In the gospel of Luke the ministry of Jesus begins when he comes home after being in the wilderness for forty days and on the sabbath in the synagogue reads from Isaiah 61:1-2. "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to announce pardon for prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind; to set free the oppressed, [and] to proclaim the year of the Lord's amnesty." (Lk. 4:18-19) In the gospel of Luke this reading becomes an occasion for reminding the reader that Jesus was rejected by his own people, and in Acts of the Apostles the author of the gospel of Luke describes how the church grew from a small band of Galilean disciples to a network of churches throughout the Roman Empire. This story, therefore, sets the stage for the entire two-volume saga of the saving life of Jesus and missionary success of the apostles.
The three other gospels in the New Testament, however, do not begin this way, and surely that is significant. This story in the fourth chapter of the gospel of Luke is not a part of the Jesus legend that must be included, as are the stories of John the Baptist and the feeding of the five thousand, for these other accounts are in all four gospels. The story of Jesus reading from Isaiah 61 in his home synagogue is only in the gospel of Luke, and the author of the third gospel clearly uses this tale to foreshadow all that follows. The story does not merely relate how Jesus in Nazareth announced the good news. The story is an announcement of the good news.
The story of Jesus reading from Isaiah in the synagogue of Nazareth presents Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy. The hope of the people of Israel, we are told, is fulfilled in him. Jesus is the messiah, which means "the anointed one," because he has been "anointed" by God (or specially chosen) to preach good news to the poor. In the gospel of Matthew we read (in the "beatitudes") that the poor in spirit are blessed and will receive the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5:3), but in the gospel of Luke the good news brought by Jesus is proclaimed for the poor.
And what is this good news? Not that the poor will become rich, or that the poor will go to heaven after they die, or that the poor will avenge the suffering inflicted upon them. Their good news is that prisoners will be pardoned, the blind will see, and the oppressed will be freed — because the year of God's amnesty has arrived. Some translations call this year of amnesty "the acceptable year of the Lord" or "the year of God's favor." Understanding what these phrases mean is the key to the message of the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.
Chapters 40-66 of Isaiah were probably written just before the Persians seized Babylon in 539 BCE and allowed the Israelite leaders from Jerusalem, who had been exiled to Babylon by the Babylonian conquerors, to return home. Isaiah was writing to encourage his exiled countrymen, and so "the year of the LORD's favor" and the release of captives held in bondage meant for many Israelites the end of their exile and captivity and, at last, a return to Jerusalem.
In the gospel of Luke, however, when Jesus says these words from Isaiah have been fulfilled in him, the meaning has nothing to do with returning to Jerusalem from captivity elsewhere. The author of Luke and Acts is writing from within the Greek-speaking church, and he knows that the ministry of Jesus has somehow led to Gentiles and Greek-speaking Jews forming new communities of faith throughout the Roman Empire.
Furthermore, the author of Luke and Acts also knows that these communities of faith include poor as well as rich members, and he sees this as the true fulfillment of the faith in God proclaimed by Isaiah and the other prophets of ancient Israel. In the church that remembers Jesus as the Christ, which is the Greek word for messiah, somehow Jew and Gentile as well as rich and poor have been united by faith. The author of Luke and Acts sees the church, which Paul calls the "body of Christ," as evidence that the "acceptable year of the LORD" has come.
Even as the author of Luke and Acts is interpreting an earlier witness to faith, Isaiah proclaims that God will not abandon the people of Israel because they have been called in the past into a covenant with God, as earlier scriptures attest. That covenant requires much of the Israelites, but it also promises much—including, every 7 years, a release for debtors (Deuteronomy 15:1-6) and, every 50 years, a jubilee year in which the poor shall receive back the land once given by God to their ancestors (Leviticus 25:8-17).
There is no evidence that the law of Moses set forth in Leviticus and Deuteronomy was ever enforced to forgive the debts of the poor or to enable them to regain control over the land taken from their ancestors by those with greater wealth and power. But in the first century of what we call the Christian era, there was a fervent hope that God might intervene in history against the oppressors on the side of the poor — in order to bring about a jubilee year. The author of the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles saw Jesus as not only giving voice to that hope, like the prophets before him, but as actually making that hope real in the life of the church. This is why the gospel of Luke begins with an image of the fulfillment Isaiah's prophecy and with hope in the coming of the jubilee year — a hope that had sustained the Israelites and their ancestors, the Jews, throughout their long history of suffering and oppression.
As we approach the end of the second millennia, some people have begun to hope that the year 2000 might be a jubilee year for the poor and oppressed of our world. This hope has taken a particular focus in a campaign to forgive the unpayable debts of the poorest countries of the world.
Of course, there are many arguments that might be raised against forgiving these debts (or any debts), and the many issues concerning international debt and finance are obviously very complex. But there are also good arguments in favor of forgiveness, once we see — how much suffering is caused by international debt, how unfair the system of debt is, and how we are benefiting from the suffering and oppression of the poor.
The suffering alone might encourage a charitable response on our part. Countries saddled with international debt have been forced by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to drastically cut back expenditures on health, education and social services. For instance, Zambia spends $4 on debt servicing for every $1 it spends on health, even as infant mortality rates rise. The story is much the same in Ethiopia, Uganda, Mozambique and many other countries. The UN estimates that due to these debt payments 19,000 children are dying every day in Africa.
In addition, these debts are terribly unfair and thus some level of forgiveness is required, if there is to be justice. Debts incurred by totalitarian governments, which often squandered and stole the money loaned, have become the burden of the poor citizens of these countries, who did not benefit from the money in the first place. In the 1970's, when many loans were made using the glut of money deposited in Western banks by countries cashing in on higher oil prices, the interest rates were low. A decade later, however, interest rates were dramatically increased even as income earned on cash products fell.
Consequently, poor countries with international debts had to pay more for debt service even as they were earning less from exports. Between 1981 and 1997 less developed countries paid more than $2,900 billion in interest and principal to creditor countries and international institutions, or double the amount they had received as loans. They have, in fact, more than repaid what they borrowed. Yet, because payments have been late and interest rates have risen, the total international debt of the poorest countries remains at more than $200 billion.
Finally, international debt means that the poorest communities in the world are transferring their wealth to the richest societies. As they become poorer, we become richer. Of course, it is not our fault (in the West) that their governments made bad loans, squandered the funds they received, failed to develop their economies, and thus continue to be in debt to our banks and the international financial institutions controlled by our governments. But how can we be indifferent to this gross inequity? How can we enjoy the growing wealth of our society knowing that millions of other people, through no fault of their own, are sacrificing the health and welfare of their children so their governments can send money overseas to our countries? How can we ignore the fact that their suffering keeps prices low at our supermarkets and fast food outlets?
As Christians, when we worship together we say the Lord's prayer, and that prayer includes the words: "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." The New Testament teaches us to pray this way and proclaims that Jesus is the anointed one, the Christ, who calls on us to repent and to live with faith, hope and love for God and for our neighbors. We cannot ask God to forgive us, if we are unwilling to forgive others. We cannot expect God to forgive us, if we do not forgive others. We cannot proclaim to others that God has forgiven us, if we do not also proclaim that we have embraced forgiveness through repentance and that, by the grace of God, we seek to be more loving, more forgiving and more just.
The gospel of Luke proclaims that Jesus the Christ is good news for the poor. If we would be faithful Christians, we must also be bearers of good news for the poor. At the end of the second millennia of the Christian era, the best news that millions of poor people can hope to hear is that their debts are forgiven. May God give us the strength not only to pray this prayer, but also to struggle for a jubilee year in our time for all the impoverish peoples of the earth. Amen.