Just a few weeks ago, Maria and I found ourselves in the crazy, huge city of Panama City, of course, the capitol city of Panama, the southernmost country in Central America. Panama is situated on the isthmus that connects North and South America; it is bordered by Costa Rica [remember the Ticos and Pura Vida!] to the west, and Colombia to the southeast. You can head to Caribbean beaches on the north and Pacific beaches to the south. As for the city, last year people estimated Panama City’s population to be about 3.5 million. It’s probably more. The city doesn’t really stop and it is full of contrasts. Casco Viejo is the old city of Panama—colonial and very distinct from the rest of the sky scraper-filled, concrete jungle you see in this picture. In fact, Panama City doesn’t look anything like the rest of the Republic of Panama. The majority of the country is full of rainforests, rivers, beach towns, incredible diversity of wildlife, flor, and fauna, and pockets of native, Amerindian communities throughout the land.
Of course, in the U.S., many people know about Panama only for the Panama Canal. It certainly is an impressive sight. We were able, during our visit, to see a huge oceanliner passing through—we saw the canal at work, as the mechanized system of lowering and raising water levels smoothly transitioned the boat to the other side. The canal itself, actually, is the reason why Panama City is the way it is. The skyscrapers and foreign corporations are there for that reason. The Panama Canal, after all, connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. A ship enters from the Pacific, crosses the Canal just outside of Panama City, and then cruises down the Miraflores waters to Gatun Lake. Or, vice versa. This changed everything for maritime trade.
And it changed everything for Panama. The culture, the food, the way of life—everything changed. Whether it was for good or for bad–that is up to the Panamanians to decide. Certainly, since the canal was built [and it’s still being expanded as we speak] business has been streaming through Panama without ceasing. More and more people come to the city looking for work or are transferred there because international companies continue to put up more skyscrapers.
As you can imagine, traffic in the city is pretty intense. Like any city, Panama has taxis, cars, buses, and will soon have an under and above ground metro train. But that’s not what you should know. What’s great about Panama is el Diablo Rojo.
It is not your typical public transit bus. The Red Devil is a unique, personalized cultural expression of Panama, all wrapped up in a school bus. Each driver’s bus is different. Some are painted with slogans, cartoons, political figures, singers, religious icons, artists, or celebrities.
And don’t think that Panamanians weren’t thinking about the upcoming election in the United States.
But you should really see the bus at night.
On the inside of the bus, there is really no other way to say it: it’s pimped out. As you can see, the driver decorates the interior as he pleases. And the music…is…blasting. It IS an experience, to say the least, for not only do you hear the music blasting, see the colorful paintings and murals, but you also experience the driver’s NASCAR tendencies. I really don’t know how they do it. It’s amazing. The guy was driving the school bus as if it were a jaguar. He weaved in and out of traffic with ease, skidded around corners like they weren’t there, and encouraged all of us to never look out the window. Oh, and did I mention that el Diablo Rojo is packed full of people? Maria and I tried the first time to get on the bus, but were thwarted by the fact that there were people literally hanging out of the bus doors as it sped off. Yeah. You just have to believe me. In fact, our lovely host at the small hotel where we were staying, when she heard that we rode el Diablo Rojo, started cracking up and then went on to tell some stories from her childhood.
It’s true that this bus is an icon in Panama. It’s part of the local flavor that is their culture. Despite its name and reputation, el Diablo Rojo is a positive expression of the Panamanian community. This picture of students going on a learning trip via el Diablo Rojo, says it all.
Why, then, is this bus facing extinction in Panama? Well, because outsiders are saying that it’s too chaotic, too dangerous, not palatable for the tourism trade and foreign businesspeople coming to the city. So now the typical, more sanitized [and newer] buses like the ones we see in Europe are rolling out in Panama City. It’s been said that el Diablo Rojo may soon disappear. But fortunately, there are many Panamanians who are hoping to keep that from happening. Facebook, Twitter, and written petitions are all echoing the phrase: Viva el Diablo Rojo! Long live the Red Devil!
In this case [and in most cases, I think] how we see and hear things determines how we act. In other words, our perspectives of our experiences mold and shape our lives. To most Panamanians, this bus is a cultural icon, a taste of home—part of who they are. They see a mode of transportation that is open to all people of all social classes. It costs 25 cents to go anywhere in the city. It’s a shared experience where you sit [and often stand, or hang on for dear life] next to another human being. Personal space is not important. The sounds of the bus’ horn, the loud music, the driver’s bantering with others—Panamanians hear this as a sign that they are alive. To others who don’t get that, they just hear loud noises and think the driver is going to drive off a cliff while jamming to the beats. They don’t like the fact that someone will brush up against you on this bus. They see graffiti and chaos and want to cover their ears and close their eyes.
How we see and hear things in life really does affect how we live. Likewise, our perspectives about religion completely parallel this. How we hear the words of scripture, how we see God [or in the Christian context, Jesus]—does indeed affect how we live. It is appropriate, then, to hear and see this small passage from Luke’s Gospel, which might as well be titled Jesus’ Inaugural Address.
