Jubilee is an Advent prophecy!

Posted by Dan Martin | Posted in Culture wars and Current events, Justice, Kingdom of God | Posted on 28-12-2011

(The following is a lesson I taught for our Advent series at my church Dec. 18th)

When Jesus announced the beginning of his ministry, the first prophetic reference he made was to the book of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.
They shall build up the ancient ruins;
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks;
foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;
but you shall be called the priests of the LORD;
they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;
you shall eat the wealth of the nations,
and in their glory you shall boast.
Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion;
instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot;
therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion;
they shall have everlasting joy.

For I the LORD love justice;
I hate robbery and wrong;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their offspring shall be known among the nations,
and their descendants in the midst of the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge them,
that they are an offspring the LORD has blessed. (Isaiah 61:1-9)

So reads the prophecy in Isaiah.  Now take a look at how Jesus quoted it:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read.  And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21)

Jesus Proclaimed Who He Was

The first important thing to recognize is that by appropriating this passage from Isaiah, Jesus was making an unmistakable declaration.  The word translated “anointed” in the Isaiah passage is the Hebrew מָשַׁח֩, which I’ve seen transliterated as either “masah” or “mashach” (sorry, I have to depend on others for the Hebrew as I’ve never studied it).  The Greek word for “anointed,” in both the Septuagint Old Testament and the Greek New Testament, is ἔχρισέν, “echrisen.”  It doesn’t take much squinting to see (correctly) that we get our English words “Messiah” and “Christ” from those two words.  It’s a simple realization, perhaps, but when Jesus states in Luke 4:21 that “today this Scripture has been fulfilled,” he is making an unequivocal claim to being Israel’s Messiah…the Anointed King.  This is not just a label that others laid on Jesus…according to the gospel of Luke it’s a title he claimed for himself from the beginning of his ministry.

Jesus Also Proclaimed Who He Wasn’t

Things get interesting when we compare the Luke and Isaiah passages.  Take a look at them side by side, and at first one would think Jesus was simply quoting Isaiah 61:1-2 with the bits slightly rearranged…but then we notice a glaring “omission.”  He completely left out “the day of vengeance of our God.”  As if that wasn’t “bad” enough, read the rest of the story in Luke 4:22-30.  Jesus’ claim of Messiahship was warmly received at first (v. 23), but then Jesus went on to foretell that his hometown folks were going to be unhappy with him for not doing more for them.  He even had the gall to point out two specific instances in which Gentiles received miraculous intervention from God to the direct exclusion of needy Israelites (v. 25-27).

An uncomfortable element of Jesus’ message was also unmistakeable:  The Messiah you are looking for is not the Messiah you’re getting.  The Messianic passage in Isaiah 61 looks like a restoration of the kingdom of Israel, complete with God’s vengeance (v. 2), the restoration of destroyed ruins (v. 4), foreigners serving Israel (v. 5), Israel serving God as priests (v. 6), and the world finally acknowledging Israel’s greatness (v. 9).  But not only did Jesus leave out all of that, he explicitly told of Gentiles getting blessings that his hearers would have expected to be reserved for Jews.  No wonder the crowd tried, for the first of many times, to kill him!  Jesus was spoiling all their restorationist, exclusionary dreams!

Jesus Announced His Purpose

In selecting from the first two verses of Isaiah 61, Jesus gave his hearers a master plan of the work he was sent to do:

  • Preach good news (Greek “evangelize”) to the poor
  • Proclaim liberty to the captives
  • Proclaim sight to the blind (Septuagint; Hebrew scripture “release from bondage”)
  • Liberation of the oppressed
  • Proclaim the “Year of the LORD’s favor”

Although the order varies between Luke’s account and Isaiah’s original, the combination of these elements occurs in both places, and we can see in these elements a powerful theme.  If Isaiah and Jesus had only mentioned liberty to captives and those who are oppressed, and maybe even the release from bondage part, then the notion of God’s Anointed One coming to throw off Roman rule and lead Israel to political greatness, might even make sense.  But taking all five of Jesus’ bullet points, and particularly the “Year of the LORD’s favor” reveals a decidedly different focus.  Though he was not blowing a trumpet, Jesus was announcing that God’s Jubilee had finally arrived.

Jubilee and God’s Economics

Jubilee is a concept we don’t think about too much.  We Christians like to talk a lot about the parts of the Jewish Law that provided for atonement (though we usually get those wrong too in my opinion), and we occasionally look at the more arcane bits about sexuality or ritual purity, but the economics of ancient Jewish law aren’t often examined.  They should be.  The two key passages for understanding Jubilee economics are Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15.  Let’s have a look, starting with Lev. 25:1-7.  In this section we learn that God declared a seventh-year “Sabbath year” in which the land and the vines are to be given rest and neither cultivated nor harvested.  The practical implications of this are teased out in Lev. 25:18-22, in which God promises a bumper crop in the sixth year, enough to sustain the people through the seventh year and up till the harvest of the eighth year.

Deuteronomy 15:1-11 adds to the provisions for the Sabbath year:  “At the end of every seventh year you shall grant a release” (sound familiar?).  The release described in Deuteronomy is a cancellation of monetary debts, particularly any loan to “a brother who becomes poor.”  Deut. 15:12-18 further provides that in the the Sabbath year any Hebrew debtor slave must be released (in other words, it was not so much slavery but rather indentured servitude which was permitted for economic reasons).  “Good news to the poor” indeed!

Back to Leviticus 25:8-17.  Here we have the introduction of the Year of Jubilee itself.  The “sabbath of sabbaths” is to follow on the fiftieth year…a special year of Jubilee in which even land must return to its family owners.  Not all real estate, as Lev. 25:29-31 states that a house in a walled city is not subject to Jubilee release; however the means of production (that is, agricultural land) and homes in rural areas were to return to their familial owners.  As Lev. 25:15-17 makes clear, it is not productive land, but rather potential crop-years, that may be sold in the rural areas.

