By Bryan Owen
Where there is no vision, the people perish — Proverbs 29:18
That short verse from the book of Proverbs sums up a whole world of wisdom. It reminds us of the importance in our daily lives of having purpose and direction. To get there, we need to articulate the core values that ground our identity. And we need to align our actions with those values. Otherwise we run the risk of wandering aimlessly through life and failing to utilize the gifts God has given us.
We need to know who we are.
We need to know where we’re going.
We need to know what it takes to get there.
And one of the best ways for staying focused on these core values is by articulating a clear mission statement.
Many businesses and nonprofits — including churches — craft mission statements for precisely that reason. And in the Book of Common Prayer, we are given a mission statement for the whole Church: “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (p. 855).
Even Jesus had a mission statement to keep him on track with his identity as the Christ. We see what that looks like in the fourth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke.
Jesus returned home to Nazareth where he attended Sabbath worship in the synagogue. After receiving a scroll of the book of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus read the following verses aloud:
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).
This passage from Isaiah serves as Jesus’s mission statement. It reveals Jesus’s identity and purpose as the Christ. So, if we want to know what Jesus is all about, we do well to take a closer look at his mission statement.
Drawing on the words of Isaiah, Jesus starts out by saying that the Spirit of the Lord has anointed him “to bring good news to the poor.” Luke’s Gospel always refers to “the poor” in a literal sense. These are people who simply can’t make ends meet, people who don’t have enough food, adequate clothing or shelter, or other basic necessities of life. In Jesus’s day, many regarded poverty as a sign of God’s judgment and wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. By bringing good news to the poor, Jesus overturned taken-for-granted views to reveal the generous scope of God’s care. Offering the hope of God’s love and the promise of God’s deliverance to the poor were at the heart of Jesus’ mission.
Jesus was also anointed by the Spirit “to proclaim release to the captives.” Throughout the Gospels, Jesus transformed the physical and spiritual conditions that bound people and held them hostage. As a healer, Jesus freed people possessed by evil spirits and held in bondage to physical ailments. “Captives” also includes those who are so imprisoned by sinful habits and desires that willpower alone cannot enable them to do good and avoid evil. People held captive moved our Lord’s heart with compassion. Releasing them from bondage was a top mission priority.
Jesus also provided “recovery of sight to the blind.” Jesus healed people who had literally lost their sight, thereby freeing them from a desperate situation. Blindness carried a religious stigma in Jesus’s day, with many believing that blindness was a sign of God’s judgment on sin. And in a society with no safety nets, the blind often had to beg for their survival.
But the problem of blindness in the Gospels goes beyond literal sight. There’s also the problem of spiritual blindness. This happens when, through ignorance or willful rejection, persons cannot see the truth even when it’s right in front of their faces. Failing to see the truth, the spiritually blind lack purpose, meaning, and direction, and thus are easily tossed around by what St. Paul calls “every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14).
God loves those who suffer from blindness. He wants to open their eyes and their hearts to see and receive the truth that gives meaning, purpose, and direction to life. And for those who have eyes to see, that truth is most fully revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Jesus claimed the Spirit’s anointing “to let the oppressed go free.” Oppression was rampant in Jesus’s day, including the Roman occupation of Israel, unfair taxation, and the extortion of widows and orphans by mercenary religious leaders. But the God we meet in the Bible is a God of justice. God cares about what’s right and fair. Abusing, manipulating, and taking advantage of people demeans their dignity, and that arouses God’s righteous anger and God’s desire to do justice.
Jesus rounds out his Kingdom agenda by proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor.” The time of God’s decisive intervention in the world had come in Jesus, with the promise that all people shall know the blessings of peace and justice in a world freed from sin, sickness, and death.
Good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor: it’s a comprehensive Kingdom of God agenda that sends the message that in Jesus Christ, God has come into the world to save, to heal, and to set things right. Through Jesus, God cares not just for our souls, but for us as whole persons. God wants abundant life for everyone right here, right now.
Jesus shows us that no one is beyond the scope of God’s mercy and love. People who don’t fit into society, people who have suffered injustices, people who need help but cannot help themselves, and people who are looked down upon for their moral failings – these are precisely the people that move God’s heart with compassion. And they are the people Jesus actively sought to befriend by offering them what they could not give themselves: healing, hope, purpose, and freedom.
As we come to the close of one year and begin a new one, may we who follow Jesus as Lord and Savior embrace the values of his biblically-based mission statement. And may we put those values into practice so that we may be instruments of God’s healing love, peace, and justice in a hurting world.
The Rev. Dr. Bryan Owen is rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.