Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”
- Luke 4.16-21 (CEB)
Frederick Buechner likes to talk about beyond words; words that open out to things residing beyond their proper meaning and, more importantly, words that suggest images of things that could never be expressed in words at all, partial and limited as they are. They are mysterious words, because they point to mystery; they are strong words, because they have the courage to take on the nigh impossible, they are profound words, because they offer a glimpse of sheer profundity, and they are open words, because they are the gateway by which such profundity becomes present in our world. As stand-alone words they are partial and quite limited. As symbols of holy things, however, they are powerful beyond words (sorry; just couldn’t avoid the pun!).
Take the word favor, as in the year of the Lord’s favor. We understand it most of the time as a stand-alone word, a word we could define in our sleep. Shoot, ever’body knows what it means to receive favor: being looked on kindly, being given the choice piece of meat on the platter, being pampered and spoiled with all kind of good things. And more times than not, this is how we choose to understand God’s favor, as a stand-alone word that means just what we want it to. Many prodigious prosperity preachers (in this instance prodigious is synonymous with abnormal rather than amazing, at least in my humble opinion) take advantage of this habit by expounding on the material “blessings” God has in store for the favored. Hey, you too can be favored; send in a donation of any size and I will send you my latest book that explains how to become favored in God’s eyes!
In the passage from Luke 4 cited above, Jesus is not playing the prosperity preacher. He is using favor as a beyond word, a word that introduces us to a unique favor available only in God. Is it material? Is it money, success, or accomplishment? Don’t bet on it. These things don’t count for much in God’s estimation. You can, however, bet on it being beneficial, a source of healing, wholeness, and joy. Good news is always welcome and beneficial; but it is rarely accompanied by a cash deposit. The very thought of release is exciting to a prisoner; but will it remain so if the prisoner serves the remainder of the sentence? And sight is valuable beyond description to a blind person; but the sight Jesus mentions won’t necessarily provide a sharp image of the KC Royals playing in the ALCS.
Favor, in this instance, is totally new, beyond our day-to-day understanding (especially when that understanding is shallow and selfish!)… and life transforming. Favor, as Jesus uses it, is a thin veil through which we can see God drawing near. Favor, as Jesus presents it, is the gift of God’s presence which, when all is said and done, is all we need, or could ever hope for. Favor, as Jesus incarnates it, is found in God’s service, being the good news, opening cell doors, and touching lives with light. On Sunday we will examine this notion – the year of God’s favor – and explore any elements of the beyond it may offer as gifts.