Jubilee!

A sermon by Pastor Michael Pahl on January 27, 2019, called “Jubilee!” It is the third in a series called “Reading the Bible with Jesus.” The sermon is a reflection on Jesus’ fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise of Moses’ law of Jubilee (Luke 4:14-21; Isaiah 61:1-3; Leviticus 25:1-24).

Here is a written excerpt:

One of the biblical texts that made a particular impression on Jesus was Isaiah 61. All of Isaiah, really—there are echoes of Isaiah’s language and imagery all throughout the Gospels. But the first part of Isaiah 61 was a special text for Jesus:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

“The year of the Lord’s favour.” This is indeed that ancient promise of Jubilee, first given in the Law of Moses, then re-cast for the exiled people of Israel to whom Isaiah prophesied, and then re-cast again for the oppressed people of Galilee whom Jesus came to save. Jesus, as our Luke passage declares, has come to fulfill this Jubilee promise: good news for the poor, the downtrodden, the prisoners and slaves!

When we hear these words of Jesus, we often spiritualize them. We take them figuratively, and then apply them spiritually.

The “poor,” we say, are the “spiritually impoverished,” those who need a personal relationship with God. The “oppressed,” the “captives,” the “prisoners”—for us these refer to “spiritual oppression” or “captivity” or “imprisonment,” individual people needing to be freed from the guilt of their personal sins.

But that’s not the way people in Jesus’ day would have heard those words—at least not primarily, and not entirely.

James Tissot, Jésus dans la synagogue déroule le livre

Yes, Jesus speaks much of “sin” and “forgiveness” and the need for a devoted, trusting relationship with God. But for Jesus individual sin and salvation is bound up with much larger realities. In Jesus’ way of thinking there are whole structures and systems in society that are sinful, evil powers from which we all need liberation. This poverty, this oppression, this imprisonment and enslavement—it’s both literal and figurative, both physical and spiritual.

Over the last two weeks we have learned the greatest commandment of God at the heart of Jesus’ teaching: we are called first and foremost to love God with undivided devotion, and we are called first and foremost to do this by loving others with generous compassion.

But today we learn that this love is not simply about loving God as individuals, and then loving individuals in the way of God—as important as this is. According to Jesus this love also shows itself in a pursuit of justice and peace for all people, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

Cornel West put it this way: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” That’s exactly right.

And that’s what Jesus’ Jubilee mission is all about. To borrow Jesus’ words from Matthew 6:33, in following Jesus we are to “seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness”—God’s way of justice.

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