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Gospel Jubilee (Luke 4:19): Bible Commentary for the New Baptist Covenant

A central question we must ask is: Does Jesus in fact say nothing about what form our economic relations should take as we are his church to the world?

It might seen odd to begin a commentary celebrating new Baptist beginnings with a quote from a Catholic. Yet Pope John Paul II said something quite remarkable in “Centessimus Annus,” the papal encyclical he issued in 1991.

His comment concerns the church’s attitudes toward economic systems in general, and capitalism specifically. He said, “The church has no [economic] models to present…[it] recognizes the positive value of the market and of enterprise, but at the same time points out that those need to be oriented toward the common good.”

While the Pope’s teaching directs a strong word of admonishment to American theologies–the “gospel of success,” Pat Robertson’s evangelicalism and some public theologies–about their commitments to the free market, it perhaps draws conclusions uncharacteristic of the kerygmatic vision of the Gospels.

A central question we must ask is: Does Jesus in fact say nothing about what form our economic relations should take as we are his church to the world?

While it would be nonsense to locate any type of economic theory in Jesus’ thought, does Jesus’ new community have nothing to say about economic practices except for general, principled reminders of God’s love?

This commentary believes the answer to this question might be found in Luke 4:19, Jesus’ “Nazareth Manifesto,” which records Jesus as quoting the prophet Isaiah, saying (beginning with v 18): “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Modern biblical scholarship agrees that the “year of the Lord’s favor” (enioauton kyriou dekton) proclaimed by Jesus in Luke 4 refers to the year of Jubilee commanded by God to Moses in Leviticus 25. Jesus’ reliance on Isaiah confirms this conclusion.

The Jubilee year commands originate most fully when God speaks to Moses on Sinai. They are a set of positive and negative commands that prepare Israel to enter the land of Canaan.

Consequently, this set of commands centers on the just treatment of the land befitting God’s people and for God’s people. At the heart of these commands lies the sabbatical year. Every seven years, says the Lord, the Sabbath laws found in Exodus were now to apply in Canaan. The land is to lie fallow to give it rest, and to allow the poor to eat (Ex 23:10).

Subsequently, every seven cycles of Sabbath years there will occur a Jubilee year, in Hebrew yobel, customarily occurring every 50th year. Sharon Ringe explains that “every 50 years Israel was to declare a year of liberty marked by four types of release.”

In Leviticus we read that the types of release constituted meaningful social and economic practices consisting of:

–The land lying fallow for one year (25:11-12).

–Cancellation of debts (25:31, 40-41, 54).

–Freedom for any Israelite who had become an indentured servant (25:40-41) .

–The return of ancestral lands sold out of financial necessity to those whom God had originally given them (25:27-28).

Christopher J. Wright in Old Testament Ethics for the People of God describes the Jubilee year as economic institution with two main points of concern: the family and the land. It was grounded in social and theological assumptions.

Socially, the Jubilee provided economic protection for the smallest of Israel’s three kinship arrangements, the household. By protecting the household’s land grant, the clan and tribe were further secured in the covenant. Theologically, because the land in Canaan was given to the Israelite tribes by God in a system of equal distribution and inalienability, the periodic return of family land reminded Israel that the land was God’s, and humans had no right to it in perpetuity

It preserved the Hebrew memory of exodus redemption, covenant relationship and security, divine prerogative for judgment and the hope of restoration in loss.

What is the significance of the Jubilee for the church today?

When Jesus confronts our injustices, we more often than not deny his claims. We frequently fail to see his point because we assume the way we live with one another to be verified, justified and validated by our faith.

Our vision of God’s beloved community–what Jesus referred to as the kingdom of God–extends no further than our own assumptions. We are able, then, to generalize the biblical witness to be a set of principles that have literal application to our lives only in so far as they validate our social norms. This kind of vision, however, is itself a product of our estrangement from Jesus in our moral lives.

Lee Camp in Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World calls this kind of vision a disease–one produced by rose-colored cataracts. These cataracts have been formed by our unhealthy allegiances to political and economic stories that ignore God’s commands for community.

Just as the Nazareth crowd failed to see their disease, instead finding Jesus to be ill (Lk 4:23), the church today refuses to admit its “cataracts.” Could it be, then, that the church is called to embody an alternative economy, founded on the Jubilee prescriptions in Leviticus 25? Could it be that the fruits worthy of repentance called for by John the Baptist in Luke 3:8 are those of Jubilee relationships?

Andy Watts is assistant professor of Christian ethics at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

This column excerpted from a Bible commentary for “The Agenda: 8 Lessons from Luke 4,” a free, online study to help prepare churches for next year’s New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta. The faculty of the School of Religion at Belmont University partnered with the Baptist Center Ethics to write the commentaries. The commentary, lessons and other resources are available here.

Read part one here.

Read part two here.

Read part three here.