by Revelation Velunta
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
The Bible studies for this gathering break down the theme “Living God, renew and transform us” into three sessions. The first session will be on “Living God”(with Dario Barolin). The second on “Renew and transform” (with Musa Dube). And this, the third, is focused on “us.”
Many students of the Bible do not read the Bible. They either read books about the Bible or very small parts. A lot are experts in proof texting. One of the best ways to understand scripture is to read each passage as part of a greater whole. Luke 4:16-30 is part of Luke 4. Luke 4 is part of the Gospel of Luke. The Gospel of Luke is one half of the two-volume work, Luke-Acts. One of the best ways to understand the text we call Luke-Acts is to understand the context that birthed it: the Roman Empire.1
First century Palestine, according to historians, had the elite, the rich and the landed, composed mostly of monarchs and aristocratic families, representing the top 1%. Moving down the ladder, was a retainer class: tax gatherers, police, scribes, priests, etc. (9%). The bulk of the population, three out of every four, consisted of merchants, very few of whom were well off; artisans, almost all of whom lacked worldly goods; and farmers and fisher-folk. Finally below these were the untouchables (i.e., 15%) who were cripples, prostitutes, excess children of peasant farmers sent away as day laborers and beggars, runaway slaves, who lived in the hedges outside the cities. Half of the population subsisted on 1,000 calories a day which meant they were slowly starving to death. The poor could afford only bread and fish, dried or salted, which were the basic food of the lower classes in the cities, slaves, and peasants. There was even a presumption then that when a poor person had fresh fish, the person was a thief!2
Good news to the poor
The empire preached good news to the rich. Luke’s Jesus proclaimed good news to the poor. Liberation theologians have argued for decades that Luke-Acts is the best source for underpinning the church’s preferential option for the poor, its anti-imperial rhetoric. Mary’s Song of Praise celebrates the God who takes sides, the Lord who scatters the proud, brings down the powerful, and sends the rich away empty. The same Lord who lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things. Luke’s Jesus proclaims, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” His Sermon on the Plain declares blessings to the poor and woes to the rich. The rich are challenged to sell everything they have, give all the proceeds to the poor and follow Jesus. The Acts of the Apostles tell of communities where no one was in need and where ministry to widows and orphans and strangers was a priority.
Historical Jesus scholars argue that the passage we are studying anticipates and summarizes the whole Lukan gospel story: the Christian mission is to carry good news to the poor beyond Israel, to the Gentiles and to the ends of the earth.3 To bring my point closer to home: this particular passage, specifically verses 18 and 19, is a favourite among many churches and church-related institutions in the Philippines, especially among those who confess that our mission and witness as followers of Jesus should take the poor and the marginalized as our preferential partners. Verses 18 and 19 are included in the Statement of Faith of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines.4
Us, them, all of us
The pronoun “us” assumes belongingness. Being a part of a whole. More particularly, “us” are insiders. As far as the people of Nazareth were concerned, Jesus were “one of us.” Isaiah was “one of us.” The promises from Scripture was “for us.” Jesus’s proclamation of said promises fulfilled in their hearing was also “for us.” Ultimately, all these presuppose that God is always and only “for us.”
“Us” also presumes another group. Those that do not belong. Them. The outsiders. The empire, built on privilege, power, possession and commodification, divides and conquers peoples. The empire creates “us” and “them.” The passage in Luke 4, referenced several times in the Accra Confession (2004) and implied in the Manila Declaration (2006), presents both groups and posits an alternative.
What Luke’s Jesus declares in verses 25-27 echoes the inclusive theme of the gospel and resonates with Paul’s declaration in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female…” Jesus actually proclaims the alternative to the Kingdom of Caesar, “In the Kingdom of God, there is no ‘us,’ there is no ‘them.’ There is only ‘all of us.’”
At first, those who listened to Jesus read Isaiah were happy. Then as they listened to him interpret the challenge of the jubilee they metamorphosed into a mob bent on throwing Jesus off a cliff! Why? Because Jesus dared to change the beneficiaries of God’s jubilee. Leviticus 25, the year of the Lord’s favour, proclaimed land, liberty and cancellation of all debts. Jubilee meant gospel, good news to a people suffering under Roman occupation. Jesus challenged their interpretation of “us” to include “them.”
For Jesus, there is only “all of us.” If God is our parent, then we, all of us, are God’s children. We are all sisters and brothers. Not just his fellow Nazarenes. Not just his fellow Galileans. During the time of Elijah, when drought and famine ravished the land, there were many widows in Israel, yet God sent Elijah to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha, yet none of them were cleansed except Naaman the Syrian. For Jesus, God’s children include the widow at Zarephath in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian.
To reiterate, for Jesus, the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed and everyone waiting for the year of the Lord’s favour were not just “us” Israelites but also “them,” the Gentiles, who were poor, captives, blind, oppressed and everyone waiting for the year of the Lord’s favour. Thus, the jubilee is not just for “us” but also for “them,” and therefore for “all of us.”
If we do a quick survey of the gospel, Luke’s Jesus includes a lot of “them” in “all of us.” Shepherds, a leper, a paralytic, a centurion, a centurion’s servant, a sinful woman, a Gerasene formerly possessed by demons, a hemorrhaging woman, a crippled woman, children, ten lepers, a blind beggar, a widow, one of the two who was crucified with him, Lazarus, The Samaritan, and Zacchaeus, the tax collector, to name just a few.
