Looking ahead with hope has never been easy. If recent months have taught us anything, they have taught us that our world is a very strange place indeed. It is a world of beauty, mystery, violence, confusion, turmoil, love and hate and so much else. Someone has said that Christians are people who know where they are going in life because they know where they are coming from. And that’s why we can look ahead with HOPE and make sense of such a world. Indeed, looking ahead with hope is surely what the Christian message is all about. But where in the midst of our anxiety and confusion do we find the source of this hope? In whom or in what does our hope lie?
I find my grounds for hope in the person and teaching of Jesus. We all have our favourite Gospel passages which speak to us in a special way and give us hope. For me – along with the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus – the passage that I find most inspiring is the one where Jesus at the beginning of his ministry announces the coming of the Kingdom by reading the famous passage from the Prophet Isaiah. And what I find particularly inspiring and hopeful is the context in which Jesus first announced the Good News of the Kingdom.
Beginning his public ministry, Luke tells us, Jesus stood before the congregation in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth and read the text from the Prophet Isaiah which declares: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom to captives and to the blind, new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour”. (Luke 4:18-19). We’re all familiar with this text but perhaps we are not so familiar with the context in which It was read. And It’s the context which gives these words their potency and makes the event so inspiring and hope-filled for me. Jesus talked about being sent to bring good news to the poor, the prisoners, the marginalised and discriminated – those with whom we work in the Chaplaincy.
Well, many of those listening that day didn’t know much about Good news of any kind. They did, however, know a great deal about bad news. In fact, their lives were full of it. They were used to news of hunger and of the abusive activities of occupation soldiers. They also suffered from the growing burden of taxes through which they paid the cost of their own subjection. News of fresh acts of collaboration with the Romans by religious and political leaders, news of beatings and executions did not surprise them. Life under the Romans in that far-flung part of the empire was no picnic. The empire knew well how to keep its subjects in order. Jesus’ hearers that day were people who were systematically humiliated, a people without hope. Many must have felt the silence and even the absence of God.
What I find particularly interesting is that the context in which the “good news” was first proclaimed was a situation of almost total despair. And what is striking is the way in which Jesus dealt with this situation. He was certainly aware of the conditions in which his hearers lived. Interestingly, however, he didn’t challenge that sensibility, but rather taught people how to live and be faithful in a difficult time. We’re told that he read the scripture which those present had heard many times before, but then said something no one had ever heard said before.
As he handed back the scroll to the attendant before sitting down, he said: “Today this passage is being fulfilled even as you listen”. That was the key sentence and it certainly caught their attention. We’re told that the eyes of all present were fixed on him. Here was Mary and Joseph’s son, the carpenter, who had grown up among them and been a member of their community for the best part of thirty years, telling them that this good news message foretold by the Prophet Isaiah hundreds of years earlier, was now being fulfilled in their midst even as they listened! This was certainly news. What could he possibly mean? Well, they were about to find out over the course of the following three years exactly what he meant and what it would cost.
He was inviting them to be part of his kingdom where their lives would be very different. He was showing them another way of seeing the world and dealing with its issues and problems. He was inviting them to see their world through his eyes. Basically, Jesus was telling his hearers that even though their lives were nasty, brutish and short, they did not have to be that way, they could and should be different. And over the next three years he showed them just how different their lives could be. In short, whatever else he gave them in that message and subsequent teaching, he gave them HOPE.
Jesus was a people person. One has only to look at his encounters with groups and individuals in the Gospel narrative. He seems to have spent a great deal of time trudging the dusty roads of Galilee meeting with people, healing them in mind and body, and always offering them hope with a word of comfort here, a word of encouragement there, even sometimes a word of chastisement. He met people where they were at and showed them how their lives could be better. No one who ever met him was ever the same again. He was always helping them to move forward with hope.
He told them that if they lived out the views and values of his Kingdom – values like love, compassion, forgiveness, justice – they would be able to deal with life’s problems differently. The problems wouldn’t disappear, they seldom do; but they would be able to cope and deal with them differently. What he was giving them was something precious: an inner strength, a strong sense of self-worth, a belief in themselves and their families, a sense that their lives mattered and counted for something. His message was exciting. The future was going to be different. And it is a message which has much to say to us today.
We also live in something like an end time. For many people life in today’s world has become a habitat of nightmares and despair. One has only to watch the television news to learn about the the numerous conflict situations worldwide, the unimaginable suffering of refugees and migrants, the prejudice against black people, and the mess we are making of God’s creation. Then there is the situation in which we now find ourselves as a world family. The current pandemic has been a rude wake-up call for us all, bringing us up close against the realities of life. And it has exacted a truly terrible toll with the staggering loss of life, the countless numbers of people left bereaved, and those who have lost livelihoods and are now without hope for the future. The American philosopher, David Henry Thoreau, once said that most people lead lives of quiet desperation! Perhaps never before were his words more true than at present.
We no longer have to ask ourselves if we are approaching a state of emergency; we are in the midst of one here and now. We may like to think of ourselves as an Easter People, but we are certainly living in a Good Friday world! Our main task as Christians is to somehow free ourselves from subjection to these huge fears which paralyse life and to fill the vacuum in our lives and the lives of others with the HOPE of the Kingdom.
Surely the reason we keep going back to the person and teaching of Jesus is because we desperately want to believe that somewhere in what he said and did lies the key to a life that offers hope and meaning. That’s the message he brought to those listeners in the synagogue in Nazareth on the day he launched his ministry.
All he asks of us, as he did of his first followers, is that we believe in him and place our trust in him.
I believe that it is the experience of faith and trust in Jesus that makes us channels of hope, always looking ahead with HOPE. The monk, Thomas Merton, once said that God does not ask us to be anxious, but to trust in him no matter how we feel.
How about that for a Thought for the Day! And how about making it a thought or prayer for everyday!
(Text of a reflection for the Irish Chaplaincy Virtual Retreat, August, 2020)