Jesus walks into a Synagogue and starts reading from Isaiah. (Sounds like the beginning of a joke doesn’t it!)
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
And then he rolls up the scroll and sits down again!
This section in Luke 4:16-20 ends with the sentence:
The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him…
To which I would add “I bet they were!”
The Jesus story is well known, maybe not this bit, but much of it, yet the audacity of Jesus’ action here – coming in and reading only a few sentences from Isaiah’s prophecy, never ceases to have an impact on me.
The people in the synagogue would have wondered what in the world was going on.
The hindsight that we can view this passage from gives us a lot of perspective and the rest of the story, because most people (Christians especially) already know the ‘ending’, ends up detracting from the cultural, historical power that Jesus’ next words carried.
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Picture it: Israel as a whole was occupied by a suppressive Roman presence. Perhaps the most potent section of the ‘great prophet’ – Isaiah – the most venerated among the ancient voices, was being firmly pushed in their faces by a comparatively young upstart Rabbi. He was claiming to be the one who was bringing “good news to the poor freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind and freedom for the oppressed.” That he was “proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour” possibly passed them by in their surprise.
But in many ways, that’s the really important bit! The ‘Year of the Lord’s favor’ is another way of saying ‘Jubilee’ as described in Leviticus 25.
Jesus was claiming that in his coming, true Jubilee was being declared.
The picture of Jubilee in Leviticus is one that encompassed some of the other things Isaiah spoke of, namely; freedom from slavery, cancelling debts, returning land to it’s historical family’s ownership. A vision of a utopian paradise where justice and equality were maintained, where the next generation of people were given another chance to get it right if their parents had messed up or a chance to make their own living rather than have it left to them by their well-to-do ancestors. Debts and bad decisions never lasted more than a generation – 50 years, and everyone got a huge party and a clean slate at least once in their lifetime.
Who wouldn’t want a part of that?
I was recently pointed towards this talk by Walter Bruggeman at Mars Hill and found it compelling, encouraging and challenging in equal measure. I say “found” but really I mean “find” because the clarity and freshness of his words loose nothing in the third, fourth or even fifth hearing.
Brueggeman encourages the Mars Hill community to re-vision what a ‘new Jerusalem’ might look like in the contemporary picture of failed economics and a society that has ruined itself on greed and corruption. The talk was given just after the ‘sub-prime‘ fallout and collapse of Freddy Mac & Fannie May in 2008, but I think it’s just as pertinent now as we watch the possible failure or even complete disintegration of the European Economic Community. In Brueggeman’s words, the message of Isaiah is teased out for the present, reminding us that God’s Kingdom is designed, not as an exclusive gentleman’s club where only the ‘pure and true Israelites’ (see Ezra Ch4:3, Ch7:10 and Ch9) were allowed in, but where even the people with “messed up sexuality”, those eunuchs that had ‘sold out to babylon’, compromised themselves to work in the King’s harem, the ‘foreigners’ (Isaiah 56:3-7) were also welcome. The only caveats that Isaiah includes are those of keeping Sabbath and of ‘neighbourliness’. That is, not being people that are preoccupied with production and consumption, of being stuck in the 24/7 world of consumerism, but in being people that are practicing the principals of jubilee. I love that one of Brueggeman’s key points was that our neighbourliness needs to impact our “private economic wellbeing”. If we don’t really feel any impact on our own quality of life when we give, are we giving enough? That’s not a rhetorical question, but it’s one I feel is worth (me at least) grappling with.
I would strenuously encourage you to listen to Brueggeman’s talk, it’s excellent.
Jesus’ arrival in the world, though he speaks out the words of Isaiah and embodied the prophesy, did not herald the completing of the fullness of God’s plan. We still live in a world where all the things Jesus said were ending in this proclamation are still going on, perhaps even more so.
Jesus’ proclamation of ‘Jubilee’ was as much a declaration of his own presence to begin the process of restoration as it was a promise of a future free from injustice, inequality or exclusivity.
No wonder the people at the time had some difficulty accepting the message, the same difficulty that people today still struggle with. We are too used to things being finished and all wrapped up in our time. We are impatient for the promise to be a current reality, but, much like the last episode of spooks, no matter what the fallout, no matter what struggles we face, life goes on. Our Job is to find ways to bring foretastes of the Kingdom of God into this world while we await it’s triumphant arrival. Can we do a better job than Israel who never managed to act out Jubilee?
Let’s live Jubilee lives, the world can’t afford to live ‘The Dream’ (especially not ‘The American Dream’), but we can all do with getting to grips with some individual redistribution here and now.
Jesus began the work of jubilee living by pouring himself out for the world – John says as Jesus approaches “behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.
Can we continue the jubilee principals in our lives – giving generously and unselfishly to spread out the excess we have to those that need it?
Isaiah’s vision of Jubilee, pointed at the Israelite’s returning to their land, it pointed at Jesus, it pointed at us and it is still pointing beyond to the return of our King.
See, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more.
“Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
the one who dies at a hundred
will be thought a mere child;
the one who fails to reach a hundred
will be considered accursed.
They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
the work of their hands.
They will not labour in vain,
nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the LORD,
they and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
while they are still speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,”
says the LORD.