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Jubilee - the Biblical Vision
As the polarization of rich and poor accelerates in our country and our world, we are down the drawn to the vision of an alternative socio-economic-spiritual possibility based on the Sabbath and Jubilee mandates in the Hebrew Bible and chosen by Jesus as his primary vocation. Surprisingly, most of us have never even realized that teaching about the Sabbath day begins with the story about the manna in the wilderness (Ex.16), wich instructed the people of Israel, newly liberated from Egypt, to gather each day only the specific amount needed for every member of every family and so to create a soceonomic order in which all people would have enough and non would have more than enough.
|By Ross Kinsler|
|Deuteronomy's version of the fourth Commandment (Deut. 5:12-15)
underlines the fact that the purpose of the Sabbath Day is to remember the liberation
from Egypt and the mandate to maintain that socio-economic alternative. In Deuteronomy
15 we find two fundamental mandates for that alternative socio-economic in terms
of the Sabbath Year, when debts were to be cancelled and slaves were to be freed.
Once again the foundation is God's act of liberation from Egypt. "Every seventh
year you shall grant a remission of debts, and do so generously, or your neighbour
might cry to the Lord against you as your predecessors cried out against their taskmakers
in Egypt " (Deut. 15:1-11). Remember that you were slaves in the land
of Egypt, so you shall set free any Hebrew slaves every seventh year" (Deut.
15:12-15). In Leviticus 25:1-7 we find the mandate to give rest to the land during
the Sabbath Year, and then follows the mandate to celebrate a year of Jubilee every
50 years as a Super Sabbath. The new element here, in addition to cancelled debts
and freed slaves, is the redistribution of the land to all the families of Israel.
"You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It
shall be a Jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property
and every one of you to your family".(Lev. 25:10) Here too the foundation
is liberation from Egypt (Lev. 25:38, 42, 55).
The word Jubilee apparently comes from the Hebrew word for the ram's horn that served as a trumpet. The Sabbath-Jubilee mandates were designed to resist and reserve the human propensity to accumulate wealth and create poverty. It is easy to see that ancient agrarian societies were polarized when peasant farmers lost their crops due to natural or human causes, went into debt in order to eat and replant, lost their land if their crops still fell short or interest on their debt was too exorbitant, and finally fell into slavery.
It was therefore essential for liberated Israel to create a new socio-economic-spiritual reality in which debts would be remitted, slaves released, and the land redistributed periodically. The possibility that these mandates were rarely if ever carried out in no way lessens their importance. Rather our challenge is to work out the Jubilee vision in terms relevant for our current local, national and global reality.
To bring good news to the poor" does not mean to provide a heavenly home after death. It means to change the basic socio-economic and spiritual realities of landless peasants and unemployed labourers in this world.
|Because of its location at the beginnig of Jesus' ministry, the story of Jesus' appearance
at the Nazareth synagogue, Luke 4:16-30, is especially important. The writer of this
Gospel chose to explain the central content of Jesus' message concerning God's Reign,
Luke 4:43, in terms of Isaiah 61:1-2a, which ends with the words,"to proclaim
the year of the Lords favour." This is generally understood to be directed
to the Year of Jubilee, though it could include the Sabbath Year as well, as is found
in Leviticus 25. The whole text of Luke 4:18-19 expresses the central thrust of the
Sabbath-Jubilee mandates."To bring good news to the poor" does not
mean to provide a heavenly home after death. It means to change the basic socio-economic
and spiritual realities of landless peasants and unemployed labourers in this world."To
proclaim release to the captives" probably refers to debtors who were in
prison with no means to repay their debts."Recovery of sight to the blind"
had long been one of the eschatological expectations, and it may be understood
to refer to the widespread need of the poor for healing of every kind."To
let the oppressed go free " should be interpreted not only in terms of the
specific Sabbath-Jubilee mandate to free the Israelite slaves, but also in the larger
sense of developing a social reality within which the conditions leading to slavery
through debts and loss of land would be resisted and reserved. Similarly, we may
suggest that, "the acceptable year of the Lord" or"the year
of the Lord's favor" that Jesus proclaimed as the coming of God's Reign
was no longer strictly one year in seven or one year in fifty but a new age of liberty
Of particular interest for our study is Jesus' use of two examples to illustrate God's intervention on behalf of those in need (Luke 4:25-27). The first is the provision of meal and oil for a widow in Sidon and her son through Elijah; the second is the healing of a Syrian man through Elisha. The first a woman, a widow, and a foreigner; the second a sick and impure foreigner. Prior to this the villagers of Nazareth expressed amazement in Jesus' words. After hearing these extraordinary examples, they were engaged and tried to kill him. So here we find the option of Jesus not only for the poor and oppressed but also for widows and orphans and aliens, a recurring theme of Deuteronomy closely related to the Sabbath mandates. And here too we find the violent reaction that this option provoked, probably as a precursor of the final rejection and crucifixion of Jesus.
