Too good to be true?
This morning we come to the end of our series on The Mission. For those of you who have been paying attention, I will be skipping one of the five statements, not because it isn’t important but because I only had four weeks for the series.
Is anyone in debt? Does anyone owe a mortgage? How about credit cards? What if I told you there was a way to get rid of all of these things? What if I could wipe your debt clear in an instant?
Does this sound too good to be true? Does this sound like some sort of pie-in-the-sky scam?
All that needs to be done is convince everyone in the capitalistic world to begin celebrating the ancient practice of Jubilee. That shouldn’t be too hard, should it? I mean, most people like the idea of doing good things for other people, right? Most of the world’s billionaires regard themselves as philanthropists to some extent, right? Shouldn’t we be able to convince Chase to wipe all their slates clean and the federal government to forgive all student loans? In the words of the Jewish theologian Jerome Allen Seinfeld, “good luck with all that.”
When Jesus refers to “the acceptable year of the Lord” he could be referring to a reminder of the ancient, little-heeded law of the year of Jubilee and its redemption, which was to herald freedom for captives and the indebted poor. However, people weren’t practicing Jubilee in Jesus’s day that we know of, relegating it to a simple buzzword or a trite expression. Some theologians disagree with this idea of Jubilee being the point of the message. One theologian wrote,
Some interpreters think that Jesus was calling for the literal observance of the Old Testament principle of Jubilee (Lev. 25) as a social reform, but neither the words of Isaiah nor the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s ministry support this. The reference seems rather to be to the Lord’s chosen time to bring salvation and judgment (the following words in Isaiah are “the day of vengeance of our God,” which does not sound like Jubilee). That time has now come, with the ministry of Jesus.
My own translation of the phrase by comparing the Hebrew and Greek is “to announce a time of God’s understanding and acceptance.” For the sake of addressing both ideas, we’ll look at the idea of Jubilee as the time of the Lord’s favor first and then, the idea of a time of understanding and acceptance.
So, what is the practice of Jubilee and where does this come from?
The Year of the Great Sabbath
In Leviticus chapter 25, Moses stands on the side of Mount Sinai having a conversation with God. God is telling Moses how to prepare the land once the people enter into Canaan. The instructions that he gives require a Sabbath rest for the land so that the land may heal itself every seven years. During this Sabbath, the food from the previous six years was to be used to feed not only the people but their hired laborers, servants, and foreign guests who lived with them as well as the livestock and wild animals in the land.
After a period of seven Sabbaths of the land, a total of 49 years the people were to blow a trumpet on the Day of Atonement and declare this to be a Jubilee year. During this year, each person had to return to their family property where no one was to plant no one was to harvest, no one was to gather food, and people were only allowed to eat only the produce that was directly out of the field because it was a Jubilee year and it was considered a holy. The buying and selling their food was regulated to keep people from cheating one another. God declared that the land should not be permanently sold because the land belongs to God. Leviticus 25 verse 23 says, “You are just immigrants and foreign guests of mine.” Methods were given to calculate a fair price for land to be purchased back for those who were in difficulty and had to sell. For those who were indentured servants, it was a year to be released from bondage, a year to return to their family and their family property.
The year of Jubilee was a year of redemption. It was a time when those who had come upon hard times would now be able to return to their lands, return to their families, and have the dignity of their humanity restored. Jubilee was a time when things that had gone wrong could be set right. It was a time for those who found themselves under the yoke of personal or financial bondage redeemed from their circumstances.
This theme is picked up in the book of Isaiah, particularly in the latter half of the text. The writer of Isaiah speaks of this concept of Jubilee in Isaiah 49 when he writes,
The Lord, Redeemer of Israel and its holy one, says to one despised, rejected by nations, to the slave of rulers: Kings will see and stand up; commanders will bow down on account of the Lord, who is faithful, the holy one of Israel, who has chosen you.
The Lord said: At the right time, I answered you; on a day of salvation, I helped you. I have guarded you, and given you as a covenant to the people, to restore the land, and to reassign deserted properties, saying to the prisoners, “Come out,” and to those in darkness, “Show yourselves.” Along the roads animals will graze; their pasture will be on every treeless hilltop.
They won’t hunger or thirst; the burning heat and sun won’t strike them, because one who has compassion for them will lead them and will guide them by springs of water.
I will turn all my mountains into roads; my highways will be built up.
