Time to declare the Jubilee part 1
Then there was Ron Sider – does that name mean anything to you? He had just bought out a block-busting book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Sider’s book shook my world with its devastating comparisons between rich and poor, between the first world and the rest. What did all this mean for my discipleship? Many questions… and not many answers at the time.
In his book, Sider introduced a couple of powerful biblical insights – ones which had not been a strong part of mainstream evangelical thinking before then, as far as I can remember. Firstly, he argued that when Jesus quoted from Isaiah 61:1-2 in his famous ‘Nazareth manifesto’ sermon (Luke 4:14-21) he was not just talking about ‘spiritual’ changes but also about the transformation of other very concrete realities – “freedom for the prisoners……. release [of] the oppressed”. Speaking of Isaiah 61 and its themes, Sider said: “In their original Old Testament setting, they unquestionably referred to physical oppression and captivity.” So Jesus had come to overturn oppression and captivity. No one had told me that before.
The second significant assertion made by Sider was that the Mosaic ‘Year of Jubilee’ as described in Leviticus 25 was vital to understand and relate to the mission of the church today. In the Jubilee year, which occurred every 50 years, the Jews were commanded to return all land to its original family landowners and to release people from bonded labour. Interestingly, Sider did not go on to spell out the biblical rationale for this supposed link between the Jubilee year and the church. Anyway, all this left me with a lot to think about.
Fast-forward a few years and I am still thinking about these matters when I pick up John Howard Yoder’s excellent book, The Politics of Jesus, in which Yoder links together the two ideas mentioned above by pointing out a very simple biblical insight. He focuses in again on the same biblical material and reflects on the fact that Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 61 ends with the phrase “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”. Whatever this “year” was, it was going to be enacted fairly sharply. Jesus told his stunned congregation in the Nazareth synagogue that the fulfilment of the prophecy was commencing immediately, without any further delay. Yoder’s assertion is that Jewish contemporaries of Jesus would have understood “the year of the Lord’s favour” to refer to the Jubilee year itself. This was the most obvious meaning and one which would have been widely supported by contemporary Jewish thought. Yoder’s assertion is a big statement with even bigger implications.
So, putting all this together I came to a few simple conclusions. Firstly, Jesus’ message of the Kingdom included (at least!) spiritual salvation, miraculous healings and the actual release of people from real poverty and oppression. Secondly, the Kingdom was going to have all these dimensions immediately. Thirdly, the description of the early church in the New Testament should give more definition as to the practical outworking of this “year of Jubilee”.
In my next post I’ll share with you my reflections on what the early church seems to have understood by the coming of the “year of Jubilee”, but in the meantime please visit the Jubilee+ blog and website to find out more about what this means for us today.