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Center for Action and Contemplation

The Prophet Sets It Off

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Considering Jesus’ prophetic actions, Rev. Erica Williams disrupts our tendency to hear the gospel through tired ears by using the modern phrase “set it off”:   

The phrase “set it off” means to start a fight, or to get into it. We see in Jesus’s inaugural message in Luke 4:18–21 that he boldly declares he came to do just that.  

In this passage, Jesus has a sankofa moment: a moment of going back to the past to retrieve what is useful for today. He reflects on his own lineage of freedom fighters when he declares he is here to get in on what Isaiah prophesied!… Luke 4:18–19 is referring to the prophecy in Isaiah 61:1–3, which foretells that a Messiah will come to restore the Israelites from the Babylonian captivity. Announcing the good news is a theme throughout Isaiah. The people have been promised that they will be set free, and Jesus wants his people to know that he has been sent to bring liberation to them and to all people.  

Jesus was a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew who grew up in Nazareth, a town that was poor and marginalized, ruled and militarized by the Roman Empire.… Peasant societies were marked by an enormous gulf between rural peasants and urban ruling elites. They were politically oppressive, economically exploitative, and religiously legitimated. 

Jesus confronts unjust systems and demonstrates in word and deed what God’s love looks like:   

Jesus, who was a peasant himself, saw all of these things happening to his people. He knew that he could not be a chaplain of the empire but was sent to be a prophet of God—one anointed by God and the people to do the work of love, justice, and liberation.   

We see Jesus set it off in a nonviolent way during his ministry: he gives sight to Bartimaeus [Mark 10:46–52], and he stops a woman from being stoned to death for adultery by telling her accusers that anyone without sin could be the first to throw a stone (John 8:7). In Jesus’s final week before being crucified (during the Passover, which celebrates the Jewish people’s defeat of slavery), Jesus goes into the temple. There he sets it off by flipping the tables of the money changers and declaring that God’s house is a place of prayer and not a den of thieves [Mark 11:15–17].   

A man considered a nobody set it off by showing radical love and revolutionary compassion and by speaking truth to power. Jesus turned the world right side up. The empire thought it had shut Jesus down by lynching him, but all it did was plant a seed.   

That seed has produced a great harvest of freedom fighters such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Josephine Baker, Septima Clark, and Martin Luther King Jr.… Each of us is being called to set it off. It does not matter what your pedigree is: God is calling you to stand for truth and justice.  


Erica N. Williams, “Jesus Came to Set It Off,” in We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People’s Campaign, ed. Liz Theoharis (Minneapolis, MN: Broadleaf Books, 2021), 49–50.  

Image credit: A path from one week to the next—Benjamin Yazza, Untitled 8, 13, and 7. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image.  Jesus used the mystery and variety of the natural world to teach us. 

Story from Our Community:

I am a 56-year-old gay man living in the conservative South. Your morning contemplations are the highlight of a morning. I was raised in an evangelical household, and I followed a path that I thought I understood: attending a Baptist University, and believing that God would judge me imperfect and send me to eternal torture if I were found unworthy. As an adult, I began to listen or read other opinions. I began to meditate and hear a voice of Love in my heart. These days, I often see God in ALL of everything. —Thomas H. 

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