The sign and the symbol of God's mercy

Archbishop Julian Porteous

In my own spiritual reflections in this Year of Mercy I have returned again and again to a particular passage in the Gospel of St Luke. It is St Luke’s account of the Lord's return to his home town in Nazareth, writes Archbishop Julian Porteous.

We know the story well: How the Lord attended the Sabbath meeting in the Synagogue; how he was asked to read; how he chose a particular passage from the Prophet Isaiah; and how he declared that this text was being fulfilled in him.

When the Lord was handed the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah he selected a passage that he wanted to later comment upon. The passage could well have been for the Lord a kind of mission statement. This Messianic prophesy described how the Lord saw his ministry and role. Thus this text deserves special consideration in our efforts to enter into the mind and the heart of the Lord as he undertakes his public ministry. Just how did He view his mission? What was his self-understanding?

The passage describes the mission of the Messiah in words which are very familiar to us: "He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord's year of favour".

If these words are in effect a job description for his ministry, how does the unfolding of the public ministry of the Lord actually fulfil these words of the prophet? Let us briefly consider each of the descriptors of the mission of the Messiah.

Firstly, the Messiah has come to bring good news to the poor. This was a constant theme in his public preaching and teaching. In synagogues and in the temple precincts, but more often in the market squares, or by the Sea of Galilee or on the sides of hills the people gathered around him. They were in the main the ordinary folk. The people who gathered to listen to him were the poor and the struggling both in material and spiritual terms. In Australia we use the word, "battler" to describe them. These people also included among them those who were more public sinners, the prostitutes and tax collectors. They were attracted by what he offered, the Good News of God.

The way he spoke surprised them. Gracious words came from his lips. He did not condemn people for their weaknesses and frailties. He condemned only sin. He instead offered them hope. His message was clearly good news to them.

The Prophet Isaiah spoke of the Messiah proclaiming liberty to captives: How was this achieved? It was not through political activity or through movements of social change. The captives he set free were those bound by disease or demonic possession, and more importantly for the Lord himself, those bound by sin. He wanted to free their spirits from burdens that weighed heavily upon them.

We are told that the Messiah gave sight to the blind: this was not just in terms of physical blindness but also spiritual blindness. The Gospels record a number of such miracles - the blind man Bartimeus in Jericho, for example. But the Lord also spoke of himself as the "Light of the World". Those who follow him, he said, will no longer walk in darkness. The Lord wanted people to see a path for their life. He wanted to enlighten their minds with the truth about God and about human life. He came as the Truth.

He came to set the downtrodden free: His ministry among the people gave them new hope. He inspired them and encouraged them. Those burdened in life has their spirit renewed as they listened to him. They came in their thousands to listen to him because he spoke like no one they had heard before. They were touched and went home with a renewed heart. The people found something extraordinary happened to them as he spoke to them, their burdens were lifted and their hearts healed.

His ministry clearly proclaimed that this was a time of the Lord's favour. The people knew that God was visiting them in the figure of the Son of Man from Nazareth. God was among this people. He had come to save His people.

It is clear that the ministry of Jesus was a sign, an expression, a revelation, of the mercy in the heart of God for humanity. The Gospel accounts of the public ministry of the Lord fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah. The Gospels show that in Jesus the mercy of God has flowed out to humanity suffering under the burden of sin and the simple harshness of life.

Jesus is literally a sign and symbol of God’s mercy. It is through Jesus that humanity is reconciled to God, God’s mercy is poured out in abundance for all who seek it. In his words and actions Jesus himself is the epitome of this mercy.

- Archbishop Julian Porteous

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