It’s been a long time coming, but here finally is the last of seven common “social justice” passages.
Now on to Luke 4:16-21.
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and 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 proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
No doubt, this text is one of the clearest statements of Jesus’ mission and the goals of his ministry. It is also one of the most misunderstood. In popular explanations, Luke 4 underscores that Jesus’ mission focused on the materially destitute and the downtrodden. In this interpretation, Jesus is Messiah and social liberator. He came to bring the year of jubilee to the oppressed. He came to transform social structures and bring God’s creation back to shalom. Therefore, our mission, in keeping with Christ’s mission, is, to quote one well-respected book “to extend the kingdom by infiltrating all segments of society, with preference given to the poor, and allowing no dichotomy between evangelism and social transformation (Luke 4:18-19).” Above all else, Luke 4, it is argued, shows that Jesus’ mission was to serve the poor. Shouldn’t that be our mission too?
This common approach to Luke 4 is not entirely off base, but it misses two critical observations.
First, it overlooks the actual verbs Jesus’ read from the Isaiah scroll. The Spirit of the Lord, resting upon Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, would anoint him to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. With the exception of “to set at liberty the oppressed” (which we’ll come back to in a moment), these are all speaking words. While it’s certainly true that Jesus healed the sick and gave sight to the blind (as pointers to his deity and as signs of the kingdom’s in-breaking), the messianic mission statement in Luke 4 highlights the announcement of good news. If Luke 4 sets the tone for the mission of the church, then our mission ought to focus mainly on the preaching of the gospel.
Second, the “missions as social transformation” reading of Luke 4 assumes too much of a strictly economic understanding of “the poor” (ptochos). While ptochos in verse 18 is probably not without some reference to material poverty, there are several reasons to think the word signifies much more than this.
(1) The quotation is from Isaiah 61:1 where the poor are lumped in with the “broken-hearted” and “all who mourn.” The poor in Isaiah are not just materially poor; they are the humble poor, the mournful ones waiting for their promised “oil of gladness” and their “garment of praise” (Isa. 61:3). The Hebrew anaoim in verse 1 can be translated “poor” (ESV, NIV) or “meek” (KJV) or “afflicted” (NASB, ESV footnote). All are possible because something more than material poverty is in mind.
(2) Likewise, the Greek word ptochos can speak of literal or figurative poverty. Of the ten uses of ptochos in Luke, seven should be taken as literal poverty (14:13, 21; 16:20, 22: 18:22; 19:8; 21:3), while three may be figurative (4:18; 6:20; 7:22). Elsewhere in the New Testament, Revelation 3:17 is a clear instance where ptochos should be taken figuratively. Laodicea thought themselves rich (and they were materially), but on a deeper spiritual level they were “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” As in English, the Greek word for “poor” carries different shades of meaning, both literal and figurative.
(3) A strictly literal understanding of “the poor” in the immediate context would not make sense. If “the poor” are the literally poor, then “the captives,” “the blind,” and “the oppressed” should be taken literally as well. And yet there is no instance in the gospels of Jesus setting a literal prisoner free (something that confused John the Baptist [Luke 7:18-23]). Quite naturally we understand captivity and oppression to include spiritual bondage. It is not inappropriate, then, to put a spiritual gloss on “the poor” as well.
(4) The slightly wider context makes the same point. Jesus mentions two examples of the type of person who experienced the Lord’s favor in the Old Testament. One is the widow of Zarephath. She was materially poor. But the other example is Naaman, the important Syrian general who humbled himself by dipping seven times in the Jordan River. If these are the examples of good news for the poor, the poor has more to do with poverty of spirit than material destitution.
(5) The materially rich do not always fair badly in Luke-Acts. In fact, David Bosch, one of the seminal thinkers in the missional theology, goes so far as to say Luke is more “the evangelist of the rich” than “the evangelist of the poor.” Bosch doesn’t mean at all that Luke favors the rich. That’s plainly not the case. What he means is that Luke more any other evangelist tries to show how the materially rich can, and do, get it right. So only in Luke’s gospel do we get John the Baptist’s instructions on what repentance looks like for tax collectors, soldiers, and those with two tunics (3:10-14). Only in Luke do we have the story of Zacchaeus to offset the story of the rich young ruler (Luke 18-19). And in Acts, Luke mentions the generosity of land-holder Barnabas immediately before he tells the story of lying Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 4:36-37; 5:1-11). If Jesus were only good news for the materially poor, there would be no way to explain these stories of the commendable rich.
So for all these reasons I agree with Andreas Kostenberger and P.T. O’Brien that “The ‘poor’ to whom the good news is announced are not to be understood narrowly of the economically destitute, as most recent scholars have suggested; rather the term refers more generally to ‘the dispossessed, the excluded’ who were forced to depend upon God.” I agree with David Bosch when he concludes, “Therefore, in Luke’s gospel, the rich are tested on the ground of their wealth, whereas others are tested on loyalty toward their family, their people, their culture, and their work (Lk. 9:59-61). This means the poor are sinners like everybody else, because ultimately sinfulness is rooted in the human heart. Just as the materially rich can be spiritually poor, the materially poor can be spiritually poor.” Many other scholars past and present, including Eckhard Schnabel, David Hesselgrave, Robert Stein, Christopher Little, I. Howard Marshall, and Darrell Bock have come to similar conclusions.
This does not rule out an economic component to ptochos in Luke 4. The poor are often the economic poor because material hardship more often than material plenty translates into spiritual sensitivity, humility, and the desperation that gives you the ears to hear God’s voice. There’s a reason Jesus said “blessed are the poor” instead of “blessed are the rich.” The poor are more apt to see their need for help than the rich. The Greek word ptochos is, to use quote Darrell Bock, best described as a “soteriological generalization.” It refers to those who are open to God, responsive to him, and see their dependence upon him. It is to these that Jesus proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor. Therefore, Jesus’ mission laid out in Luke 4 was not a mission of structural change and social transformation, but a mission to announce the good news of his saving power and merciful reign for all those brokenhearted enough to believe.