians. Luke is instructing his readers that this is a plumb line of Jesus’ teaching. Here we learn what Jesus came to do. So if we measure our lives against this, we are following Jesus’ ministry. This too, is our job description.
Do you remember your first days on a new job? Those days when, every so often, you pull out the job description just to make sure you are getting it right? In college I worked in the rare book section of the university library. We had all sorts of special collections. We even had a vault where we kept the rarest books, a Gutenberg Bible, the uncatalogued papers of physicist Leo Szilard and a quartermaster request for tents signed by George Washington at Valley Forge. And because he lived in the neighborhood, signed first editions of each Dr. Seuss book.
There was an English professor on campus who was an expert on modern poetry. So we had rack after rack in what was called the
“Archive for New Poetry.” All the poets from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s were in there. And of course there was a lot of “weird” stuff in those editions. Every so often I would get sidetracked exploring. My favorite was a little white frayed edged paper edition that looked a bit like a nice invitation. Embossed on the cover, in the same white as the paper was the poem’s title, The Beatles. The poem was four pages long with one word on each page, you guessed it, John, Paul, George, Ringo. Nevertheless, for a history and book lover, it was like working in heaven.
Because the books were rare and the collections kept separate, shelving, sorting and at times shipping the books took some figuring out. I remember keeping the job description and its addendum instructions in my back pocket. If I got stuck on an assignment, I could walk back into the stack, pretending I knew what I was doing. Then, out of sight of the supervisor, I would pull out my “how to” sheets, glancing at them again so I could get the work right.
It is easy to get sidetracked, or lose our sense of direction in sticking to the central message of the gospel. Following Jesus is fraught with distractions. The prophets often had to remind the people about God’s main purposes. In Isaiah 1 the Lord asks “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” (1:11) The Lord goes on to indicate there has been “enough of burnt offerings” and God does not delight in blood sacrifice. “When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand?...Bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.” (v.12-13). They had gotten lost in showy displays of devotion, rather than living as God’s people.
The Lord commands that the people “trample my courts no more” and that they “learn to do good; seek justice, recue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (v.17).
Showing us his vision of Jesus’ job description, Luke takes the emphasis off ceremonial displays of righteousness, and the too easy route of rule following, to underscore acts of human compassion and social justice instead. The focus of this job description is not on God’s demands for righteousness, but rather on who needs God’s attention and compassion.
To miss this focus can have tragic consequences. John Updike’s novel In the Beauty of the Lilies, tells the tale of turn-of-the-century Presbyterian minister, Clarence Wilmot who lost his faith in the God he was taught at Princeton seminary. Surrounded by the poverty in the neighborhood of his Patterson New Jersey parish, the God Wilmot was taught –rationalistic, all powerful, and in control- made no sense. His seminary teachings were “twigs of an utterly dead tree,” such “sad sap,” and “paper shields against the molten iron of natural truth.”
In this crisis of his faith, Wilmot concluded that his genteel professors had sold him a message that was half wishful thinking, half self-promoting lies. Updike writes, “The doctrine had for these years past felt to Clarence like an invalid, a tenuous ghost scattered invisibly among the faces that from sickbeds and Sunday pews and oilcloth-covered kitchen tables of disrupted, impoverished households beseeched him for hope and courage, for that thing which Calvin in his Gallic lucidity called, le grace.”
At one point, Wilmot decided against expanding the church building. He could not justify adding underused church buildings when poor immigrants down the street slept six to a room. It seems his education did not allow him the wherewithal to see in that decision any link to his faith or his calling as a pastor. He considered a turn to the poor a turn away from the all-powerful God he had been taught. His presbytery exec, -the Carson if his day- identified his problem as hanging on to a conservatism that would not adapt to the vicissitudes of life and history. Having studied under theologians who could not bend, Wilmot’s faith shattered when the storms of life overwhelmed his doctrine. His incomplete job description.
Wilmot never could see an alternative to the God of the inflexible doctrines he had learned. He wound up selling encyclopedias to people who could not afford them, but bought them anyway. It was a mirror of the doctrinal peddling he was trained to do as a minister.
The tragedy for the Rev. Wilmot was that he was steeped in authoritative Christologies, and had missed Luke’s Jesus. If only he had opened Luke to read the job description that said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” That is a pretty concise job description. Will you apply for that job?