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Setting the Captives Free
Luke 4:14-21

A young black slave girl stood beside the pulpit on a September morning. The child had been bought on consignment from her owner and taken to the famous church in Brooklyn NY. The Abolition movement was at its zenith and the preacher of the Plymouth Church the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, was one of its leaders. On this particular morning, Beecher did not exhort his congregation on the evils of slavery nor did he advocate for the passage of legislation to end the practice. Rather, he challenged the people to personally respond to a human being in need. He asked them to raise $800 to purchase that young girl's freedom.
If you read the journals and newspapers from the 1820-1860 you will find one striking feature, the church of Jesus Christ took very literary the call to set the captives free. Let us consider that message from the book of Luke to discover why they burned with such strong convictions to win release for those slaves and how their witness might be guide our lives and ministry.

Luke introduces the passage by summarizing the early ministry of Jesus in two sentences 
4:14,15 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues and everyone praised him.

The appearance of Jesus in Nazareth was not the introduction of his ministry. He had already begun to teach and his reputation was spreading throughout the tiny villages of the countryside of Galilee. Undoubtedly the people of his hometown had heard reports about of his growing fame before he made a return visit. 

Luke is very selective in his presentation of the events in the ministry of our Lord. He has a very specific bent to his storytelling. Both Mark and Matthew, retell the story but record that it took place during the middle of Jesus' three year ministry.  Luke is willing to sacrifice chronology for theology. By placing this story at the beginning of the ministry of our Lord, he introduces us to the theme of Jesus' entire ministry. He is giving us a preview to what is about to unfold throughout the life of our Lord.1

The decision by Jesus to return home on the Sabbath certainly appears very intentional. The day provided a perfect opportunity to teach. The custom of the day required the community to gather together in the synagogue. The synagogue was the local church in Jewish society. It probably developed after the destruction of the Temple and during the Babylonian captivity about 587 BCE. The purpose of the synagogue was to ingrain the teaching of the Law, the Prophets and the writings into the hearts and minds of the people. 

Each Sabbath the Jews would gather to offer praise to God, to chant their prayers and to hear the Law and the Prophets read and interpreted.2 The president of the synagogue was responsible for selecting both passages. He would first ask someone to read from the prescribed portion of the Law in Hebrew. Then an official interpreter would translate the words into Aramaic, the common language of the people. The reading of the Law would be followed by another person reading from the Prophets.3

The prophets were the spokesmen of God. They were God's voice to the nation, calling the people to repentance and faith. They were the messenger's of Yahweh calling the people to obey the law of God. Jesus steps forward to read from the prophet Isaiah.
Whereas Luke may have started the passage with a non-dramatic introduction, he begins to build the suspense. With the permission of the president, Jesus takes the scroll from the servant of the synagogue who was responsible for the care of the manuscript. He stands up to read out of respect for the Word of God, as was the custom of the day. He unrolls the scroll to Isaiah 60:1,2. We do not know whether he was following the prescribed lesson for the day or made his own selection. Then he reads:
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

After reading, he rolls the scroll up, gives it back to the servant, and then sits down. He probably seated himself on a small platform intended for delivering a message. All eyes became focused on him. Now was the opportunity for the hometown kid to make good.

With his opening words, Jesus shocks his friends and family. He announces that in him, the words of the prophet have been fulfilled. His words should produce the same shock in us.

Jesus quoted from the prophet Isaiah who had previously announced that a social, economic and political upheaval was about to take place4. His words are every bankers, nightmare. The prophet Isaiah was using terms derived from the Year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25 that would later become the foundational principles for our modern bankruptcy laws, but the regulations for the Year of Jubilee extend well beyond our current standards.

The Law of Moses required that every 50 years all outstanding debt canceled. This debt reduction had nothing to due with a person's ability to pay, nor the size of the debt. Whether he owed one shekel, one hundred shekels, or one thousand shekels, all was forgiven. Those who had become slaves for economic reasons were free. In other words, everyone was allowed to start with a clean slate. This message stunned two groups of people.

First, the religious Jews were stunned because Jesus announced that today, right now, in your very presence this Scripture is fulfilled. They knew about the Year of Jubilee. It was basically ignore. Only once in their history is there any record of it being celebrated. They assumed that its inauguration would occur when the Messiah would appear. They believed that only the Messiah could announce the cancellation of debt and set the captives free. How could someone from their home town dare to make such a claim.

