Good News - Assurance Or Disturbance?
The folk song sung by Burl Ives called "Jubilee" was about the freeing of the slaves in the southern United States. The lyrics went something like this:
Nicodemus, a slave, was of African birth, He was sold for a bag full of gold, He was reckoned as part of the salt of the earth and he died very old, long ago. And his last sad request as they laid him to rest in the shade of an old apple tree, "Wake me up, wake me up, for the great break of day, Wake me up for the Great Jubilee." There's a great day coming and it's not far off, been long, long, long on the way. So go tell Liege to hurry on home And meet me by the gum tree down by the swamp for to wake Nicodemus today.
Wake me up for the Great Jubilee. Wake me up for the day of liberation, the day of freedom, the day of emancipation, the day of racial justice. That's what the song was all about.
The Great Jubilee
The concept of the Great Jubilee was derived from the Hebrew Scriptures. Every seventh year was a Sabbatical year, during which the land was to lie uncultivated. Fruit growing on its own in the Sabbatical Year was left for the poor, resident aliens, and even the wild animals.
In addition, all debts were to be canceled. Now there's a sure way of correcting social inequalities! The Romans exempted the Jews from taxes during the Sabbatical Year. After the Jewish revolts of A.D. 66-74 and 132-135, the tax exemption was canceled and observance of the Sabbatical Year virtually disappeared.
The Sabbatical Year was a time of freedom not only for human beings - freedom from financial obligations and indentured service - it was the land's Sabbath as well. The land was set free from human exploitation. It is easy for us to think of this as primitive ecology, a means of keeping the minerals from being depleted. But something much more basic was at stake - the realization that the land does not belong to us to dispose of at will. We are only temporary, short-term tenants.
The Jubilee was the fiftieth year occurring at the end of seven Sabbatical cycles of seven years each. During the Jubilee all debts were to be canceled and all Israelite slaves to be freed. All land was to be returned to its original owners.
Had this system even been implemented - there is no evidence that it was ever observed - the accumulation of large estates together with their attendant social injustices and corruption would have been prevented. The theological underpinning of the concept of the Jubilee, like that of the Sabbatical Year, was that God is the source and owner of all things. But the Jubilee goes farther - it implies that in the eyes of God, all Israelites are equal - nothing more. It is one thing to recognize that "you can't take it with you," quite another not to be allowed to keep whatever you've accumulated for more than a few years.
Can you imagine what it would be like if you were forbidden by law from working every seventh year? And all of your debts were canceled with no blot on your credit record? It really doesn't sound so bad, does it? But what if in the year 2000, all of your possessions including your home reverted back to their original owners, say some Indian tribe? Or what if when you sold your home, the appreciation your home had gained since you moved into it were to be automatically taken from you and put into a fund that provided homes for the homeless? Before you agree to such legislation, you would, no doubt, want to think it over for a day or two while you calculated what it would cost you. Now you know why the Jubilee was never observed. Those with the most to lose were those with the most power - then as now.
Jesus Preaches His First Sermon
The first sermon ever preached by Jesus was about the Great Jubilee. He stood up in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth, was handed the scroll containing the Book of Isaiah, gently rolled the sewn-together parchment pages between his hands until he came to these words:
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor...
So far, so good. Robert McAfee Brown offers a poignant description of the scene:
Here is the hometown boy back home, reading the lesson at the Friday night service. Many of his hearers probably know the words of the passage by heart. But tonight, they come through with new beauty. For Jesus reads them very well. His hearers are charmed by his self-possession, his elocution, the clarity of his diction. The words are familiar ones - words about freeing the captives, liberating the oppressed, bringing good news to the poor. How soothing to hear them on the lips of this fine fellow, Joe's boy, the one who used to work at the carpenter's shop. And when he tells them that the Scripture "has been fulfilled" that very evening, they love it.
Their response has been the familiar response through the centuries. There are noble, powerful cadences in Isaiah's poetry, and Jesus tells us that "the acceptable year of the Lord" has begun. And he talks about "good news." It is good news "to the poor," but since we are all poor in the sense of being spiritually impoverished, his words bring us needed reassurance. And all of us are "captives" needing release, captives of neuroses or inner feelings of inadequacy over which Jesus (and Isaiah) promise us victory. So we are soothed.
Dealing with Discouragement
At first glance, the Good News is assurance. God is with us in our captivity. God enables us to bear the unbearable burden, to dream the impossible dream. There is always hope.
Presbyterian minister Bruce Thielemann knows something about hope. In a 1987 sermon entitled "Dealing With Discouragement," he states:
I know what discouragement is. I know of the discouragement of fighting my excess weight for fifty years. I know the discouragement of open-heart surgery that was not successful, though every bit as painful, as it was supposed to be. I've stood beside my father's casket, knowing the discouragement of saying goodbye...to the man I loved most on the face of the earth. I've known the discouragement of being betrayed by a very close friend. I've known the discouragement of having a congregation, to which I gave everything I had, turn against me and reject my ministry. I've learned the discouragement, and know it still, of loneliness, for I am a bachelor. I have no wife, I have no children.
