In preparation of our choir leaving for France in a few weeks for a tour in which they will music around the theme of Jubilee, I preached last week on Jubilee according to Leviticus 25 in the Hebrew Bible. If you were here last Sunday you know that Jubilee is the name for God’s directive to Moses that after every 49 years debts should be forgiven, slaves and debtors should be freed, and ancestral land should be returned to its original owners. I invited you to imagine what it would be like if we enacted Jubilee in our world.
Today I want to talk to you about Jubilee in the New Testament. There are 27 books in the New Testament and I want to make the argument that you can find Jubilee in all 27. Now I know that isn’t what you will find if you Google: “Where will I find Jubilee in the New Testament?” I want to suggest that just like you shouldn’t always believe everything I say you shouldn’t always believe Google. Today I think I’m right and Google is wrong.
Google will tell you that the only place you find Jubilee in the New Testament is in Luke 4, which is where you find the first sermon that Jesus’ preached. According to Luke, Jesus went back to his hometown of Nazareth and read from the scroll of Isaiah.. Someone read Isaiah 61 to us last week, which is the part Jesus read. Of all the things Jesus could choose to read for his first sermon he read about Jubilee. If you weren’t here or you don’t remember the scripture let me share it with you again:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because the Most High has anointed me to bring good news to the poor
God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those held captive,
Recovery of sight to the blind
And release to those in prison –
To proclaim Jubilee – the year of God’s favor.
And then when Jesus sat down to preach he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Let’s talk about that for a second. Jesus read the scripture from the Torah about Jubilee…about something that had been imagined and probably never enacted and then declared it accomplished. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” What was different about today?
We know it was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It was his first sermon and with it he announced the breaking in of Jubilee…the breaking in of justice…the breaking in of righting the conditions of oppression and hopelessness…the breaking in of finally having Jubilee come to fruition.
Walter Brueggemann, a biblical scholar of whom I’m a groupie, writes:
What Jesus meant was, “I am Jubilee. Isaiah wrote about it. I am going to enact it.” And he set about giving social power and social access and social goods to the poor and excluded.
Rachel Held Evans has a similar take. She says that what Jesus was saying in Luke 4 was:
Watch me; this is how it’s done. This is what Jubilee — God’s Kingdom — looks like in action.
This is why I say Jubilee can be found in every book of the New Testament because its all about what Jesus did, who he was, what he taught, how he lived, how he died and how he called us to do as he had done.
If you want to really look at how the idea of Jubilee lived out in the life and teachings of Jesus, start with the parables he told. It is as simple as that. Many of the characters in his stories show an inversion of power and what it looks like when imbalance is then corrected.
Look at the story of the Good Samaritan. Who were the ones who had power? A priest, a Levite and a Samaritan. Wait. Did we hear that right? A Samaritan? The person who had little power and was looked down upon in Jesus’ culture? The Samaritan had power and he is the only one in the story who used his power for good. The Samaritan used his power to restore balance to the community.
The story I really want to look at today is the one we call the Parable of the Prodigal Son. You know the story. A father has two sons and one of them is a narcissistic kid who can’t wait for his father to die so he goes to him and says, “I want my inheritance right now.”
Imagine that for a moment…imagine if you had a child say, “I want what is coming to me and I want it now and I don’t want to wait until you die because you aren’t doing it fast enough.” What would you say? Would you tell your child to take a hike? I would be brokenhearted. The father in this story says, “Okay.” What a pushover. This is no small ask. In that culture this would mean that the father has to sell property…his land. He does and gives his ungrateful son the half of his estate he would have gotten after the old man croaked.
The son leaves home and goes off and spends all of the money his father gave him….all of it. He wastes it in narcissistic pursuits. The son is left feeding slop to the pigs, which is not a job any self-respecting Jew would do. Then he realizes the pigs are eating better than he is. With nostalgia he remembers life back with his father and realizes that the hired hands that work for his father are eating and surviving so much better than he is.
So he sets off for home. On the way he works on his speech of repentance he knows he needs to deliver when he arrives at his dad’s door. The Prodigal son doesn’t sound repentant to me….just hungry. We have to wonder if he is really sincere. I doubt it. He just wants something to eat and a safe place to sleep. The apology he practices on the road home is merely a means to an end. He knows his father will take him in. His father is a sucker. After all, he gave this narcissistic jerk his half of the inheritance without an argument, remember? The Prodigal son knows he might have to grovel just a little and so he spends the time on the road preparing for the inevitable speech he will have to make when he arrives back home.
But before he even gets there his father runs out on the road to meet him. His father has been watching for him, always expecting that his son would come home again. His father kisses him and throws his arms around him. The Prodigal son was expecting to be taken in but not welcomed with this much enthusiasm. He clears his throat and says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you and I am no longer worthy to be called your son…” But before he can even get to the part where he beseeches his father to take him in as a hired hand his father has already called for a robe and sandals and a ring and welcome home feast.
The father doesn’t care if his son is sincere. He is just glad his son is home. This father is ready to reinstate his son….this one who misused the gift he had been given. He goes from failed prodigal back to the role of son through the intervention of the father. The son is returned to heir and the father regains his son. Both restored to their rightful places once again….no questions asked.
Jesus has a message for his listeners — God is a Jubilee God. Always ready to forgive us even before we get out our insincere apology. God is a sucker for us…running out on the road to meet us….just glad we are home….again.
In the story of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal son balance is restored…a Samaritan returns a wounded Jew to his place and a father re-establishes a prodigal to the role of son. Jubilee. The conditions of powerlessness are replaced with power once again.
It is the story Jesus tells over and over and over again. Jubilee is rampant in the miracle stories in which Jesus heals lepers, women, the crippled…as Jesus restores people back to the community that rejected them…over and over again. Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
Last week I told you that Jubilee was an idea awaiting our imagination. Today I want to tell you that Jesus already showed us how to enact it. Jesus told us that it isn’t just something we should do every 49 years. It is actually an everyday challenge. It is a call to reflect God’s justice…the kind that runs out on the road and welcomes someone home again. It is a call to do that every day in our social structures and to do that we have to adjust the structures and the systems of our community life together. We have to give people back their dignity. We have to restore them to right relationship. We have to bind up their wounds and give them special attention and give away some of our power. Today.
Rachel Held Evans says that if you want to know exactly how to do that then start with Jesus. She said it this way:
If Jesus embodies God’s dreams for the world, then citizens of the Kingdom start by imitating him—by eating with the people he ate with, by telling the sort of stories he told, by healing and forgiving, by serving and praying, by resisting the temptations of power and money and violence, by breaking down religious barriers, by loving enemies, by showing humility and grace, by overturning some tables and dining at others, by being obedient to the point of death.
Our call, our challenge, every day….every day….is to be the Jubilee people of our Jubilee God. Amen.