Among the many ways we might receive the word of God, we can hear and read it in the context of its presumed original setting. Thus Isaiah’s beautiful prophecy of glad tidings to the poor, healing for the broken-hearted, and liberty to captives is the likely promise of restoration of homeland and freedom to an exiled and defeated ancient people.
We could also investigate the word from the point of view of the author and the author’s audience. This could be our focus, whether we investigate the historical situation of the Hebrew people and the actual time a prophecy was recorded or look into the matter of this prophecy’s presence in the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus reveals his ministry in Nazareth’s synagogue. No matter what might have been on Jesus’ mind and lips, the use of Isaiah was certainly in the minds and hearts of the early church’s articulation of its encounter with Christ.
A third level of our engagement, a third type of focus, is presented by the context of our own lives and times: how we receive and respond. In some ways, it is this focus which is so difficult to hold. For if we allow ourselves to stand unmasked and unguarded before the Word of God, we may be shaken, transformed, and winnowed.
It might well seem safer to read and hear the gospel as if it all applied to something that happened long ago. We are willing to stop at its historical meanings or its dogmatic implications. But that is not the full range of its voice. It is spoken to us here and now.
That is why Jesus’ use of the Isaiah passage in the fourth chapter of Luke is particularly suggestive. After he gave the scroll back and all eyes were fixed on him, he said, “This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen.” It is fulfilled in our own hearing of it. Thus we are the Israelites receiving the promise that God will make “justice and praise spring up before all the nations.” We are the Thessalonians “waiting for the coming of the Lord,” advised not to stifle the Spirit or despise prophecies. We must in some way make John the Baptizer’s words our own.
It is rather easy to objectify and externalize God’s voice in the world. The poor, the broken-hearted, the blind, the captives were “back then and out there.” But Jesus insisted that Isaiah’s words were not merely for previous generations. They were for the present. They are for our present.
Even if we accept his words, however, for the present time, we still have a struggle to take them to heart. Perhaps we presume that the broken-hearted of our world must be healed; perhaps we think we ought to work for prison reform; perhaps we imagine ourselves challenged to work for the poor. But this is still not the deepest point of revelation.
For the prophecy is fulfilled in my, in our, very receiving of it addressed to us. It is you and I who are the poor. We are impoverished, not only in the matters of our unfulfilled desires, material or otherwise, but in the more secret matters of our personal vulnerability, our inability to save and heal ourselves, our utter incapacity to manage our way through life and love.
And it is we too who suffer broken hearts in those very lives and
loves and labors that mark our existence. There is no woman, man, or
child I have ever met who has been exempt from this condition. There
are many of us, however, who have repressed or ignored that very
fact. The receiving of the prophecy is the recognition of our
So it is with our blindness before grace, to the bounty of life, to the gift of each breath and movement of our hearts. So also with our inability to see the wounds and gifts of those near and far. We have eyes but see not.
We too are captive: prisoners of barred rooms and closed roads, unable to see our way out of failure, our betrayals and egoisms, our fears that paralyze, our attachments that hold us frozen.
So too is this church captive, sinful and poor, broken and held in thrall by its own idols and obsessions. Let us count the ways.
And so also our nations are caught in nationalisms, our tribes trapped in tradition that crushes human life and spirit, our economic and political classes locked in vested interest.
As we hear the word sounded or read it written, let it first “be fulfilled in our hearing of it.” O God, be with us, be our Emmanuel. Come to our poor inadequacy. Open our tired eyes. Free us—all of us. Unlock our hearts and minds.
If we do not encounter the Word of God on this most primary and existential level, all the historical reflections of human hermeneutics will not move us. All the high speculative theologies in the world will not transform our hearts.
We must, in effect, take upon ourselves the attitude of the Baptizer; one thing I know for sure: “I am not the Messiah.”