Commentary on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
With the Nativity of Our Lord drawing nigh, ponder this pericope in concert with Jesus’ interpretation of his sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth.
Textual Horizons — Isaiah 61:1-4
As with the First Sunday of Advent, the Old Testament reading comes from Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66); the historical context for this pericope is the dashed hopes of the earliest returnees from the Babylonian Exile. All is not as the returnees have imagined and hoped it would be.
Coming on the heels of the beautiful poem of Isaiah 60, Isaiah 61 speaks of a human agent in this Old Testament evangelical proclamation. Somewhat similar to the Servant Songs of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12), the pericope envisions a personal agent upon whom the spirit of the Lord rests, who is anointed, and who with the good news liberates.
The verbs, in particular the infinitives in vv.1-3, herald an against−the−grain message that threatens to turn the world upside−down.
From a Christian perspective and within the interpretive history of the Church, it is nigh on impossible to ignore the messianic overtones of this passage. While not the Gospel reading for this Third Sunday of Advent, according to Luke’s telling Jesus reads a portion of this pericope from the Isaiah scroll about himself in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30). Perhaps an interpretive cue for contemporary preaching on this Isaiah pericope can be taken from this passage in Luke.
As you recall, Jesus attends Sabbath service in his home town of Nazareth. Upon standing to read, presumably the haftorah reading — the weekly portion read from the Prophets, Jesus finds this portion of Isaiah, reading it — as it is written — in the first person:
“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.” (Luke 4:18-19/Isaiah 61:1-2a with some variation)
Following liturgical practice, Jesus rolls up the scroll, returns it by way on an attendant to its proper place, sits down, and preaches. He begins, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) What becomes quickly apparent is that Jesus’ interpretation of this portion of Isaiah in light of himself did not vex those gathered. Rather, he goes on to refer to two stories of old in which God’s favor fall upon those outside of Israel rather than on those inside (1 Kings 17:8-24; 2 Kings 5:1-14). It is precisely with Jesus’ interpretation of the transformational “good news” of Isaiah 61:1 being for those outside the fold that the crowds go bonkers and threaten to throw Jesus off a cliff.
The interpretive cue at the heart of Jesus’ preaching on this text is who are identified as recipients of Isaiah’s infinitives: “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion, to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” (61:1b-3)
It is far too easy to assume that it is us, that we are the ones addressed by the infinitives, that the ‘oppressed’ (NRSV) or ‘poor’ (NIV) is a spiritualized cloak of wretchedness that we all wear. Luther and many others with him spiritualize the ‘poor’ as the spiritually corrupt.1
Far be it from this preacher to disparage such a line of interpretation. At the same time, and in line with Jesus’ own preaching of this text, assume that these words speak not only of the spiritual but of the physical realities and to the brokenness of the world, and that the recipients of these transformative infinitives are those outside the fold, the congregation, the denomination, and the Church.
Advent is a time of waiting with both a cruciform remembrance of the incarnation of the Divine Word and anticipation of the culmination of all of history in Christ’s eschatological advent. In this midst of this transformative waiting, imagine this text with the cues of Jesus’ preaching, vexing though it may be.
1The “afflicted” in LW 17.330f.