My Christmas Eve epiphany

I have been driven to a startling conclusion: the God who burns with compassion for the outcast is our salvation. That simple message fueled the ministry of Jesus.

Jesus’ solidarity with the poor wasn’t stressed much in the churches I knew as a child. No one denied that the Savior cared for the poor or that charity was a Christian virtue; but we were taught that Jesus came to save our souls for heaven. Period. End of story. That being so, the Savior’s compassion for the poor and marginalized was theologically irrelevant.

Charity was never disparaged, understand. Saved people were expected to show kindness to vulnerable and needy people; but these acts of kindness had nothing to do with “getting saved” or, more precisely, salvation had nothing to do with these acts of kindness. Despite what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13, concern for “the less fortunate” was optional. Technically, if Ebenezer Scrooge, in full bah- humbug mode, had believed that Jesus Christ died for his sins, he had his ticket to heaven. Good works might suggest that you were being sanctified, but they had nothing to do with salvation, so Ebenezer, the unrepentant sinner, was saved. God might not like it; but those were the rules.

Then we stumble into the Gospels, a world where salvation means deep identification with the poor. We don’t earn our salvation by caring for the poor; God’s love for a broken humanity is our salvation. In this we see the glory of God.

This came home to me in a powerful way this Christmas eve in a weird, stream of consciousness collage. Given the season, we might as well call it an epiphany.

A child walked boldly to the microphone at Broadway Baptist Church and read the familiar words from Isaiah 9:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness–on them has light shined

This brought to mind the virtually identical words from Isaiah 60 that had been read in the same sanctuary two days earlier,

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and deep darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.

Which reminded me of the incomparable portrait of Jesus that introduces John’s Gospel,

In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.

Suddenly, I was with Jesus in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, listening to him read from the scroll of Isaiah:

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.

As I looked on, Jesus carefully rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the synagogue attendant. “Today,” he said, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

As I watched Jesus rolling up the scroll, I realized that this particular piece of rolled parchment had been in his hands before.

After the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE, virtually every Jewish boy was trained to read and interpret the Hebrew scriptures. For most boys, this training ended at the age of twelve–these kids were needed in the fields–but for the most serious and promising students, the training continued, six days a week, until the age of eighteen.

We don’t know if this degree of theological indoctrination was typical when Jesus was a boy, but it is virtually certain that Jesus learned to read and interpret the Hebrew scriptures in the Nazareth synagogue. He had rolled and unrolled the several scrolls of Isaiah (a text too long to be contained in a single scroll) on numerous occasions and likely had large portions of the text committed to memory.

So, when Jesus said “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he wasn’t just talking about a few brief lines from Isaiah 61; he was talking about Isaiah’s vision of salvation in its totality.

Jesus incorporated these words of judgment from Isaiah 1 into his own message:

When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

Jesus owned the virtually identical indictment of religion found in Isaiah 58:

Day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God,
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers . . .
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

And it is here, at the moment when justice begins, that Isaiah proclaims the glory and salvation of God:

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rearguard.
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help,
and he will say, Here I am.

Jesus saw himself as God’s servant-vindicator, going before the people, kick-starting the kingdom of God, bringing the glory of heaven to the misery of earth. It is there in the Mary’s Magnificat; it is there in the Beatitudes; it is there in the parable of the sheep and the goats where Jesus identifies himself, perfectly and completely, with the poor, the imprisoned and the oppressed. It is there when Jesus takes authority over mental madness and physical infirmity.

And it is there in the answer Jesus gives when John the Baptist asks if Jesus is “the one”.

Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind receive their sight,
the lame walk,
the lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have good news brought to them.

The will of God is done, on earth as in heaven, and the glory and salvation of God are erupting in the world. As “the least of these” are blessed, the glory of the LORD is revealed to all flesh and the light shines in the darkness.

As the choir sang an anthem, I was madly thumbing through the pew Bible, one text suggesting another. And when, back home, the family gathered for a little advent time around the candles, I pulled out my Bible and retraced the whirlwind Bible tour I had taken back at the church.

I have long believed this stuff, but the image of Jesus’ hands lovingly unfolding the sacred and familiar parchment in the very synagogue where his mission from God had taken root and grown to maturity, ushered me into the glory of God. It was a revelation, an epiphany.

This gospel of good news to the poor isn’t a desperate and sentimental liberal attempt to wring a drop of this-worldly relevance from a largely abandoned faith. If the gospel isn’t good news to the poor, it isn’t gospel. And if the poor, the sick, the prisoner and the oppressed find themselves wrapped in the gracious arms of God, the kingdom has come, the glory of the LORD has been revealed, the Spirit of the Lord is upon us, and we are saved.

 

Alan Bean

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About the Author
Alan is executive director of Friends of Justice, an organization that creates a powerful synergy between grassroots organizing, civil rights advocacy, the legal community, the mass media and ultimately the political establishment. Friends of Justice is committed to building a new moral consensus for ending mass incarceration and mass deportation. Dr. Bean lectures frequently at universities, legal conferences, churches and community organizations on the issues of mass incarceration, drug policy and criminal justice reform. He has been quoted extensively in leading publications such as Newsweek, The Washington Post, USA Today, La Monde and The Chicago Tribune and CNN and his work with Friends of Justice been featured in the religious media outlets such as EthicsDaily.com and the Associated Baptist Press. Dr. Bean is the author of "Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas," an insider account of the events surrounding the Tulia drug sting. He lives in Arlington, Texas with his wife Nancy, a special education counselor and is a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth.

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