Sermon Seeds: Liberation and Empowerment

and Empowerment

Isaiah 61:1-11 (Second Sunday of
Advent, Year B)

The immediate occasion of
this poem is a social crisis that followed the end of the Babylonian captivity
(587-538 B.C.E). The wealthy returnees used their status and power to grab land
and income from both their deported brothers and sisters and those who had been
left behind. They were able to influence the application of the tax and finance
laws of the emerging nation, causing increases in their own wealth and poverty
in others. For example, they would make agricultural start-up loans during
droughts at exorbitant rates–which violated the Jubilee laws of Leviticus 25
and Deuteronomy 15, but they could buy off courts and lawmakers in case anyone
complained. If the poor borrower was not able to pay the entire amount in one
year, the next year the unpaid portion would be rolled over into a second loan,
with a doubling of the interest. After two or three years of rolling and
doubling, the poor farmer was effectively bankrupt and had to give up his
farm—and often his freedom—to the loaner.[1]
See Nehemiah 5:1-5 for a description of the crisis.

Second Isaiah, captivity in Babylon
was God’s punishment for this kind of oppression of the poor, and their release
was now due to God’s forgiveness (Isaiah 40:2). In return for their redemption,
was to become a model to the rest of the nations. “Nations shall come to your
light and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isaiah 60:3). But that
conversion did not happen. To the dismay of this  prophet (and others), many of the more
powerful exiles returned to Israel to begin the same kind of oppressive
practices that led to the exile fifty years earlier. “The way of peace they do
not know, and there is no justice in their paths. Their roads they have made
crooked; no one who walks in them knows peace” (Isaiah 59:8).

In the first section of this passage, the prophet
envisions himself as receiving an “anointing”[2]
from the Spirit of God to go to those who are poor and oppressed and to bring
them “good news”[3] of the
“year of God’s favor.” He is going to those who were pushed to the sidelines in
the euphoria over the booming economy. The “good news” he brings is that the
city of Jerusalem,
which had been destroyed by the Babylonian army, will be rebuilt (61:4). 

what might be most interesting to your Bible study conversation is that the
“they” of this passage, who will be doing the rebuilding (and receiving the
glory), will not be the prophet nor even God, but instead this
particularly abused group within the larger Israelite community: the oppressed,
the broken hearted, the captives, the prisoners and the mourners. “The
spirit…is upon me…to bring good news to the oppressed….and they
shall build up the ancient ruins….” (vv. 1a, 4a emphasis added). Those who
have been pushed to the margins will become the center in the new society. The
people will be empowered to be the agents of change within the new society. And
that is the good news.

A Few Words On

the prophet’s list of recipients of the good news, the word the nrsv translates as “oppressed” (Hebrew, anau) has two meanings. One is “weak” or
“powerless,” and the other is “poor” or “economically oppressed,” and it is
rendered both ways in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Israel, the vast majority of the
population was poor. Therefore, whenever they are described as such, it is
almost always to make the point that their poverty is not caused by fate or
vocation, but by an abuse of power. Poverty that requires mention is poverty
caused by economic oppression. That means that this word has a clear political
tone to it.[4]

“Liberty to the captives”
is also politically charged. In this context it refers not to criminal
prisoners (and not political prisoners, because they had not been back from Babylonia long enough to acquire any), but to poor people
who have been enslaved for their inability to make payments on usurious debts.
The phrase “proclaim liberty” (Hebrew: dêror) is a technical term from the
Leviticus Jubilee provisions which called for a “release” from debts, slavery,
stolen property, and a restoration of the world as God intended it in the
original creation (Lev. 25:8-10).

addition, many scholars believe that the phrases, “year of the Lord’s favor,” and “the day of vengeance”
(or, better, “day of rescue”)[5] also
refer to the Jubilee. They both point to an age to come when Yahweh’s original
intention would be realized. The ancient and equitable system of communal land
ownership would be re-instated (cf. Jer. 34:8, 15, 17). The poor would finally
get their economic rights and powers within the larger community and God’s
peace would once again prevail.

This is an Advent
passage, because it offers authentic hope for those broken and excluded from
proper society, and it is mixed with personal responsibility: if the prophet
does not “bring” the good news, it won’t get shared, and if the renewed people
do not claim their new role, it won’t get taken. It is with promise,
expectation, and personal responsibility that we wait for the claims of the
coming (and coming again) Christ.

For Discussion                                                                                    

  • Given what you may already know about Jesus, and the Jubilee, what
    could have driven Jesus to use this passage as his “Inaugural Address” in Luke
  • This prophesy was written shortly after the Israelites were freed
    by Cyrus the Great of Persia. It is full of comfort and encouragement. One task
    might be for you to e-write this passage in the form of a letter to
    contemporary refugees, displaced (New
    Orleans, St. Bernard Parish? Haiti, after hurricane and earth
    quake?) Will they feel forgiven, released, liberated, or patronized?
  • Why do you think that
    this writer is called Cyrus the Great of Persia, the Messiah.? Based on your own reading and learning, what constitutes
    a messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures?

[1]Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, A Commentary, The Old
Testament Library (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1966,
Eng. tr. 1977).

Mšah, from which we get the
term “messiah.” Cf. 1 Sam 10:1.

Bäsar, used also in the
Advent 2, Year B reading, Isaiah 40:9.

[4]The kjv
translates it “meek” which gets at the powerlessness, but doesn’t indicate its
cause. The nrsv has “oppressed,” which gets at the political
tone, but not the poverty. The rsv includes both,
with “afflicted” which implies that the powerlessness came from others in
power, and then adds “poor” in a footnote.

[5]Naqam, “requital,” or “rescue” are better than “Vengeance.” It follows a
Ugaritic root which means to avenge someone in the sense of rescuing them. “The
word is to be taken in the sense of ‘for’ and not ‘against’ restoration; as it
is also true of the original meaning of ‘revenge’ the days before Israel became
a state: ‘the restoration of wholeness’” (Westermann, op.cit., p. 367.