Time to Declare the ‘Jubilee’ – part 2
Before I share with you where my thinking has got to I must briefly mention another writer who has influenced me – Christopher Wright. Those of you who are familiar with his masterful books will no doubt share my admiration for his scholarship and his amazing ability to interpret the Old Testament in such a compelling and relevant way. For our purposes his key work is Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. At first I was daunted both by the title and the sheer size of this modern tome, but I persisted!
Wright asserts the vital importance of ancient Israel as a paradigm for the church, especially in its outworking of the Mosaic Law. This approach helps us to think less negatively about the Law and enables us to dig a bit deeper into its real purposes. The particular thing that struck me about Wright’s thesis was his description of the actual mechanics of the Jubilee year (pp.198-211). When you actually come to think about it, the very specific and practical way that land ownership and employment status was transformed by the Jubilee is very remarkable, down-to-earth and filled with hope for social justice. It shows us something profound about God and what happens when his justice and mercy are reflected in his people.
With all this in mind I have been contemplating how the early church seemed to have worked out this ‘Jubilee’ emphasis. There are six practical implications that I can detect in the pages of the New Testament. Three of them apply specifically to the church.
Let’s start by taking a closer look at the church. Firstly, it appears that there was a strong emphasis on the general alleviation of poverty within the local church community through spontaneous sharing of resources and organised systems to support the needy (Acts 4:32-37, 6:1-6 etc). Secondly, alongside this there is a clear emphasis on the prime responsibility of families within churches to support vulnerable members of their own families. Relatives should be the first to help their own family members, with the church there to assist if that is not possible (e.g. 1 Timothy 5:3-10). Thirdly, there is a clear awareness that the economic distinctions between rich and poor churches need to be remedied by giving and receiving of material resources between churches. This is mostly notably demonstrated in Paul’s collection amongst the Gentile churches to help the impoverished Judean churches (see 2 Corinthians 8 & 9 etc; also note Acts 11:27-30). Peter had this is mind when he exhorted Paul and Barnabas to “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10).
When we add all this up, it can be described as an ongoing Spirit-led experience of a kind of New Testament Jubilee within the churches. In this way, outsiders could look into churches and marvel at the extraordinary and life-changing consequences of the coming of the Kingdom within the people of God. Not only was good news received with joy, not only were the sick healed, but those oppressed materially received genuine release from oppression.
However, it seems to me that this New Testament Jubilee was intended to flow over from the church into the surrounding communities. There are at least three decisive indicators that this is the case. Firstly, Jesus redefines ‘neighbour love’ in such a way that it now has potentially universal application (Luke 10:25-37; see also James 2:8-9). This orients the church towards having compassion on all humanity and demonstrating such compassion in practical ways. Secondly, Jesus calls the church to be “salt and light” to outsiders by its practical actions (Matthew 5:13-16). There are, of course, many possible applications of this challenging mandate, but all of them point to serving outsiders and addressing their practical needs in one way or another. Thirdly, the church has a prophetic role in society in speaking out against injustice. This is exactly what James does in James 5:1-5. His comments are not addressed to church members, but to the rich oppressors of his day.
When I add all this together it begins to offer a few glimpses into the nature of the arrival of “the year of the Lord’s favour” in and through the church.
I’ve called it Jubilee+.
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