Forming Faith Blog

People First (January 17, 2021)

A Hebrew Torah scroll. Jesus read from a scroll of the prophet Isaiah, emphasizing that God puts people first.

In this Epiphany season, Jesus has been revealed as God’s beloved Son. Now that Jesus has been baptized, it’s time for him to get to work. Luke gives us a short, two-verse description of how Jesus is working in the region of Galilee before zeroing in on Jesus’ visit back home in Nazareth. After all, conflict is often more revelatory than smooth sailing (and makes a better story).

However—though I am probably reading this wrong—it seems here that Jesus started it. Jesus proclaimed his mission, and the people “spoke well of him.” It is after their next question that the conflict starts: “‘Is this not Joseph’s son?’” I take that to be a statement of “hometown boy makes good.” I guess it could be said in derision, but I can hardly see that Jesus would be offended that he is referred to as Joseph’s son. Sure, his “biological” father is God, but Joseph is the one who raised him alongside Mary. Anyway, Jesus moves to challenge the people and emphasizes that God’s work is often to those on the “outside” not to “insiders.”

Jesus’ Priorities and God’s Kingdom

Within the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has so far either not been present in the story at all, or he speaks as a reaction to other people (as a boy he responded to his parents’ scolding, and, just prior to today’s reading, responded to the devil’s temptations). Now, he becomes the main actor—as a teacher. Although it’s not directly mentioned until Luke 4:43, what he is teaching about is God’s kingdom.

He starts by quoting Isaiah 61:1 (part of our reading from back in December), and then he declares that this is about him: the one anointed to do God’s work of bringing wholeness and justice (shalom) to those who most need it. His work is to bring God’s kingdom, first to those whom others consider “outsiders.”

Language Matters

The poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed. This is the language that Jesus quotes and people use. My plea to you; don’t. I’m not saying that you should avoid topics of income inequality, oppression, and disability. Far from it. What I’m asking is that we pay attention to the language we use in faith formation and beyond. We should learn about how it impacts our thoughts, worldview, and actions (though the exact connection between language and thinking is complicated, it still exists).

Person-First Language

There is a movement that has arisen that is called person-first (or people-first) language. It was started by those who work around the topic of disability. The basic point is that when we speak about “the disabled,” we are defining certain human beings by a health condition, despite the clear fact that a health condition is only one aspect of who a person is. It is also a way for people to “other” people who might have different characteristics than them. This is a step that moves to dehumanize people, to remove (in our subconscious, at least) a person’s inherent, God-given dignity.

How To

At its most basic, to use person-first language, you would take a normal term—like disabled people, diabetics, the blind—and put the word “person/people” in front of it. We would then say, “people who are (disabled, diabetic, blind).” This emphasizes that we are focusing on someone’s personhood and only then talking about a certain characteristic. This is most important when we are talking about people who are historically thought of as “less than,” marginalized, or disempowered.

Using person-first language can be awkward in our writing and speech. At Spirit & Truth Publishing, we endeavor to do this in our faith formation resources, but I’m sure you could find errors on our part, as this is often a new way of thinking for our writers and editors (and publisher). While—at its most basic—we can use the formula “a person who is…,” it’s best to vary the language we use.

Non-Health and Ability Contexts

More recently, I have been working to extend this concept to characteristics of other marginalized communities (not that this originates from me). Poverty, captivity, oppression, homelessness, etc. do not define a person; they are (temporary) situations that a person might be in. As we work for justice to bring about God’s kingdom, let us focus on the inherent, unalterable, God-given dignity of each person we meet and fight to change the situations and systems that cause suffering. I think it is also helpful to be specific about these situations like income inequality or food or housing instability (though I’m still learning about these topics).

Note: As part of this larger conversation, we should discuss ableism, power-dynamics, “othering,” the us-versus-them mentality, or many other important concepts. However, I currently don’t have the background knowledge or experience (or space) to address these well.

Jesus’ Mission, Our Mission

While there is a significant part of Jesus’ mission that is beyond us—namely the “saving the world” part—we are called to continue the work of the kingdom. Loving others requires working for justice. A good place to start is how we think and speak about the world.

I am not here trying to criticize the biblical writers or translators. What I want is to challenge all of us (myself included) to consider how we think and the language we use. Jesus’ mission statement here is a good place to start. Perhaps we can start with:

“The Spirit of our God is upon me: because the Most High has anointed me to bring Good News to those who are poor. God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison.”

Luke 4:18 (The Inclusive Bible, 2007)

“God’s Spirit is upon me. I am anointed, commissioned by God, to bring true justice and shalom to the people suffering in our world—those who have been disempowered economically, socially, and physically.”

Luke 4:18 (my awkward paraphrase)
Free Resource

Each week, we prepare a free activity from one of our products which we hope you can use in your ministry. This week, encourage individuals and families to ponder our key verse of Luke 4:18 in terms of current events in “God’s Kingdom Foretold.” This activity is from our Living the Word: God’s Story @ Home (Narrative Lectionary), a pandemic-inspired curriculum designed to be used at home, when meeting as a congregation in person is not an option. Download and share it today!


Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

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