The Meaning of Jubilee

A Sermon Shared with the People of St. Matthew’s, St. Paul, October 21, 2012
Lisa Wiens-Heinsohn

When I was in fifth grade I had a very strange teacher, named Mrs. Wilson.  Mrs. Wilson was eccentric—she wore high heeled plastic purple boots, tight curvy clothes, and told the kids funny stories about her own life, like how when she was mad at her ex-husband she threw a lit firecracker into the bathroom one day when he was taking a bath.  This was a conservative Christian school called “Baptist Temple Academy” and so lots of praying was done every day in class.  Sometimes when Mrs. Wilson would pray, which she always did with her eyes wide open, she would lean on the window sill, and say kind of dreamily, “Dear Jesus, please help Phil and Jason stop passing notes during the prayer, and please tell them if they don’t, Mrs. Wilson will eat them.”  Stuff like that. 

What made it worse was that, by some horrible twist of fate, I was her favorite.  I weighed about sixty pounds, wore big thick tortoiseshell glasses, and was a total straight A nerd.  The other girls in my class wore cool clothes—there was this certain kind of sandal that ALL the girls worse every single day (this was in southern California so we could wear sandals every day of the year), but my Mom didn’t grasp the finer points of elementary school fashion, so my sandals were just a little bit different—and you know what that means.  I had no chance of being cool.   But for some reason Mrs. Wilson loved me. She would call on me even when I didn’t raise my hand.  I don’t know which is worse, to be the favorite or to be the one a teacher like that picks on, but some days I wanted to trade places with Phil and Jason, believe me.

So I have to be honest with you, when I read today’s text, which ends with Jesus “proclaiming the year of God’s favor,” I had a moment of wondering what God’s cosmic favor looks like—and if it’s a good thing.  Of course my 5th grade flashbacks might seem to have nothing to do with God, except that people for millennia have indeed been convinced that God plays favorites with people.  That certain kinds of people are “in” and certain people are definitely “out.”  In fact wars have been fought over the question of which people enjoyed God’s approval and which did not.  So what does Jesus mean when he talks about the Year of God’s Favor?

Just to set the stage for how this text fits into the broader sweep of Luke’s gospel, Jesus hasn’t done any public miracles yet.  – no healings, no exorcisms, no impressive intellectual standoffs with the Pharisees. He’s still pretty much a nobody.  And this is the very first thing he does in his public ministry.  He goes to synagogue of his hometown, stands up to do the reading, and he picks a synthesis of prophetic texts that are very famous—this list that we have here in front of us.  This is an incredible text and it is actually repeated in the Hebrew scriptures quite a few times: sprinkled throughout the prophets and the wisdom literature is this kind of signature list of the things God does, a kind of manifesto of what God is like, what God cares about, and what God’s mission in the world is about: to proclaim good news to the poor, sight to the blind, release to the captives and to the oppressed—and to proclaim God’s favor.

Scholars believe that the reference to the “year of God’s favor” is actually a reference to the ancient practice of Jubilee.  As you know, the Jews practiced Sabbath every seventh day, a day of total rest for everyone—rich and poor, slaves and even animals could do no work.  But Sabbath wasn’t just a one-day-a-week practice.  Every seventh year, they were required to give the land a rest.  No intentional farming could be done that year.  Finally, every 49th year, there was supposed to be a year of Jubilee, sort of a mega, cosmic sabbath.  Not only was everyone commanded to rest, including the land, but slaves were freed that year.  Land sold in the intervening years was returned to its original owners.  And all debt was forgiven!  Whatever loans you had were canceled. Just think about it.  I imagine there have been a whole lot of homeowners in the economic crises of the last several years that would have been so glad for a year of Jubilee.  I think of the majority world debt to countries like ours and I wonder what it would be like if we practiced Jubilee with that situation.  There are some other verses in scripture that make it sound like Jubilee might not have ever been actually practiced—maybe because it was so radical. But it was mandated in God’s law to Moses, and Jesus refers to it here.

The beginning of this list sounds a lot like what we think of when we talk about justice. Good news to the poor.  Letting the oppressed go free.  But the traditional concept of justice, which is so important, doesn’t go far enough to describe the kind of kingdom Jesus is inaugurating. Justice becomes Jubilee.  Jubilee is a radical, complete, total release from every kind of bondage, deserved and otherwise, for the sake of healing.  It is a radical, all-encompassing amnesty.  This is the mission of Jesus, of God on earth.