The second group of people that were stunned were the Greeks and Jews who were reading Luke's account forty years after Jesus had lived and died. They were members of the early church-government officials, business people, people who owned slaves, merchants who brought and sold commodities throughout the Roman world. Luke's audience was shocked because they recognized the financial and social consequences of Jesus words. 

During the last two centuries, the Church has tried to spiritualize much of the New Testament message. The poor in the sermon on the Mount is more often referred to as the "poor in spirit" rather than the economically poor. However, as we read together through the book of Luke we will discover that Luke use the term in to refer to the financially poor. The gospel of Luke includes story after story that demonstrate how Jesus proclaimed good news to the poor, release to the captive and freedom for the oppressed. 

Jesus does not allow racial barriers or political hatred to prevent him from healing the servant of a Roman solider. (Lk. 7:1-9)

The first person that our Lord raises from the dead is not Lazarus who was very wealthy but the son of a poor widow. (Lk 7:11-16)
Later Jesus not only heals the daughter of the prosperous Jairus but he also stops the flow of blood for a woman whose financial resources were depleted by he medical providers. (Lk. 8:40-56)

Throughout the gospel, Luke includes several parables warning against the dangers of trusting in material prosperity that the other writes do not-(The Rich Fool Lk. 12:13-21; and the rich man and Lazarus Lk. 16:19-31). The physician is also the only gospel writer to record Zacchaeus stunning conversion that concludes with the promise of repaying anyone who he has defrauded. (Lk.19:1-10) 

Since the prophet Moses the people of God have been pleading with the Pharaoh's of the age to "let my people go." The prophet Isaiah announced to a nation in captivity that a time would come in which the promised Messiah would free them from their bondage. Nehemiah and Ezra struggled to gain a temporary release for those in exile and Jesus announced one day in his home town that the day of deliverance had arrived. The day had come to set the captives free. 

Henry Ward Beecher and the Abolitionist believed that the gospel had a political, social and economic component. The community of faith could not enjoy the blessings of God while another portion of the community who struggle against poverty or remain imprisoned by racial prejudice.

Those early abolitionist burned with a holy conviction that they were instruments of God to usher in the Year of Jubilee and set the captives free The abolitionists arranged for the safe passage of the Mendi People back to their homeland. The abolitionists, most of whom were active church members, then formed the American Missionary Association in 1846 to eradicate "caste (racism) and class" from society

The AMA established over 500 schools for African and Native Americans and more than 200 local churches. It published anti-slavery literature, founded Ryder Memorial Hospital in Puerto Rico, and opposed "unrequited labor" as an economic cancer in the body of the nation.5

God's people still struggle under the chains of captivity. One hundred and thirty five years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, granting freedom to Afro-Americans, people of many different colors and races still languish on "a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity."6 Sometimes that takes the form of political oppression or religious persecution; sometimes people are enslaved by social attitudes, norms, and customs. They may not wear leggings of iron or stand behind bars of steel but the walls of prejudice, racial hatred, and bigotry imprisons them. They do not know the joy of freedom or the satisfaction of using their God given gifts to serve others. Therefore, we need to hear afresh Jesus words so that we may never become stagnate in the struggle for freedom of all people. 7

Sixty eight years after she had been auctioned off for $800 Mrs James Hunt appeared again at the Plymouth Church. She climbed nimbly up beside the pulpit and stood in the same spot where she had stood as a child-slave. In a quiet, cultured voice she told the story of that day when she had thought God was so far away and had suddenly heard his voice in the words of Henry Word Beecher as he said to her, "My child, you are now, free."8

1 Fred B. Cradock, Preaching the New Common Lectionary, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985). 138.
2 William White, "The Synagogue," The Complete Library of Christian Worship, (Nashville: Star Song, 1993), Vol. I, p131-136.
3 Norval Gledenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, NIC, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), p 166-169.
4 John Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), p 34-40.
5 Thomas E. Dipko, United Church Board for Homeland Ministries quote from movie review web page.
6 Martin Luther King, Jr., Address at March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, better known as "I have a dream".
7 Nancy Stetson, "She has a dream, too." Christianity Today. June 16, 1997. Adopted from interview with Bernice King.
8 Glendon Harris, Pulpit Resources, "Get Out of Jail Free," Vol. 9, No. 1. P 8 quoting from Robert Sanders, Radical Voices in the Wilderness (Waco: Word Books).

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