Preaching Jubilee to the Captives

Preaching JubileeResource Materials for Preachers on Topics Related to Mass Incarceration

Foreword

The title we have given to these materials is meant to trip readers up ever so slightly. The premise most preachers take for granted is that they will preach about the evil of mass incarceration to their congregation, and it goes without saying that in most cases the congregants won’t be physically restricted. Most preachers do not preach to “captives” in that sense. Yet the assumption made here is that many of the sincere believers who come to church regularly are nevertheless held captive to some degree to ideas about crime and “criminals” that are part of this culture’s dominant narrative. That narrative insists that we lock a lot of people up in the United States because we have a lot of bad people here. And further, that locking them up has made us significantly safer over the past 40 years.

To use a word that our 16th president used most appropriately in 1862, we must “disenthrall” ourselves in relation to this narrative. White people in particular must look squarely at the hard-to-miss racial dimension within the narrative. And all of us must seriously interrogate the part of us that is content with a system in which we respond to violence and threat with yet more violence and threat: a way of engaging others that is about as far removed from the Jesus way as can be imagined. We must, in theologian Walter Brueggemann’s words, “emancipate our imaginations” in order to participate in the larger emancipatory project.

For each of the 10 preaching texts given here — one a week for the next 10 weeks — we provide some of the biblical context first. Then we invite the preacher to ponder a set of questions. And finally we suggest some possible homiletic directions.

There is no doubt that some of the messages proposed here will be hard for congregants to hear and thus hard as well for preachers to preach. We urge our colleagues in pulpit ministry to pray earnestly for their personal strength and courage, even as we pray earnestly for God to bless and sustain the prophets whom these difficult times require.

Upcoming texts in this series:

  • Luke 14:24 – Unexpected Guests at God’s Table
  • Luke 15:11-32 – Welcoming the Prodigal’s Return
  • John 8:1-11 – Neither Do I Condemn You
  • Mt. 7:1-5 – The Measure You Give Is the Measure You Get
  • Mt. 12:1-14 – Higher Laws
  • Mt. 18:21-35 – Forgiveness Without Limit
  • Mt. 26:59-60 – The Trial of Jesus
  • Jeremiah 31:29/Ezekiel 18:2 – No Multi-Generational Curse
  • Hosea 6:6/Isaiah 58:6-9 – The “Worship” That Pleases God

Please note that the 10 preaching texts have been developed for use in Christian pulpits. Materials relevant to other faith traditions will be forthcoming.

I. Luke 4:18-19 – Jesus Identifies Himself with Radical Liberation

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.

The narrative in Luke (4:14-30) concerning Jesus’ visit to Nazareth, the city of his youth, falls immediately after the temptation narrative. Thus it begins with Jesus being “filled with the power of the Spirit,” a key to the significance of what is about to happen. His public ministry begins with immense spiritual power: he is teaching in the synagogues and is “praised by everyone.” But he will find that praise at home is short-lived.

In the Nazareth synagogue he is handed the Isaiah scroll, and what he reads out is the first verses of Isaiah 61, from the portion of Isaiah that brings encouragement to the exiled and oppressed. The good news of coming deliverance is centered in the Jubilee tradition, as we can see from the reference to the “year of the Lord’s favor”—the Jubilee year.

Jesus reads and sits down, with every eye fastened on him. He then announces that this scripture has just been fulfilled right in front of them. The worshippers are still amazed, remarking on how “gracious” his words are and marveling that a son of Joseph, their neighbor, can be so eloquent. But then the mood changes, because Jesus strongly suggests that they aren’t really ready for the revolution, and that he knows they will turn on him (“no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” – v. 23). He alienates them completely—they become “filled with rage”—when he gives them two examples of God’s justice making room for those outside of the self-described “godly” community. He notes that in Elijah’s time there were lots of hungry widows in Israel, but Elijah was only sent to a “foreign” widow at Zarephath in Sidon. He adds that in Elisha’s time there was no shortage of lepers in Israel, but under God’s instructions Elisha ignored all of them and healed only Namaan, a Syrian. This is just too much: the worshippers grow incensed to the point of running Jesus out of town; they even try to toss him over a cliff.

Questions for the Preacher’s Meditation and Preparation

  • How firmly do I believe that God stands on the side of the oppressed and marginalized?
  • What’s my comfort level with a God who overthrows the existing pecking order—who humbles the mighty and lifts up the lowly?
  • Will my congregants want to throw me over a cliff if I give them too much of that “radical” stuff from the pulpit?
  • Have I seen examples where modern-day “prophets” are working with/speaking for those who are considered “beyond the pale” of respectability in this society?

Possible Homiletic Directions

  • You could incorporate a sermon on this text into a sermon series that looks at “Reign of God” themes in Luke more broadly (see the next two texts from Luke).
  • You could devote most of a sermon to examining who exactly constitute the “captives” and the “oppressed” in our time.
  • You could tease out the broader anxieties members of your congregation are likely to feel about a God who seems so intent on upsetting established hierarchies and so determined to side with those we might consider a little suspicious or “inappropriate” for God to favor.
  • You could go still further and raise the question of whether God has given up on expecting much from church people and has already entrusted the revolution to others outside the church.
  • You could explore how God’s revolution always seems to be “already…and not yet.” That is, although Jesus is correct to say that the Isaiah prophecy was fulfilled in him, Judaean society and the Roman Empire remained as corrupt and oppressive after he left us as they were when he first began his ministry. You might preach a sermon along the lines of “What’s the point of working for the revolution when nothing ever seems to change?”
About Peter Laarman

Rev. Peter Laarman serves on the Justice Not Jails steering committee. He formerly directed Progressive Christians Uniting, the LA-based network of activist individuals and congregations that first launched Justice Not Jails in 2012 as a multifaith initiative. He served as the senior minister of New York’s Judson Memorial Church from 1994 to 2004. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, Peter spent 15 years as a labor movement strategist and communications specialist prior to training for ministry.