At this point we will turn back to Luke's long introduction and note additional material relevant to the Sabbath-Jubilee vision. As introductory, these passages were chosen by Luke because they reveal the nature and importance of Jesus' mission. One is Mary's song, the Magnificat at the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah, when Mary was pregnant with Jesus and Elizabeth with John. The following portion, Luke 1:51-53, exalts the Mighty One in terms that emulate the Jubilee:
Then Luke explains John's demand for "worthy of repentance" in very concrete terms:
|Those for whom Jesus' message is good news... these are the ones
excluded by the system of religious and socioeconomic domination.
||Sabbath-Jubilee Texts in Matthew
Matthew's account of Jesus' ministry, after his long introduction, begins with a general summary including Jesus proclamation, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." (Matthew 4:12-17) Then follows the calling of the first disciples and another summary paragraph about Jesus' teaching and preaching"the good news of the kingdom and curing every sickness among the people". Then begins the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes. Here we find Matthew's, or rather Jesus', first exposition of the meaning of God's Kingdom or Reign. The first eight blessings are presented in the third person plural; the ninth is in the second person plural. The first and eighth, the poor in spirit and those who are persecuted for righteousness' or justice's sake, are the ones to whom God's Reign belongs. In fact they might be considered the generic ones who include the others, i.e. the meek, etc. In any case we find here a catalog of those for whom Jesus' message is good news, and these are the ones excluded by the system of religious and socio-economic domination.
Much has been written about the apparent "spiritualization" of the Beatitudes in Matthew as compared with Luke. But this may be a misreading of Matthew. The poor in spirit may in fact refer to the literally poor plus all who make their option to be in solidarity with the poor through their life-style, actions toward the poor, and struggles with them for a just and equitable socio-economic order. This is the apparent meaning of the fourth Beatitude concerning"those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," i.e. justice. In contrast with those who strive to accumulate wealth, the latter will be satiated in their struggle for justice. The meek are apparently those who have been pushed off the land; "they will inherit the earth," i.e. the land. Surely this is a direct reference to the Jubilee mandate that all Israelites should return to their properties and families at the Super-Sabbath Year. The message of Jesus is a call to Sabbath economics, to social transformation, to Jubilee spirituality, to liberty for the oppressed and marginalized.
The Beatitudes thus provide basic understanding for the following portions of the Sermon on the Mount, which in turn provide further insight into the Beatitudes. how are Jesus' followers to be salt and light? By "good works" that demonstrate God's Reign as defined above. (Matthew 5:13-16) How does Jesus fulfill the Law and the Prophets? By calling his followers to carry out the commandments of God's Rule, which is to practice justice exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees. (Matthew 5:17-20)
|Later Jesus speaks about treasures on earth and in heaven. This passage has so easily
been read as a life insurance policy for eternity, but in the context of the Beatitudes
and our understanding of Sabbath ethics and Jubilee spirituality it takes on a different
meaning. It is a call to practice justice here in this life rather than to accumulate
wealth in this life. (Matthew 6:19-21) At least this is the evident meaning of the
following paragraphs about the eye as the light of the body and the tension between
two possible masters. "If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full
of light, but if your eye is unhealthy, your body will be full of darkness."