He was in Galilee [specifically Nazareth], not Washington D.C., teaching in synagogues. This speech follows his temptation in the wilderness and happens at a time when Jesus’ celebrity status was on the rise. Luke’s Gospel writers present the speech as a monumental moment in Jesus’ life. It is, in Luke’s story, the beginning of what Jesus will do—his ministry. Notice the specific details: Jesus went in; he arose to read; the book of Isaiah [the scroll] was given to him; he opened the book; he found the place. And he read from what we know as Isaiah 61:1-2 and some parts of Isaiah 58. And the focus was certainly on the poor.
Who were the poor in Jesus’ world? Joel Green, NT Professor at Fuller Seminary, defines poor in the 1st Century Mediterranean world as a status not merely limited to financial problems. He writes:
In that culture, one’s status in a community was not so much a function of economic realities, but depended on a number of elements, including education, gender, family heritage, religious purity, vocation, economics, and so on. Thus, lack of subsistence might account for one’s designation as “poor,” but so might other disadvantaged conditions…and “poor” [meant] low status…in the Mediterranean world.
Proclaiming good news to the poor, then, included a wide variety of people who were not honored or treated fairly. According to Isaiah and Jesus, this good news also extended to captives—literally, prisoners of war, and to the broken. They are to be forgiven, or released from bondage. This entails not just a spiritual release, but a release from economic, political, even religious bondage. In Jesus’ world, the captives were those who owed money to the authorities; those who were physically ill; or those who were left out of the religious community. This forgiveness [release] welcomed them back into the community.
It is a short speech. Jesus concludes with: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your ears—in your hearing of it. Then he closes the book and sits down. Imagine the hearers of that speech after Jesus finished. Surely they had heard political rulers and religious authorities say such things before. It was common for kings and priests to say that they were grand liberators and oh so generous to the people. But Jesus’ speech had nothing to do with money, possessions, or power paving the way for liberation. Freedom, for Jesus, was release from oppression–from being subject to a thing or a person. In God’s kingdom-world, such a cruel imbalance could not exist.
So today, what do you and I hear? What then do we see? Jesus’ vision is quite clear. It is good news, but not good news for the religious elite. It is good news for the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. For anyone to hear the good news of this message, we must be humble, we must be open, and we must recognize suffering and all the awful stuff in the world. We cannot ignore it. Only then do we truly hear. We hear that we actually have a lot of work to do—that we are not perfect, that our religious practices haven’t saved us or anyone, really. We hear that we do discriminate and contribute to poverty and oppression and captivity of others and of ourselves. We see that we ourselves can be obstacles to freedom.
We hear that the scripture is fulfilled in our hearing of it. This means that we have a choice: will we hear and change, or will we hear and stay the same? As David Lose, Luther Seminary Professor says, We are invited, that is, not just to hear and receive good news, but to be it. Hearing this good news for real means that this good news is seen in how we live.
Jesus’ speech is not about change in governmental leadership or a new regime. It’s not an endorsement of any political agenda. The words are about change. But they are not mere words. Jesus himself is the change, is the freedom, is the healing, is the forgiveness of debts, is the reversal of the status quo—Jesus is the lifting up of the poor, the brokenhearted, the left out, the discriminated against, the pushed down, and the forgotten. Jesus IS the message. He embodies what he says. He practices what he preaches. And in setting such an example, he says to us: the scripture is fulfilled in your hearing of it. Liberation for all people happens when we embody this message. We cannot talk about it, read from our scrolls or books, pray about it, and then go home.
WE are charged with freeing captives, releasing bonds of slavery, forgiving debts, including those left out, accepting those who are different, lending a hand to those who have been pushed down, remembering and speaking for those without a voice—WE, like Jesus, are the personification of God’s good work in the world.
Some hear this speech as a blueprint for their lives, The Idiot’s Guide to How to Get to Heaven. But Jesus’ words are not meant to make us feel better. They are meant to wake us up, shock us, and move us forward. Our personal space is gone; the music is blasting; the colors are vibrant and loud; the urgency is palpable. We cannot be passive, cannot hear the message and then tuck it away where it’s safe. If we claim this Jesus Christ and say we follow him, we ourselves must embody liberation for all people.
This is messy; it will be unpopular; your political affiliations will contradict it. You may have to let some previous perspectives, habits, and ideologies go. It won’t be easy. You will fail quite a bit and sometimes you will reach the edge of despair, because the world as a whole won’t stand with you.
But who says that releasing prisoners will be easy?
Who says being more loyal to a common humanity than to a country, theology, or tradition comes without struggle? The very fact that people are poor and pushed down; marginalized and in bondage, tells us that change is needed. And if our following of this Jesus doesn’t lead us to such positive impact in our community and the world, then we’re just not listening.
Then we’re just not listening to the one we claim to love and follow.
We hear. Now, what will the world see? Amen.