By Neal Windham
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners . . . to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion (Isaiah 61:1-3).
Jesus loved Isaiah. Again and again, our Lord turned to the trusted old prophet to help orient his disciples in the compassionate ways of the kingdom. For example, he began the Sermon on the Mount with the words, “How blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And he continued, “How blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Both were echoes of Isaiah.
When John asked from prison whether Jesus was the one who was to come, the Lord replied, “The good news is preached to the poor.” Another echo of Isaiah.
And when in the synagogue Jesus was asked to read from the scroll of the prophet, he announced, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” Still another echo of Isaiah.
Surely Jesus saw himself standing at the end of Israel’s lengthy spiritual drought. He had come to alleviate her painful captivity, not so much to nations as to notions. Notions of military conquest and world spectacle. Notions of somehow pleasing God if only she could get the Sabbath and the tithe and the temple right this time. Notions that God would judge the wicked Gentiles, but not Israel. She was, after all, exempt by virtue of her election, or so tradition had it. Notions not grounded in spiritual truth so much as human endeavor and a distorted perception of her privileged position with God.
“To comfort all who mourn” (Isaiah 61:2) was central to Jesus’ mission. And he had come to bring this comfort to none other than Israel, “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18, 19). Some embraced these gifts; many others rejected both them and, ultimately, the one who brought them.
Surely, it is tragic when people targeted for love, people chosen to be comforted and delivered, say no. If this table means anything at all, it surely means we have been loved, remembered, and comforted by the one who saw himself in Isaiah’s inspired vision. Today, the world is again filled with anxiety and despair. Turning inside, and thus upon itself, the only real way forward is to go back; to believe, unswervingly, that Jesus came to comfort not some, but all, who mourn.
Neal Windham is professor of spiritual formation with Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.