Look! These will come from far away. Look! These from the north and west, and these from the southland.
– Isaiah 49:7-12
Jubilee, in its purest form, is the freedom to rest. It is being released from the bondage of the debt and restored to a place of peace and the place of plenty. Imagine knowing that all of your debts were canceled, that you were completely free from the burden of owing anyone anything. Imagine the good night’s sleep that you would have and the carefree day that you would have to know that you were truly, completely, without worry.
Now imagine Jubilee, not in the physical sense that we have been describing, but in a spiritual sense, a way in which you were given freedom from your past, freedom from your mistakes, freedom from the person that you used to be. Now imagine the freedom to look to the future, the freedom of fearlessness in Christ, the freedom to be the disciple that Christ calls you to be when He whispered the words, “Come, follow me.”
The Time of Acceptance and Understanding
For those who were the poor of Jesus day, much like in our own day, life was little more than surviving from meal to meal, day to day, the best way possible. Most wanted nothing more than to avoid the constant threat of starvation. And while there was physical poverty, there was also spiritual poverty. Two major religious parties – the Pharisees and the Sadducees – shaped the religious ideology of the Jewish people, usually for their own benefit or for what they perceived to be the benefit of the Jewish people. This benefit was usually around appeasing the Roman government so that the Jewish people could continue to have what little freedom they experienced to live and worship in their own way. For the Sadducees, religion was all about the Temple and Temple worship. Either you worshipped at the Temple or not at all. For those in the countryside simply trying to survive, this was rarely possible in the way the Sadducees prescribed. For the Pharisees, religious life was living in strict accordance with the Law given by God and their various interpretations of how to keep that, to the tune of 613 individual precepts that were a part of everyday life. Adherence to these laws made one ‘clean’ before God and the community. Breaking a law made one ‘unclean’ and left them outside the community.
The Gospel of Luke offers hope to those deemed unworshipers for not being able to get to the Temple and the unclean who are unable physically to live into the strict nature of interpreted law. Consider the story of the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50.
36 One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him. After he entered the Pharisee’s home, he took his place at the table. 37 Meanwhile, a woman from the city, a sinner, discovered that Jesus was dining in the Pharisee’s house. She brought perfumed oil in a vase made of alabaster. 38 Standing behind him at his feet and crying, she began to wet his feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured the oil on them. 39 When the Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw what was happening, he said to himself, If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. He would know that she is a sinner.
40 Jesus replied, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”
“Teacher, speak,” he said.
41 “A certain lender had two debtors. One owed enough money to pay five hundred people for a day’s work. The other owed enough money for fifty. 42 When they couldn’t pay, the lender forgave the debts of them both. Which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the largest debt canceled.”
Jesus said, “You have judged correctly.”
44 Jesus turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your home, you didn’t give me water for my feet, but she wet my feet with tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet since I came in. 46 You didn’t anoint my head with oil, but she has poured perfumed oil on my feet. 47 This is why I tell you that her many sins have been forgiven; so she has shown great love. The one who is forgiven little loves little.”
48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
49 The other table guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this person that even forgives sins?”
50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
This story is a fitting example of the change that Jesus offers through both the year of the Lord’s understanding and acceptance and the Jubilee Year. Those who were once regarded sinners are now declared clean and those who thought themselves clean have their sins brought before their eyes to be reckoned with. It is similar to the Old Testament stories of the younger brother getting the inheritance (as with Jacob) or becoming king (as with David). God is doing something new, something different and it involves taking those who were hurting and alleviating their pain and punishing those who unrepentantly caused it.
It isn’t too good to be true
This isn’t a too good to be true, get spiritually rich quick scheme. This is the embodiment of the life of a disciple, wholly given to the service of God and his Kingdom on earth. This is the opportunity that we have laid before by the finished work of the Christ, the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. In that finished work, we have the opportunity for both restoration and understanding.
Getting back to the imminent theologian Jerome Allen Seinfeld, who also said, “Where lipstick is concerned, the important thing is not color, but to accept God’s final word on where your lips end.” We have been given the parameters of this life to work out our salvation and live into the call to follow after Jesus. We have been accepted and understood by the God who offers us the freedom of starting again as we follow after Jesus. We simply have to do it.
 France, R. T. Luke (Teach the Text Commentary Series) (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2013) p. 70. Kindle Edition.