Jesus, Justice & Jubilee (Luke 4:14-21)


And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee: and a fame went out concerning him through all the region round about. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified of all. And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and he entered, as his custom was, into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up to read. And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Isaiah. And he opened the book, and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Because he anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor: He hath sent me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovering of sight to the blind, To set at liberty them that are bruised, To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down: and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he began to say unto them, To-day hath this scripture been fulfilled in your ears.

There has been an unfortunate division in the church, that goes back over many years, between those who emphasise the preaching of the Gospel as the primary work of the church, and those who focus on issues of justice, love, and peace.

It is regularly assumed that those who focus on the preaching of salvation are not concerned about justice and love, and conversely, that those devote themselves to works of justice and love are not concerned about the Biblical message of salvation.

Our little community in Dulwich Hill has a strong reputation for pursuing justice and works of love in the community. For that reason it is assumed by some that we have little regard for the Bible and the Gospel message. That assumption is made, not because we show lack of respect for the Scriptures, but rather because we have a record of getting passionately involved in works of love and justice.

Some of you, I know, have been challenged about your loyalty to the Scriptures because of your concern for the needy, or even simply because of your association with a church that takes issues of justice seriously. Some of you, on the other hand, may be thinking, ‘what’s he talking about?’

If you’re part of that latter group, I apologise in advance today, as I’m really angling today’s sermon primarily at the first group – at those who have been challenged that love for the Gospel and the pursuit of social justice are not readily compatible.

If you’re part of the ‘what’s he talking about?’ group, please just try to bear with me. If, on the other hand, you are one of those who have been told that your priority as a Christian should be preaching the Gospel, rather than pursuing works of justice and peace, listen up, for nowhere in the Bible are these concerns brought together more closely, in my opinion, than in today’s Gospel reading from Luke chapter 4, where Jesus proclaims the Gospel in terms of ‘Good News for the Poor’ and in terms of His vision for social justice.

So, my apologies to the ‘what’s he talking about?’ group, and my apologies too to those who might find me a little academic today. This text was the basis of my exit sermon from Moore College – the sermon that each student must give in front of the whole faculty and student body – and I fear that the remnants of academia do still cling to my perspectives on the passage.

And while I’m busy apologising, I should apologise too to my preaching mentors at Moore College too, who taught me that the first rule of preaching is that you never apologise.

Luke chapter 4: Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth after gaining some notoriety for his work in other parts of Israel, and He appears to have been asked to be the guest preacher at the synagogue service on the Sabbath.

Not many details of that service are given to us in Luke 4, but from what we know of early synagogue services, the format would have been not unlike what we are used to today. They would have had some singing (though unaccompanied by any organ or set of stringed instruments). They would have certainly heard those same words read which we read each Sunday: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One …’ And like us they had a series of three readings and then a sermon, usually given on the final reading.

Their readings were not of course from Old Testament, New Testament and Gospels, but from three different sections of what we call the Old Testament. The first reading would have been from the Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy). The second reading would have been taken from the Writings (which includes books such as Proverbs and Job). And the third reading was taken from the Prophets.

Jesus ‘stood up to read’ we’re told. ‘And there was handed to him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah’. Isaiah being such a long book, it would have probably come in three scrolls, in which case Jesus has been handed the third scroll. And he would have had to unroll that scroll to write down towards the end, where it said:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

‘And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant’ we are told, ‘and he sat down’. Presumably this means he sat down to preach. In those days they preached sitting down in the preacher’s chair, which was located up front and centre of the synagogue. And ‘the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him’ to hear his sermon on the passage.

‘Today’, says Jesus, ‘this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing!’

And that’s it! The sermon is over. Jesus returns to his pew, presumably having broken the record for the shortest sermon ever preached in that synagogue. And everyone, we’re told, was somewhat aghast.

Short sermons are always crowd pleasers, of course, but there was something more than brevity that got the attention of the congregation in Nazareth on that Sabbath morning.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

This was the text Jesus chose for his sermon, and it’s taken from Isaiah chapter 61. It’s part of a passage full of promises of better days for the people of Israel, who were a shattered people, conquered by the Babylonians and dispossessed of their land. The prophet proclaims the dawning of a new age – an age of healing and peace – where the oppressed will find freedom and where the poor are going to be able to get back on their feet.