Jubilee and the Sabbath years were not merely occasional interruptions on the calendar, as the latter part of the chapter makes abundantly clear.  In Lev. 25:35-42, Israelites are commanded to care for their poor brethren.  Though there are a variety of provisions, the most stunning is v. 36-37:  Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you.  You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit (see also Deut. 23:19 and Exod. 22:25).  In powerful counterpoint to the economics by which we live, in God’s economy the poor are not an acceptable profit center.  Period!

It is of course a cause of some concern to many readers, and was deeply abused in our own country, that the Levitical law does provide for slavery of non-Hebrews.  A closer examination of these provisions is still worthwhile.  Lev. 25:42 explains why Hebrews could not be enslaved:  because God himself had already bought them (or redeemed them, see Deut. 15:15) from Egypt.  And this is where Jesus’ extending the “good news” of Jubilee to the Gentiles comes into play:  Now that God through Jesus has redeemed all of humanity, there are no longer any “strangers and aliens” available to be enslaved.  In Jesus, all of humanity has been purchased by God and is no longer for sale to anyone else!

Tragically, most of the provisions of God’s law of Jubilee may never have been practiced.  We certainly have no record in any Biblical account of a year of release–Sabbath or Jubilee–ever happening.  A few rabbinical websites I’ve been able to find do describe the way of counting the Jubilee year and imply that some elements may in fact have been practiced, though as this site explains, rabbis and Talmudic scholars seem to agree that the land provisions of Jubilee only apply in the land of Israel proper, and that none of it now applies since the majority of Jews do not live in Israel.  We do know that there was at least some historical awareness of the prohibition of interest, since more than once the people of Israel are criticized by the prophets for charging interest of their brethren (see Neh. 5:10, Prov. 28:8, Ezek. 18:8-13 and Ezek. 22:12).

Part of why much of this law may never have been practiced is a harsh reality:  actually doing Jubilee is not practical…in fact, absent God’s provision it’s economic suicide.  That’s why the promise of provision in Lev. 25:18-22 is so crucial.  Jubilee is impossible except by depending upon God to keep his word.  And it’s much harder for most of us to “have faith” in God when it comes to our homes and our stomachs than it is for something as amorphous as our “souls.”  ‘Twas ever thus, I suspect.

Recognizing Jesus’ Jubilee Kingdom

Any good Evangelical can tell you that the Law has been fulfilled in Jesus the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ).  What we are far less likely to recognize is that the Kingdom Jesus declared is not devoid of laws.  These laws aren’t the way we are “saved” (though that question isn’t as relevant as it is often preached), but there is nonetheless a character and conduct expected of Jesus’ subjects, quite different from that of the world in which we live.  In his declaration of Jubilee, I believe Jesus aligned himself and his followers firmly with the testimony of Moses and the prophets for thousands of years before:  there is a radical, decidedly material, economic component to living in his Kingdom.

I can’t describe with certainty what this economic component ought to look like.  That’s something that needs to be worked out with prayer and much dialog within the local body of believers.  But I think we can glean some universal truths that must be part of Jesus’ economy:

  1. God’s people are to see the poor as the objects of God’s particular concern and love, and to use our abundance to help them.  There is nothing wrong with business in God’s economy, but Jubilee Christians may not conduct business whose profit is derived from the poverty of others.  (for more on this you may want to check out my post Would Jesus Occupy Wall Street?)
  2. Most of us are no longer farmers, so it’s harder to think what the sabbath of the land might look like.  I do think it suggests a balance to the notion popular among some, that when God granted humanity “dominion” over the earth, he gave us a blank check to exploit it for all it’s worth.  Rather, trusting in God to provide our needs, we should be gentle in our use and stewardship of the natural resources with which we’ve been entrusted, and learn to let those resources have a rest from time to time.
  3. We do not live in a place with hereditary land ownership as Israel did.  But within the seven-year debt forgiveness cycle and the fifty-year land return cycle, I see a general principle that the aggregation of wealth must have limits.  Both the poor and the rich need some sort of periodic reset button to prevent the permanent marginalization of some and the permanent aggrandizement of others.
  4. Bondage comes in many forms.  We Christians like to concentrate on spiritual bondage, and it’s a real thing…not for one moment do I mean to minimize it.  But there’s still real physical slavery in this world (check out this post and the links on it for just a few examples), and we ought to be doing everything in our power to fight it.  There are also many who are in bondage precisely because of their economic poverty.  We need to look closely at how our lifestyles may add to (or at least enable) that bondage, and what we can do to proclaim liberty to the captives, whatever form their captivity may take.

Luke 19:1-9 gives us an interesting insight into what Jubilee can look like.  This is the story of when Jesus went to the home of wealthy tax collector Zaccheus.  Ol’ Zach must have really gotten smitten by the notion of Jesus kingdom, as his response to Jesus was to give away half of everything he owned, and to pay quadruple damages to anyone he’d ever wronged.  That, my friends, is Jubilee in action!

Jubilee is as radical an idea today as it was in Moses’ time, and in Jesus’.  Spiritual, yes in some ways, but with a nuts-and-bolts practical application that we cannot ignore.  God has always had a different economy than the world’s.  God’s people have rarely, if ever, trusted him enough to follow it.  But just maybe, this is part of what Jesus meant when he said:

Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.  (Matt. 6:33)

May we welcome the advent of Jesus Christ not just with Christmas bells, but with the ram’s horn of Jubilee!  The Kingdom of God is at hand!

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