The word “Jubilee” comes from the Hebrew word for a ram’s horn. Rams’ horns were used in ancient Israel to signal the arrival of important moments in their public life, and so the word Jubilee became the name of the biggest and best day imaginable on the Hebrew calendar.
- Every seventh day on the Hebrew calendar was the Sabbath for our spiritual mothers and fathers – a day each week for them to stop and give God His due.
- Every seventh year was a Sabbath Year – a whole year when their fields were supposed to lie fallow so that they might be replenished. Spiritually the Sabbatical year was the reminder that God was the provider for all of His people’s needs and that He could be trusted completely to meet them, even when they weren’t working.
- And every seventh Sabbatical Year was supposed to be the Jubilee for our spiritual mothers and fathers – a moment in time every 50 years when everything that had gone haywire in people’s lives and worlds throughout that generation got put back in right order again so that everyone might get a fresh start.
Debts were forgiven. Slaves were set free. Land reverted back to the families of its original owners. The Jubilee was a season of redemption, reconciliation, and redistribution that came around once in everybody’s lifetime. It was a generational reordering of the world so that God’s conditions for human flourishing might be restored. And although it was commanded by the Law of Moses (Leviticus 25), historians tell us that there is no evidence that the Jubilee was never actually kept. Apparently it was just too radical a realignment of life to be practically undertaken by God’s people. But they didn’t forget it. The Jubilee remained an ideal for them. It was their dream for the future they wanted, but it was a dream so big that they concluded that only God could finally bring it about (Isaiah 61). When the Messiah came, they said, that’s when the Jubilee would arrive.
Luke 4:16-21 is the story that Luke tells us about the beginning of Christ’s public ministry. A hometown boy made good, Jesus was invited to read one of the morning Scripture lessons for his community gathered in worship, and the text that He read to them was a Jubilee text – excerpts from Isaiah 61 –
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
After reading these words that everybody in the room understood were about the Jubilee, Jesus gave the scroll back to the attendant, sat down – the teaching posture of a rabbi in the synagogue – and once He had everybody’s attention, Jesus preached a nine word sermon –
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Christopher Wright, an Old Testament scholar, writes –
How many years had this Scripture been read in the synagogue? How many times would the local rabbi have encouraged his people to go on praying and trusting for the day to come when the one of whom it spoke would come and do those things?
“May he come soon, O Lord!”
“Bring us this good news in our lifetime. Perhaps tomorrow…”
Then one Sabbath morning, the local carpenter’s son shocked the whole town with the electric word: “Today!” No more waiting. What you have hoped and longed for all these years is here, in the One standing before you.
More than one interpreter suggests that Luke wanted the readers of his Gospel to use the Jubilee categories of Isaiah 61 that Jesus told His family and friends that day in the Nazareth synagogue had been “fulfilled in their hearing” as the window for us to use to look at His ministry. They say that the rest of the Gospel of Luke can be read as a record of how Jesus actually went about fulfilling His Jubilee mission as the Messiah, the Christ – how He brought good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, set the oppressed free, and proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor. As Jesus, anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power, went about doing good (Acts 10:38) — healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the hungry, forgiving the wayward, freeing the possessed, embracing the marginalized, announcing the arrival of the kingdom, and finally, going to the cross — Luke wants us to know that Jesus did all of these things with the Jubilee in mind. There is no better way for us to get to the heart of Jesus, which is how we get to the heart of God, than to look at Him and what He did when He was here through the window of the Jubilee.
Those same interpreters who want us to read the Gospel of Luke against the backdrop of His announcement in the Nazareth synagogue that the Jubilee had arrived in Him, also want us to read the book of Acts, the other New Testament book that Luke wrote, in the same way. “If the Gospel of Luke shows how Jesus fulfilled the [Jubilee] mission mandate of Jesus as recorded in Luke 4:18-19, then the book of Acts shows how the church, guided and empowered by the same Spirit, worked to carry on the [Jubilee] ministry of Jesus” (Jeremy Myers). Now, the key to all this, it seems to me, is to always be just as clear as we possibly can about the fact that Jesus is the Jubilee, and that we, His church, are just a signpost that points to Him as God’s Jubilee.
Our spiritual parents, the Jews, realized pretty quickly that bringing about the Jubilee on their own was something that was well beyond their capabilities. It’s well beyond our capabilities as Christians too. And that’s okay because it’s not our job. Jesus is God’s Jubilee. He’s the good news for the spiritually and materially poor. He’s the One who brings release to the captives. He’s the One that gives recovery of sight to the blind. He’s the One who sets free the oppressed. He’s the one who establishes this as the time of God’s favor. We’re not the Jubilee; He is. We’re just signposts that point to the Jubilee that Christ embodies and establishes. It’s our job to bring His good news to the poor, to proclaim His release to the captives, to offer His recovery of sight to the blind, and to point to His liberation of the oppressed because now is the time of His favor.
I’ve heard a story about a group of slaves who were working in a field during the Civil War when a battalion of Union soldiers marched past headed south. One of the slaves in the field ran over to them and fell into step with them, his hoe over his shoulder like a rifle. His friends all pointed and laughed. “What do you think you’re doing?” they asked. “You’re not a soldier,” they scoffed. “You don’t know the first thing about fighting” they taunted. And turning to face them he said, “You may be right, but I don’t want there to be any mistake about which side I’m on!”
I may not be able to bring about God’s Jubilee in my own wisdom, or by my own effort, but I can make it unmistakably clear by what I think, and by what I say, and by what I do that I’m on the side of God’s Jubilee that’s arrived in Jesus Christ.
- Wherever people are spiritually or materially impoverished, I can share from the bounty of the abundance that I have been given in Christ who is God’s Jubilee.
- Wherever people are being held captive in prisons of hatred, addiction, prejudice, or sin, I can extend the freedom that I myself have received from the hand of Christ who is God’s Jubilee.
- Wherever people are suffering limitation and loss, physically or spiritually, I can provide comfort and care even as I promise them the eventual healing of all things in Christ who is God’s Jubilee.
- Wherever people are “oppressed, distressed, weighed down, or grieving” because they have been pushed away from opportunity and community because of the color of their skin, or the country that they come from, or their gender or orientation, or because of how much they have, or because of what they have done or been in the past, I can open my heart, my arms, and my doors because Christ who is God’s Jubilee opened them for me.
- And to anyone who might be wondering what God thinks of them, or wants for them, I can announce without any hesitation at all that God loves them and wants them to come home because Jesus Christ is God’s Jubilee, and this is the moment of God’s favor for me, for you, for all. DBS +