Read Isaiah 61:1–7.
Isaiah 61 is a justly famous text, and it gains added luster because Jesus cites it as the overarching theme of his ministry in the gospel of Luke, but its beautiful melody contains a discordant note. You know how it goes: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, / because the Lord has anointed me; / [God] has sent me 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” (vv. 1–2, see Luke 4:18–19). That’s the passage as Jesus quotes it in the Nazareth synagogue, and if we stopped there we would find nothing dissonant to mar the prophet’s glorious poem.
But if we read on in verse 2, we get this: “And the day of vengeance of our God.” Right smack in the middle of all the good news comes this jarring chord of bad news. When you’re talking about the year of the Lord’s favor, the day of God’s vengeance just doesn’t seem to fit.
We don’t like it much, either. The good liberals among us want to emphasize God’s goodness, forgiveness, and radical welcome. Most of us have had our fill of preachers and evangelists who land so heavily on God’s judgment that they completely miss out on God’s grace. The world has heard that message enough, we say. What the world needs now, we insist, channeling Burt Bacharach, is to know that God is “love, sweet love.” We would prefer to sweep this talk of vengeance and wrath under the rug.
But it’s there in the Bible, so we can’t just dismiss it. In fact, I think it has an appropriate place in this otherwise unblemished poem of grace. After all, every proclamation of the good news is bad news for somebody. When God offers good news to the oppressed, the captives, and the mourners, God is simultaneously presenting bad news to the oppressors and captors and those who cause the mourning. God’s good news liberates and restores, so it sounds like decidedly bad news to those who want to keep people in bondage.
“The day of vengeance of our God” is therefore a declaration of punishment for all who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of might-makes-right power politics and in widening the gap between the haves and have-nots. Your day has come and gone, the prophet declares; in God’s new order the tables will be turned.
In addition to being a declaration of punishment, this language of vengeance serves as a warning ... to us. We who are reading (and writing) these words are global elites. Compared to the vast majority of the world’s people we live in unimaginable luxury. That’s something we would rather not think about. We feel more comfortable condemning the Jeff Bezoses of the world for building rockets or buying another super yacht. But to the people of South Sudan or Bangladesh, we might as well have super yachts too. The question is, how have we come by all our wealth and privilege? Are our hands clean, or have we benefited from the oppression and poverty of others? Who pays the price for our refusal to combat climate change? Who suffers so we can enjoy our coffee, sneakers, and mobile devices? Who loses because we insist on winning?
The day of vengeance of our God need not come for us. But to avoid it we need to be actively engaged in works that ease suffering, bring liberation, and bind up the brokenhearted. If we are not doing those things, the good news Isaiah proclaims may turn out to be bad news for us.
Grace and peace,