Occupy the manger #4: Good news to the poor (Isaiah 61)

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
    to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God. [Isaiah 61:1-2]

Isaiah 61 is the Old Testament reading for the third week of Advent. This is the text that Jesus preached from in His first major sermon in His hometown synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4). The people in Nazareth did not like what He had to say, so they tried to throw Him off a cliff (vv. 28-30). Similarly it’s often a controversial subject in the church today when pastors preach about our responsibility as Christians to do something about poverty. We tend to feel like the poor are responsible for their own circumstances, end of story, and there’s no reason for us to feel bad for them or do anything to help them.

But if Jesus was anointed to “proclaim good news to the poor,” then that means that His followers are called to do the same. Now what does this really mean? There is a wide range of possible interpretations. Some people might say that we should simply go and preach the gospel on the sidewalks in poor neighborhoods without doing anything to address their material suffering. Others might try to use passages like this in support of government programs that address poverty. The one thing that’s clear is that Jesus is uniquely committed to ministry with the poor, and I think we should be too.

People who are in ministry with the poor can have a wide range of opinions about whether government programs or private charity are more effective tools for helping them. It doesn’t have anything to do with your political party or preferred size and shape of government. It just means that you take responsibility for helping people in your community who need help regardless of who is to blame for their misfortune. And hopefully you try to help in such a way that will result in lasting, systemic change rather than just giving you a reason to feel good about yourself.

Even for those of us who don’t have time to get super-involved, here’s a simple challenge that Methodist pastor Mike Slaughter issued to his congregation (members of our church has been reading Slaughter’s book Christmas Is Not Your Birthday for Advent). Spend at least as much money helping the less fortunate as you do on Christmas presents for your family and friends. That seems like a reasonable goal that anybody could aspire to. If you don’t have a lot to budget for Christmas, just spend half of whatever you can afford on presents and the other half on people in need. So who’s in?

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