There are a couple of things worth noting about the way Jesus handles this reading:

It was customary, apparently, to choose a reading of between three and twenty-three verses in length. Jesus reads from only the first two verses.

Jesus doesn’t just shorten the reading, he actually stops in the middle of a verse – ‘to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord’.

If you go back and look at the whole of Isaiah 61, verse two, you’ll see that the verse goes on to speak about the judgement on the gentiles. Jesus leaves that out and concludes instead with the proclamation of ‘the acceptable year of the Lord’ – almost certainly a reference to the ‘Jubilee year’ of Leviticus 25.

Now you can see why I gave that apology about things might get overly academic, as we’re moving all over the Bible, but to understand Jesus’ sermon, we do need to understand something of what the first century people of Nazareth understood when they heard him, and those people knew the old Biblical stories off by heart.

Our passage is Luke chapter 4, where Jesus is preaching on a passage from Isaiah 61, which in turn draws on imagery from Leviticus 25. I don’t expect that many of us would have guessed that had we not been told. Those people would have.

Let me read to you from Leviticus 25:

You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month – on the Day of Atonement – you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.” (verses 8 to 10)

This is the passage dealing with the Jubilee year, which is a kind of Sabbath.

If you know how the Sabbath concept works, there are, according to the Torah, not one but three Sabbaths – the Sabbath day, the seventh day, when everybody rests, the Sabbath year, which is the seventh year, where you let your land rest, and then you count seven times seven years, which equals forty-nine years, and at the end of that year you proclaim the 50th year as the Jubilee year – the Sabbath of Sabbaths – where you get a break, your land gets a break and everybody gets a break, as all prisoners are freed, and there is a redistribution of the nation’s wealth!

The Jubilee Year was fundamentally a process of land reform, where the land goes back to its original owners.

When Israel took over the land, it was divided up equally between the families. Of course, over the years some people did well with their land while other people, through either laziness or just bad luck, did poorly. The poor end up selling out their land to the rich, and often have to sell themselves into slavery to pay their debts. But every 50 years, so the Torah says, all these debts are cancelled, all the slaves are set free, each person and each family is given back their original allotment of land, and so the wealth is redistributed again equally, and so the process starts again, for another 50 years.

It would be hard to overstate what a radical sort of institution this was! Every 50 years, all those people who had maxed out their credit cards, and all those who were slaving away to keep up with a mortgage that they never should have taken on – everybody’s debt is instantaneously cancelled!

Now you might think, ‘hey, those guys got into that debt through their own stupidity!’ Well, in the God-run economy, allowances are made for people’s stupidity. People do not have to live with the consequences of their bad decisions – not forever, at any rate – not for more than a generation.

This is ‘good news to the poor’ of course, and the good news is that they’re not going to be poor any longer. The whole concept sounds absolutely amazing, doesn’t it? Sadly, it is questionable whether the nation of Israel ever carried out a Jubilee.

Think about it, from your knowledge of Biblical history. We can see where Moses laid down the law of Jubilee, but we never read of any instance of it happening! This makes sense, of course, as the people who would have been responsible for seeing that the law was carried out, would have been the very people who would have had the most to lose from the process!

There’s a fascinating story in Jeremiah chapter 34, where it seems that the people almost had a Jubilee. The city was surrounded by the Babylonians and the people were desperate, and in a final act of pious desperation, the populace thought it might be an idea to win favour with God through freeing the slaves and cancelling all debts. So they did this, and the Babylonian army miraculously disappeared, after which the leaders rearrested the prisoners and rounded up the slaves and put them back to work (much to the disappointment of Jeremiah … and God).

I was reminded me of an anecdote emailed to me this week by an Irish friend:

A man is running late for a meeting and desperately looking for a parking space. He prays, “Lord, if you can help me to find a parking space, I promise I’ll go to Mass every week for the rest of my life and I’ll give away the whiskey!” Even as he says his prayer, a parking space miraculously appears in front of him. He looks to Heaven and says, “Lord, you don’t need to worry about it. I’ve found one.”

