by Father Mike Stubbs
In ancient Israel, a person did not achieve the status of prophet by going away to study certain skills.
There was no school for prophets. Neither did the person sign up for that position on his own. Rather, God chose the person for the prophetic ministry.
The person would feel an overwhelming urge to speak out, an urge that the person could not control or suppress. We call that urge “inspiration.” God’s spirit would come upon the person, enabling him or her to speak on God’s behalf.
In Sunday’s first reading — Is 61:1-2a, 10-11 — the prophet affirms that it is God who has decided that he should be a prophet: “The Lord has anointed me.” In ancient Israel, kings and priests assumed their office by being anointed with oil. Here, however, the prophet has most probably not been anointed with oil.
Instead, this is a way of saying that God has set him aside to be a prophet. It is a spiritual anointing.
In much the same way, during the time of the New Testament, people would say that Jesus had been anointed by God. That is why they would call him “Christ,” which means “the anointed one” in Greek. In Hebrew, the word “Messiah” means the same thing.
In the reading from Isaiah, the prophet announces “a year of favor from the Lord, and a day of vindication by our God.” Since the people of Israel were returning home from exile in Babylon, this happy news would have been at the core of the prophet’s announcement.
Similarly, when the prophet proclaims “liberty to captives and release to prisoners,” he has in mind those who have been held in captivity in Babylon.
Their return to their homeland of Israel will bring forth new life for the entire earth: “As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord God make justice and praise spring up before all the nations.”
In its original context, the words of the prophet focus upon the people of Israel. At the same time, the prophecy does end with a universal outreach: “Make justice and praise spring up before all the nations.” The whole world will witness what God has accomplished for Israel.
That universal outreach achieves its climax in Jesus Christ. When we apply the words of the prophecy to him, the year of favor that he announces refers to the time of salvation that he brings. The captives for whom he proclaims liberty are those captive to sin. The same spirit that came upon Isaiah has come upon Jesus, so that he might do these wonderful things for us.