And if we need more biblical and historical support for Jesus transgressing the widest divide empire created to separate “us” from “them,” then his challenge, “Love your enemies” (Luke 6.27f and Matthew 5.33f) removes all doubt. Even Jewish scholars agree that these statements are unique to this particular first century Jewish rabbi!5 In the gospel, we have “enemies who love,” who actually serve the least, who actually take the side of those whose only hope is God. There’s Zacchaeus, the rich, chief tax collector who gives back to the poor and pays back four times everyone he had defrauded. The centurion, who not only loved the Jewish people and built their synagogue, but loved his slave6 dearly and sought help when the latter was ill and close to death. Then, of course, we have the Samaritan who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers.
And the book of Acts follows this transformed, alternative, expanding community—of Jews and Gentiles, of former enemies, now sisters and brothers in the faith—from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, into the heart of the Empire! And several centurions play important roles in bringing the gospel of the poor to Rome.
Lest we forget, postcolonial theories argue that the empire’s divide and conquer techniques pit one colonized group against another. The oppressed, the colonial subjects, become enemies. The oppressors, the colonizers, become benevolent masters. Empire perpetuates its self-serving paradigm by constructing one group, one race, one place or one people as superior to another. Imperialism, then and now, has always been about forcing a single truth upon a plural world. This creates alienation and enmity among the colonized groups. Thus, dynamics exist not only between the colonizer and the colonized, between the margins and the centre, but more importantly among various groups of the colonized, the margins. Some try to gain power to define national cultural identity, as well as to compete for the attention of their collective oppressor. Empire creates colonies that seek its favour. Empire also creates colonial mentality; when the colonized are possessed by the colonizer. Rome maintained its power by pitting different groups of “us” against different groups of “them.”
The Spanish occupation of the Philippines lasted for over three centuries. During those three hundred years, there were no more than five thousand Spaniards in the islands in any given time. There were revolts against Spain every nine months during those three centuries but the Spaniards did very little fighting. The natives did most of the fighting among themselves!
There is only all of us
A life dedicated to the liberation of the poor, oppressed and marginalized was a dangerous threat to the empire. And so was the movement that followed that life. The empire crucified Jesus. The empire swallowed up Christianity. The empire strikes back. It always does. Divide and conquer. Insiders and outsiders. White and colored. Straight and gay. Men and women. Saved and heathen. The 1% and all the rest. Christians and those damned to hell. Us versus Them. Forcing a single truth upon a plural world.
Western Christianity has been closely related to empire since the Roman days and has thus spread throughout the world. It is now being used to provide ideological legitimization for today’s empire. Globalized Christendom and the “crusades” it embarks upon today are symbiotically intertwined with global capital and the power of the global empire. In its triumphalistic pursuits, it discounts if not condemns all other religious faiths and cultures. The indigenous religions of many communities are destroyed and Islam is vilified.
The convergence of Christian religion with Western modernity has destroyed the religious and cultural life of peoples and their communities throughout the world. The powers and principalities of the global market and empire are being baptised by these theological distortions of “Christianity,” which promote religious conflicts and bigotry globally. The Christian religion of empire treats others as “gentiles” to be conquered, as the “evil empire” to be destroyed or as the “axis of evil” to be eradicated from the earth. The empire claims that the “goodness” of the empire must overcome these “evils.” Its false messianic spirit is imbued with the demonic.
Today, global empire, with its unprecedented reach, represents a massive threat to life. In the face of this pervasive and death-dealing reality of worldwide hegemony, we are inspired and empowered by Jesus of Galilee to resist empire and to renew communities of life. This new reality has economic, political, social, cultural, religious and spiritual dimensions. It presents life and death challenges for Christians, as the empire uses religion to justify its domination and violence and makes claims that belong to God alone.
We ask all churches whose missions and peoples have historically been involved in empire building to seriously scrutinize—in partnership with the victims of their imperial past—their structure, teaching, liturgy, funding agencies and policies as well as their political allegiances, in order to repent and reshape their life in all aspects in the spirit of the anti-imperial biblical heritage.7
In the Kingdom of God there is no “us,” there is no “them.” There is only sisters and brothers.
The fifteen million Africans we abducted and forced into slavery and kept chained in our basements while we sang our hymns and worshipped regularly upstairs are our sisters and brothers. The millions of Syrian refugees that we refuse entry into our borders are our sisters and brothers. The 25,000 children, aged five and younger, who starve to death every day because of poverty are our sisters and brothers. And the millions of indigenous peoples we have dispossessed, displaced, and exterminated throughout the centuries are our sisters and brothers. The borders that separate us, our comfort zones, our prejudices, the thick and high fortifications around our homes, our buildings, and places of worship, our accurate colour-coded maps, even that Israeli-made apartheid wall in Palestine, the boundaries of caste, creed, race, gender, class—visible and invisible—that separate us, that alienate “us” from “them,” are all manmade. We put them up, which means we can tear them down!
We need to repent. We need to be transformed. We need to remember. We need to act. And many among us who have no idea what “give us today our daily bread” means need to sell everything we have, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Jesus.
Yes, the Crucified One is risen!
God’s question to the first sibling, Cain, has not changed. It is the question Jesus’s whole life answered. It is the question we face every single day. It is the question most of us have failed miserably to answer. The day of reckoning is now. Where is your brother? Where is your sister?
The Risen One enjoins us: In the Kingdom of God there is no “us,” there is no “them.” There is only “all of us.”
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1 Musa Dube expounds on empire and imperialism in her Bible Study.
2 The works of John Dominic Crossan and William Herzog are excellent resources on this topic.
3 The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus.
5 According to Amy Jill Levine. Who did he say he was? Jesus in Text and Context. Available at https://youtu.be/wbE87SHRQ3A
6 I have argued elsewhere that the slave was the centurion’s lover.
7 Excerpted from the Manila Declaration, July 2006. World Alliance of Reformed Churches.