Isaiah 61:1 “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.”
These words are recorded deep within our Old Testaments, but in Luke Jesus claims them as a description of himself and his ministry. He is the one on whom the Spirit of the Lord has come. He is the one anointed to preach good news. That all happened at his baptism. That verifies and validates his words.
Understand that the prophet speaks in metaphors. “The poor” aren’t limited to people living below the threshold of poverty, though it certainly does not exclude them. If he meant financially poor, then we would have to assume these words are not meant for us. You may have heard the statistics that reveal Americans living in our social safety net of welfare and social security still enjoy a standard of living better than 95 percent of the rest of the world.
No, the “poor” are the spiritually poor, the “poor in spirit” he blesses in his Sermon on the Mount, and that includes every sincere believer. It says something about how we regard ourselves and our condition. We are broke and bankrupt, spiritually speaking. We don’t claim good things for ourselves. We know that our sin (“my own sin, my own grievous sin,” as we confess in one of the evening services) has ruined everything. Any dollar bills we try to pull out of our pockets are counterfeit. Any diamonds we want to show off are actually glass.
The other terms for the people to whom he is sent all describe the same people. The “brokenhearted” aren’t people with atherosclerosis, angina, or a leaky valve. This isn’t Dr. Jesus Christ, M.D. They aren’t people with failed romances. Jesus isn’t Dr. Phil, or eHarmony’s Dr. Neil Warren. Their hearts break because they are genuinely appalled by their own sins, and it grieves them.
The “captives” and the “prisoners” aren’t limited to the wards of the justice system. Following Jesus Christ may be just as likely to land a person in prison as it is to break him out of it. Jesus never began a campaign to empty the jails, but plenty of his disciples ended up there. No, the captives and prisoners can’t escape their own taste for violence, perversion, greed, fear, worry, or hypocrisy, and so they lack the ability to escape God’s just judgment on the paths they have chosen to follow. They are trapped in a cage that is locked from the inside.
In the Forward to his book The Ragamuffin Gospel evangelist Brennan Manning once gave this colorful description of the kind of people the prophet has in mind. They are “the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it altogether…unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker…poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents…earthen vessels who shuffle along on feet of clay…the bent and bruised who feel their lives are a grave disappointment to God…smart people who know they are stupid and honest disciples who admit they are scalawags” (p.14).
It is for people like this that Jesus comes along with his saving solutions: bandaging, freedom, and release. So that my heart will not despair of God’s love, he comes along with the good news that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life. As much as we live in a world in which it seems every statement is laced with profanity, Jesus spoke with a gentleness and love in which it seemed every word was laced with grace. A paralyzed man is set in front of Jesus by his friends. “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Those words didn’t cure the man’s paralysis, but I know that they bandaged his heart. A woman “caught-in-the-act” is dragged before Jesus to be stoned. Jesus exposes the hypocrisy of her accusers and shames them into leaving. “Neither do I condemn you,” he says to her. Jesus didn’t approve the behavior of the woman caught in adultery. His very next words told her, “Leave your life of sin.” But they certainly set her free from a lifetime of self-loathing and fearing the judgment of God.
It’s all good news, soul-saving solutions for people who know they have run out of options, and all they have left is God’s grace.