by Richard Higginson
Right at the start of his ministry Jesus set out his mission statement: good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed. This remains an inspiration for many business people today.
One of my odder habits is that, for a time at least, I collected company mission statements. Eager to discover what companies proclaimed, I accumulated about 50 before my enthusiasm waned. Although many mission statements have a tired and rather derivative feel about them, they sometimes hit on profound truths – when they don’t serve simply as a public relations exercise.
For example, I like GlaxoSmithKline’s mission statement: ‘We have a challenging and inspiring mission to improve the quality of human life by enabling people to do more, feel better and live longer’. It would be difficult to improve on this as a description of what pharmaceutical companies should be about. Enabling people to do more, feel better and live longer: we can all say amen to that. Keep that as your mission and any worker in the drugs industry has a worthwhile vocation. Christian faith should keep people alert to the big picture.
Jesus’ Mission Statement
Near the beginning of Luke’s Gospel (4:16-20) is what some theologians call the Nazareth Manifesto – Jesus’ mission statement. I know many businesspeople who are inspired by it. Jesus has just undergone the pivotal experiences which kick-started his ministry: his baptism by John, temptation in the wilderness and empowerment by the Holy Spirit. On his return to Galilee he takes the opportunity to set the agenda for what will follow, mapping out his programme and indicating his priorities.
The scene is a Saturday morning in the synagogue at Nazareth. Jesus was probably invited to speak because he had started to make a name for himself as an authoritative interpreter of Scripture (Luke 4:15), though not one who was the pupil of any particular Rabbi.
Jesus chooses to read Isaiah 61:1-2:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim 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 favour.
Jesus didn’t need to invent a mission statement; he finds one ready-made in the Old Testament. This passage suited his purposes perfectly, to the extent that he says ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’. The promise of good times no longer lay in the future; it was being fulfilled in the present – ‘today’ – and in his person. He is the Lord’s Servant of whom the book of Isaiah speaks. He is the one anointed by the Spirit, the longed-for Messiah. So echoing Isaiah, he promises good things to four groups of people:
Good News to the Poor
The poor were those with few possessions and for whom mere survival was a struggle: a day labourer, landless tenant or beggar. But Jesus had a wider understanding which included the poor ‘in spirit’, those who felt wretched, had a low self-esteem, and found it difficult to believe that anyone loved them. There was probably a considerable overlap between the materially poor and the spiritually poor.
The good news Jesus brought is that God loves those who are poor and also those who feel poor. This is a love shown both in words, proclaiming the message of salvation, and in deeds, helping the poor become less poor, through a redistribution of wealth. Jesus frequently urged the better off to give generously to those in need. ‘Sell your possessions, and give alms’ (Luke 12:33); ‘sell all that you own, and distribute the money to the poor’ (Luke 18:22).
Release to the captives An alternative translation is ‘freedom for the prisoners’. Here it is likely that Jesus was using language metaphorically. So far as we know, people were not released from prison as a result of Jesus’ ministry (Barabbas was an unusual exception). Jesus did release men and women from the chains of sin, fear, self-hatred and social marginalisation.
In addition, there may be a reference to release from debt. Some scholars9 think that Luke 4:19 alludes to the year of Jubilee, the ‘year of God’s favour’ that occurred once every fifty years. Leviticus 25 describes what this involved: the release of people from various types of debt, the liberation of slaves, rest for the land (being allowed to lie fallow), and the restoration of people to their original family property.
Recovery of Sight to the Blind
This phrase doesn’t actually occur in the original Hebrew of Isaiah 61. Jesus appears to have added it from Isaiah 42:7, the Servant passage which speaks of a ‘light to the nations’. There are several instances in the Gospels of Jesus enabling blind people to see (e.g. Mark 8:22-26; Mark 10:46-52; John 9:1-12). The restoration of any of the senses is clearly life-transforming.
Moreover, Jesus used sight as a metaphor for spiritual perception: understanding the truth about himself, God and the human condition (e.g. Luke 6:39, 10:23-24). People who can see physically may be blind at a deeper level. So he calls his religious opponents, the scribes and the Pharisees ‘blind guides’, because they ‘strain out a gnat but swallow a camel’; they are obsessed with the minutiae of the law (tithing mint, dill and cumin) while neglecting the ‘weightier matters of the law’, justice and mercy and faith (Matthew 23:23-24).
Freedom for the Oppressed
The ‘oppressed’ are those who are pressed down and therefore heavily laden. This takes many forms: economic oppression (employers paying workers little or nothing), mental oppression (evil spirits possessing vulnerable people) or religious oppression (teachers imposing on the public a fastidious understanding of the law).
Jesus brought freedom at all these different levels. He promised his disciples: ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). Those whose lives he transformed included Mary Magdalene, rid of the seven demons that had tormented her (Luke 8:2); Zacchaeus, inspired to refund those he had defrauded, which would help them financially (Luke 19:8); and all who heeded his message that the law was given for human welfare, not to trap and imprison them (Mark 2:23-28).
Taken together, these four aspects of Jesus’ ministry amount to a demonstration of the Lord’s favour. If the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed are receiving such blessing, they are receiving a fresh taste of God’s goodness. Jesus was saying: this is a bumper year – wake up to it!
This is a compelling passage of Scripture. The Christian consultancy Tricordant see their calling to bring wholeness to dysfunctional and demoralised organisations in the light of Luke 4:18-19. It inspired solicitor James Featherby during the many years he worked for the City legal firm Slaughter & May. In a conference at Ridley he admitted it might seem unlikely that one would find the poor, prisoners and oppressed working in the City, but he knew many examples of desperately needy individuals:
Those struggling with inadequate resources
People suffering from a mid-life crisis
The objects of bullying, gossip and manipulation
Those who have lost touch with their feelings and can’t apologise
Grumblers, people who over-drink, have no time for their families and can’t turn off their mobiles, or are driven by targets or their own egos.
But the businesspeople most closely following the Nazareth Manifesto are those whose employees and customers resemble the socially marginalised people that Jesus had in view. They are the social entrepreneurs, people who run companies that have the transformation of society, the reduction of poverty or environmental sustainability as explicit goals.
One example is the group of Christians who run SonLight Power, an American company that promotes solar-powered energy in developing countries, notably Honduras. Kevin Sasson, who left a successful career in Silicon Valley to become executive director, explains how SonLight’s power systems are often installed at off-grid primary schools, which ‘provide venues for community events, adult education classes, medical clinics, and communication hubs’. SonLight trains local residents in the basics of renewable energy and how to maintain their new solar electric system, thus ensuring sustainability. The name of the company is a testimony to its inspiration – the Son of God who is the Light of the World.
Excerpt from Faith, Hope & the Global Economy, pp.125-130