Who are the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed in Luke 4:18?
When Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth, he told the people that the scripture was being fulfilled even as he read it. The reading mentions four groups: the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed (literally, the broken). Are these four distinct groups of people or are they four descriptions of the same group?
The NIV reads like this:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-29)
As it stands, Luke’s version is based on Isaiah 61:1-2a, but it also includes words and ideas from Isaiah 42:7 (and possibly Isaiah 58:6).
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor. (Isaiah 6:1-2a)
. . . to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison, and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness (Isaiah 42:7)
. . . to loose the chains of injustice, and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:6)
The base passage – Isaiah 61 – anticipates Judah’s full restoration following the exile. That’s the good news that Isaiah announces to the poor, that is, all of those who have been impoverished by Judah’s Babylonian captivity. As Isaiah 61 progresses, we learn that the captives will not only return, but they will rebuild the ancient ruins (61:4). Those who used to hold them captive will not now do the menial labor of watching their flocks and tending their vineyards (61:5). The poor exiles will become rich with the wealth of the nations that now oppress them (61:6). There is a great reversal coming for the people of God.
Isaiah 42 is one of the servant songs of Isaiah. The language of 42:7 is remarkably similar to the language of Isaiah 61:1-2. It is the servant of the Lord who will bring about Judah’s deliverance from captivity. Among other things, the servant will open the eyes of the blind. In this servant song, the blind are captives who (figuratively?) sit in windowless dungeons. They regain their sight when they are set free.
Isaiah 58 is slightly different. Here, Isaiah speaks to the Judeans themselves, calling on them to treat their fellow Judeans justly: to stop hurting each other, to feed the hungry, to shelter the wanderer, to clothe the naked and to care for their family members. It is within this context that freedom from oppression should be understood here. Judeans should not enslave their fellow heirs of the covenant (i.e., use economic hardship to trap their fellow Judeans in bond service). The Judeans are to do for each other what the Lord is going to do for them.
Luke pulls all of this into one passage that is pure promise. God is going to deliver his people. Just as the prophet promised God’s deliverance in the past, so God is going to act now in Jesus. It is Jesus who truly fulfills the prophet’s vision.
Luke has crafted the Isaiah passage in such a way that it foreshadows Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus lives as a penniless mendicant who told his disciples not to carry bread or money, but to depend on the hospitality of those to whom they preached and among whom they healed. Luke shows a special interest in the poor throughout the gospel. Jesus repeatedly warns the people about the danger of wealth and holds the rich accountable. He tells his followers to give to the poor and trust God for their daily bread. He proclaims that God will bless the hungry so that they will be “satisfied,” and in fulfillment of his word he feeds 5000.
“Freedom” is the word “aphesis,” which is normally translated “forgiveness.” Jesus repeatedly forgives sins, and he demands that his followers do the same. He teaches forgiveness and practices forgiveness. Forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in Jesus’ name to the entire world, beginning in Jerusalem (Luke 24:47).
Jesus not only releases people from sins, he releases them from demonic forces and sickness. He sets free those whom Satan has bound (Luke 13:16). “Captivity” and “oppression” describe the state of those whose lives are limited by sin, sickness and Satan.
And of course Jesus literally restores sight to blind beggars (Luke 7:21-22, Luke 18:35-42).
And while healing, exorcising, forgiving and preaching among the poor might seem to be distinct and separate activities, for Jesus (and for Luke) they are all part of the same cloth: the coming of the kingdom of God.
For Isaiah, then, the poor, the captive, the blind and the oppressed are one group: the exiles whom God will liberate, and whose fortunes he will restore. To Luke, they represent somewhat distinct aspects of Jesus’ one itinerant mission. Jesus feeds some, forgives some, heals some and liberates some from demons, and yet all of these activities are signs of the presence of the coming kingdom.