It’s hard to grasp or to imagine the level of healing that Jesus is talking about in this story.  Let me tell you another story that gets at what I think Jesus means by Jubilee, by the year of God’s favor.  Forgive me – some of you know this story already.When I had my beautiful daughter Carly I went through a period of post partum depression, like many mothers do.  I also had four miscarriages, one after another.  I wasn’t adapting to motherhood very well—I guess some people know intuitively how to be a great mom, well I just didn’t feel that way.  You know the baby whisperers? The ones who can hear a screaming baby and just pick up the baby and do some kind of weird hopping dance, and the baby stops crying.  Well that was not me.   So by the time my daughter was two, I felt really low.  I had been out of church for about 20 years because I had lots of issues with the way church taught and dealt with theology.  But at this particular juncture, I felt fairly hopeless and wanted to attend a church, any church, just to take communion.  I figured I’d show up, wince at the Nicene Creed, plug my ears for the sermon, but maybe at least have some small amount of comfort in the eucharist.

I showed up at a church in August.  I walked into the service thinking that I was defective, and I prayed for any kind of healing.  That day all the readings were about bread: God feeding manna to the starving Israelites, Jesus being the bread of heaven. What I felt, totally unexpectedly, was that God was telling me I wasn’t defective.  I was hungry, and I should eat. Now I could have dismissed that notion as a product of my imagination.  But the next week I went to a different church since I had not liked something unimportant about the first one.  The readings were still all about bread.  I was moved again.  But I still didn’t quite like that church either so I showed up the next week at a third – at this church, at St. Matthews.  The readings were still all about bread.  Then we got to the eucharist and you know what Blair says every week: basically, “You who believe you have God’s favor, and you who are sure you do not, come.  It is Christ who invites us to meet him here.”  I gave up.  I felt God’s Spirit gently insisting that I could be transformed, I could alter my perceptions about life and myself and be spiritually nourished.   I was not expecting that kind of healing at all.  At best I was hoping to just feel a little bit better.  Instead my whole life turned upside down.  Now I am shocked to find myself standing in front of you wearing this alb and telling you this story.  I have felt ever since that time that I was caught in the current of something much larger than myself, like a great river in which I wasn’t doing anything—just treading water, cooperating with the movement of the river, and being carried toward something whose purpose far exceeded the hopes, fears and dreams of my own small life.

I think that destination, that purpose, is outlined by Jesus in today’s text.  It is the kingdom of God that God’s Spirit is inaugurating, that is happening.  It is about justice and it is about more than justice. It is about Jubilee: It is about complete, total and radical release from the conditions that bind us as individuals and as groups and countries and a planet, through God’s anointed one, Jesus.  It is about the year of God’s favor—a favor that extends to all people.  You might be tempted to think of God’s favor as being limited to a certain group of people—like the Israelites or Christians or Episcopalians or Democrats or whatever category you want to name.  We’ve all experienced people like Mrs. Wilson, who played favorites in unhealthy ways.  But in the next part of the text, after the part I read you today, Jesus insists to his fellow Nazareans that God’s favor was going to be extended to the Gentiles—something that makes them so mad they try to throw him off a cliff.  God’s favor is universal.  It extends to all people and is for the sake of healing.  It extends to each of us.

We need to see and experience God’s Jubilee, which is no longer limited to one year in 49 but is continuous. God’s healing can transform us to become true agents of God’s mission on this planet.   Take a look once again at the way Jesus describes his mission.  Do you see yourself anywhere on this list?  Some of us do experience poverty—we have lost homes, we struggle to make ends meet, we don’t know how we are going to meet the needs of our families.  We feel poor in creativity, poor in friendships.  Some of us experience the captivity of addiction or crushing workloads or relationship patterns—or unhealthy ways of treating ourselves and others—that need healing.  Some of us have friends in prison or have skated at the edge of the justice system ourselves.  Some of us are caught in systems of oppression where no matter how hard we try, we don’t have a voice at the table, we aren’t heard, we aren’t free to pursue our gifts or our sense of purpose in the world.  Now I invite you to have even a molecule of imagination that God’s Spirit is active and can transform your perceptions and your reality.  What if you could experience release and healing and become part of God’s mission of healing on this planet?  This week I invite you to look around, and dare to sense how God’s universal favor, God’s great jubilee, might be operational in your life.

Let us now observe a moment of silent reflection.