The story in Jeremiah 34 is a bit like that. The people say, ‘Lord, if you’ll get rid of these Babylonians, we will declare a Jubilee! We’ll free all our slaves and cancel all debts!’ Then, as the Babylonians disappear, they say, ‘Actually, Lord, don’t worry about it. They seem to have gone anyway!

It would appear that the people of Israel never actually held a literal Jubilee. But the hope that one day a great levelling-out would take place remained

One day there will be real equality. One day we’ll all be free from the consequences of our own historic mistakes. One day all wealth will be shared out equally. One day the prisoners will be free, debt will be cancelled, and the poor will get a fair go. One day we will live in genuine peace with one another.

And so Isaiah takes up the image of the Jubilee as he speaks of the work of the coming Messiah. It is the Messiah who will bring real justice, real equality, real peace. The Messiah will bring ‘Good News to the Poor’.

Isaiah’s Jubilee vision of freedom and equality is no longer, by that stage, a simple process of land reform, but has taken on new meaning for the people living in captivity in Babylon. The people are going to get their land back from the Babylonians, rather than from their fellow Israelites, and there’s a ‘binding up of the broken-hearted’ in Isaiah’s vision (61:1), which is an expansion on the original Jubilee vision. Even so, Isaiah’s Jubilee still includes all the fundamental elements of the Levitical Jubilee – sharing, equality, justice and peace.

And so Jesus picks up this prophecy from Isaiah, reads it out, proclaims ‘the acceptable year of the Lord’, sits down, and says, ‘today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’!

Was Jesus inaugurating the Mosaic land reforms, as laid down in Leviticus 25? Well … not literally, for the vision of Jubilee had grown again! The vision had evolved in something bigger for Isaiah and with Jesus the Jubilee vision grows again.

If you read Jesus‘ proclamation, you’ll see that Jesus’ Jubilee includes ‘recovery of sight for the blind’ – a dimension that has been added to Isaiah‘s vision. There is physical healing taking place in Jesus’ Jubilee, and, as we know, there is more than that too! There is forgiveness of sins taking place in Jesus’ Jubilee. There is a renewal of the individual taking place in Jesus’ Jubilee. Even so, all the old elements of Moses’ vision are still there too – sharing, equality, love and justice, where the poor get a fair go and debts are cancelled and slaves are freed. And this is the Gospel!

Which part is the Gospel? All of it! Is this new Jubilee about individual salvation or about sharing and justice or about what? It’s about all of that and more!

Jesus’ Jubilee is a holistic vision, that envelopes individuals and communities and the very fabric of the cosmos itself. ‘All things are becoming new’ in Jesus’ Jubilee Kingdom. And that’s good news for the poor and the dispossessed who have been suffering in this world through injustice and through global violence. And it’s good news to those whose lives are falling apart through sin and guilt and who need a new beginning. And it‘s good news for those who turn to Jesus in faith and commit themselves to helping build the Jubilee Kingdom that Jesus has inaugurated.

It is a great thing that some people in the church put emphasis on a particular dimension of the work of God’s Jubilee Kingdom. It is a great shame though when any follower of Jesus judges that their contribution to the renewal of the cosmos is more valuable than those of their sisters and brothers. To do so is to make the mistake of dreaming the Jubilee on too small a scale.

I normally have an illustration to finish with. I don’t have one today. But I do have a dream:

I have a dream of a world that is not run by financial institutions. I dream of a world where people’s mistakes – be they financial, spiritual or in everyday relationships – are not held against them forever. I have a dream of people living in genuine peace with one another – where everyone has a home, shares their resources, and where ‘the earth is as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’.

This is the vision of Jubilee . Let us dream it together! Hear the trumpet, the cry of freedom, see the new world coming, and so to rejoice at the coming of salvation.

Dream the Jubilee dream, and follow your dream! And remember to dream BIG!

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, January 2007. 

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.


About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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