When Jesus was 30 years old and just beginning His public ministry, He went to the synagogue at His hometown of Nazareth and was given the scroll of Isaiah to read. He opened it up to Isaiah 61:1 and began to read, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19). He went on to declare, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21).
Some have called this passage Jesus’ “Kingdom Manifesto.” By reading from Isaiah 61 and then claiming to be the fulfillment of that Old Testament prophesy, He connected His identity and the work He was about to begin with all that God had done down through the history of His people and all that was prophesied for the future.
Jesus came to demonstrate God’s passion and live out God’s priorities in front of His own people and the watching world. Where were His priorities? Who were the recipients of His passion?
The poor. The captives. The blind. The oppressed. These are the recipients of His good news and the beneficiaries of His liberating and healing acts. He proclaimed God’s favor on these — the last, the least, and the left behind. No wonder some have called this the “Upside Down Kingdom.”
If we continue reading Isaiah 61 where Jesus left off, we might see more surprises. After proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, the prophet continues “and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn … They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor” (Isaiah 61:2–3). Our God not only declares His favor and blessing on these troubled ones (the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed); He also executes vengeance against the wicked and comforts those who mourn.
These people know mourning. Life has not gone well. They may feel God-forsaken and worthless. They probably have internalized the negative message that society and their own misfortunes have drilled into their heads and hearts: They are losers. Others are the powerful; they are the powerless. Others get ahead; they fall behind. They may believe the religious lie that they are cursed by God. They may believe the lie of Satan that they are unloved and unlovable. They likely believe that their lives will account for nothing.
But look at what this pathetic-sounding group will become when they receive the good news and its benefits: oaks of righteousness! They will stand tall, put down roots, and reach up with towering branches; they will produce leaves and acorns and multiply into more strong, sturdy, life-giving trees. The Lord has planted them, and they will glorify Him.
When I travel to countries where the gospel has taken root and grown into a mighty forest, I often think of this passage. When missionary John Wesley Haley followed God’s call to enter Burundi, could he ever have imagined that the church he planted would one day boast far more members than the church “back home” in Canada and the United States?
Several of our largest and most fruitful mission fields in the world were initially begun or nurtured in their earliest years by single female missionaries, laboring with very little financial support and almost no expectation of making it back to their sending countries alive. To some in their day, they might have been viewed as the weaker sex, second-class ambassadors, but the tremendous fruitfulness of the churches they planted sets the record straight.
Many of our global partners live and work in places of great poverty and inexhaustible human need. Most are poor and work among the poor. When Bishop Elie Buconyori of Burundi was alive, I asked him about the average per capita income of Burundi. He answered, “Well, it’s $2 U.S. a day in the country as a whole, but we Free Methodists work with the poor people!”
What do we believe about the innate and developed capacities of our loved ones in contexts of poverty? Can we learn to see them as our equals, colleagues who far surpass us in understanding their own culture and often have insights into the Word of God that would enlighten us if we could listen? What have they discovered by hammering out theology in the crucible of cultures that resemble the Old Testament context far more than ours does? Do we bother to investigate their worldview?
I’m afraid that many times we exclusively live by our own cultural assumptions and violate the values of our friends. My “kindergarten” lesson in this reality came when an African family joined the church I pastored in Rochester, New York. I sent 15-year-old Alex on an errand to the corner store to buy about $13 worth of food, so I gave him a $20 bill. When he returned, I asked him for the change. He looked at me like I had wounded him. Eyes locked on mine, he reluctantly reached into his pocket and gave me the $7. I was a little miffed, thinking he had attempted to get one over on me by not returning my change. Then I read a book called “African Friends and Money Matters.” One of the first contrasts between how Africans view money and how Westerners view it is, “To whom does change belong?” The author said that in Africa, if you send someone on an errand, the change is their tip. So rather than Alex ripping me off, I was shortchanging him! He thought he had earned a $7 windfall, but I took it away. How much I had to learn. That book taught me literally 98 other contrasts, most of them a complete surprise. My “right” way is not the only way; I must become a student of others’ ways of understanding.
Returning to Isaiah’s prophecy, the next verse brings the Great Reversal to another level: “They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations” (Isaiah 61:4).
Who are the powerful redemptive actors in this prophecy? Whose initiative and cooperation with God will build up ancient ruins, raise up former devastations, and repair ruined cities? The recipients of the good news: the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed. “They” will do it! God’s saving work in these people’s lives transforms them into agents of God’s shalom, bringing peace and wholeness to the world, restoring what has been broken.
Might they still be poor? Probably. Might they live in captivity to unjust economic systems? No doubt. Might their eyes still not see in the physical realm? Perhaps. Might they operate under oppressive regimes? Often.
And yet, they are oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, and they bring glory to Him. They exude life and fecundity; they herald the kingdom of God and work for all its manifestations in human life and society.
Seeds that were once planted in the mission fields of the world have in many places grown to produce vast forests with countless trees. The nature of the gospel is that it contains within it the potential to multiply exponentially. We live at an opportune moment in human history, when we can join forces with the global church to transform whole societies and bless the entire creation, for the glory of God.
Linda Adams, D.Min., is the director of International Child Care Ministries — the child sponsorship program of the global Free Methodist Church. Before becoming ICCM director, she served as a pastor in Michigan, Illinois and New York. This article is an adapted excerpt from “Go Global,” a book that Adams co-wrote with Free Methodist Church – USA Bishop David Roller and Free Methodist World Missions Director of Global Church Advocacy Gerald Coates. Visit the Light + Life Bookstore at freemethodistbooks.com to order this book and other resources.