(Matthew 6:22-23) "No one can serve two masters... You cannot serve God and
wealth (mammon)" (Matthew 6:22-24)
The following passage deals with the human tendency to worry about the future which becomes the rationale for hoarding and the accumulation of wealth. The birds of the air and the lilies of the field are examples of God's trusting creatures, who outshine Solomon's glory. Jesus' followers are to "strive first for the Kingdom of God and God's righteousness," "God's Reign and God's justice," and the basic needs of food and clothing will be taken care of on an daily basis. Once again we find echoes of Sabbath economics.
|Social analysis has become essential for theology and ministry and for the critique of society and of the church itself.||We turn back now to the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13, which some have called a
Jubilee prayer. The first petition,"Your Kingdom come," reiterates
Jesus' fundamental message. In the heritage of the Sabbath-Jubilee vision, we are
reminded of that fatal chapter in Israel's history when the people demanded a king
like the other nations, thus adopting the dangers of centralization, the concentration
of power and wealth, and rejecting the ways of Yahweh, their true King, who required
an alternative social possibility, the decentralization of power and wealth so that
all God's people would have enough. The second petition, "Your will be done,"
reinforces the first, and the third "Give us this day our daily bread,"
makes explicit reference to Exodus 16, where God's people were to gather just the
portion needed for one day at a time, except the sixth day of the week, in preparation
for the Sabbath, at which time they were to remember Yahweh's deliverance from Egypt
and rest from their daily toils. Then the fourth petition, "Forgive us our
debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors," must also be based on the
Sabbath-Jubilee principle of debt forgiveness, which is one of the fundamental ways
to break the tendency toward wealth accumulation on the one hand and poverty-oppression-slavery
on the other.
The final petition, "Do not bring us to the time of trial (temptation), but rescue us from the evil one (evil)," may also belong to the same pattern of Sabbath economics and Jubilee spirituality, for Deuteronomy and Leviticus are full of warnings of judgement for disobedience to these mandates.
|Since the 1960's Latin American Liberation Theology has made an enormous impact on
the churches, cultures, and peoples of the region, and it has been a point of reference
or challenge in many other regions. Its fundamental insight into the struggles of
the Latin American peoples, into the Biblical message, and into the church's mission
has been socio-economic. Social analysis has become essential for theology and ministry
and for the critique of society and of the church itself. The depth and breadth of
the task of reworking theology and ministry from this perspective is evident in the
outpouring of formal publications and popular literature, primarily in Spanish and
Portuguese, both Catholic and Protestant. But now we see that this is only the beginning.
Since the 1980's Latin American women and men have been pressing for similar efforts
in terms of gender, which is now increasingly recognized as equally important if
not more important than socio-economic analysis. This development does not yet match
the organizing and research and publishing of counterparts in North America and Europe,
and it will certainly take different forms in Latin America, but the prospect of
abundant fruit and challenge is already visible. Surrounding the 500th Anniversary
of the European invasion of the New World, efforts to rethink and rewrite history
and theology from the perspective of the indigenous and African peoples of Latin
America have multlplied. And important work has begun from the perspective of children,
differently abled people, seniors, and others. We believe that these efforts all
correspond to the Sabbath-Jubilee vision of alternative socio-economic-spiritual
possibilities in which all God's people enjoy fullness of life, where all are subjects
and participate in the formation of that life, where all find dignity and pursue
their dreams for themselves and for their children. The significance of these developments
can be expressed in many ways. Women have put it this way. "We are not just
interested in dividing up the cake more fairly. We want to change the whole recipe."
As the human frontiers multiply, the biblical, theological and pastoral possibilities and demands multiply as well. As we engage in and cross those frontiers, we deepen and broaden our own humanity. The recipe of our personal and collective humanity is becoming wonderfully diverse and being enriched far beyond anything we could have imagined, even as the suffering of humanity is ever more deeply disturbing. This is how we now see the message and ministry of Jesus in keeping with the Sabbath and Jubilee mandates.
|Ross Kinsler and his wife Gloria are mission workers based at the Latin American
University in San José, Costa Rica. They have lived in Central America for
23 years, and they are currently working on a book titled "The Biblical Jubilee
and the Struggle for Life."
This article was first published in The Catholic Agitator, Vol.28/No.2, March 1998. We republish it here with thanks. The Catholic Agitator is available from: 632 N Brittania St, Los Angeles, CA 90033, USA.
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