Believe me, I know what discouragement is. But I've discovered in my own experience that...if you take a wide look at the possibilities, the dividends that you can find in discouragement...you can be like that little old lady I was sitting beside flying to Europe. She was very nervous. I said, "Is this your first flight?" She said, "No, I'm always nervous when I fly. But it won't be bad this trip." I said, "Why?" She said, "We're flying toward the morning. We're flying toward the dawn." That's the thing to hold onto, sisters and brothers. As the disciples of Jesus Christ, we're flying into the sun, always and forever into the sun.
Thielemann's words are reassuring. They capture the hope of the Good News. They remind us that there is blessing in discouragement.
The congregation at Nazareth would have been glad to hear such words of assurance. They already had plenty of discouragement - poverty, oppression, sickness, the death of loved ones, taxes, insecurity, doubt, fear. You name it, they had it. They had earned their doctorates in discouragement. So they must have been grateful for the soothing serenity of Jesus' preaching.
"Something Goes Wrong..."
"But then, something goes wrong in the tranquil atmosphere in Nazareth." Words of assurance turn into words of disturbance. The familiar, non-threatening neighbor unleashes and unfamiliar and revolutionary message. Brown explains:
Jesus talks about a drought long ago, and reminds his hearers that God's prophet Elijah did not concern himself with the true believers (like those gathered for worship) but instead visited a widow in Sidon, a foreigner. And during a time of terrible leprosy, another of God's prophets, Elisha, paid no attention to the Israelites, but cured Naaman, a Syrian, another foreigner. Apparently, God's concern does not focus exclusively or even primarily on the believers. Indeed, it begins to sound as though those on the outside are getting preferential treatment. What sort of reward for good behavior is that? So, as Clarence Jordan translates Luke 4:28, "the whole congregation blew a gasket."
It was beginning to sound as though Jesus thought that the first would be last and the last would be firsts - not a very comforting message if you consider yourself as already first. And what if those words about the poor, captives, and the oppressed really meant "the materially poor, the physically captive, the economically oppressed? What if that innocuous phrase, "the acceptable year of the Lord," turns out to be not so innocuous after all. What if it turns out to be a declaration that the Jubilee year has begun, that all debts are forgiven and all slaves freed, that all land is to revert to its original owners?
Assurance and Disturbance
In the narthex are copies of the current "Legislative News ALERT" published by the California Council of Churches, an ecumenical, citizen's watchdog agency. Glancing through the two-page bulletin, I note the following:
Adding new and explosive fuel to the budget fires, Governor Wilson has proposed a ballot initiative [entitled the Taxpayers Protection Act,] which would target Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) for further deep cuts and would give the Governor authority to make additional reductions when the budget is more than 3% out of balance.
A few paragraphs later, I read:
Health care reform remains a necessity as health care costs continue to escalate 10% a year and over 6 million Californians have no health insurance to rely upon.
In the same bulletin, Patricia Whitney-Wise, Executive Director of the Council, implores the governor to "enter into the reality of everyday life for families on AFDC - to struggle with them as they try to decide between taking a low-wage job with no health care benefits versus staying on AFDC where their children can receive health care - the choice between taking a job and having their young children come home to an empty house, for lack of funds to provide childcare, versus being at home to watch over and guide them."
The bulletin concludes with this appeal:
Please...protest any further cuts in benefits for low-income people...Universal health care and child care must first be in place, and jobs must be created in order for low-income parents to go back to work and know that their children are cared for.
The message of this "Legislative News ALERT" is disturbing.
Assurance and disturbance. Serenity and revolution. Security and precariousness. Peace and terror. Not assurance or disturbance; serenity or revolution; security or precariousness. Jesus preaches his first sermon and it is a cliffhanger - literally. And so is the life of discipleship to which he calls us.
There is no authentic spirituality without silence, self-examination, wrestling with the inner demons, confidence, courage. God lives and God gives; and our grateful hearts respond. Faith and assurance, prayer and worship are indispensable.
And there is no authentic spirituality without hard-nosed, factual, here-and-now struggle with the real world on behalf of "the materially poor, the physically captive, the economically oppressed." And the only appropriate response we can make is material, physical, and economic. Compassion is not enough; it is only a beginning. Charity is not enough; it is only a momentary response. Many families who received Christmas food baskets are as hungry today as they were a month ago.
The Year of Jubilee means recognizing, empowering, and liberating the poor. The Year of Jubilee means questioning the structures that control, limit, and enslave our fellow human beings.
God of the Poor
The God of the Hebrew people is the liberating God, who since the Exodus has worked to free his people from every form of oppression. And now Jesus has added something explosive to our understanding of God. He is the God of all people. He sides not only with the politically oppressed children of Israel. He sides with all those who suffer at the hands of those who have power, property, and prestige. It is the Year of Jubilee!
Let us pray:
God of compassion, we confess that we like to forget your identification with the weak of the world, and to reshape your world into a gospel of worldly success for life's winners. Forgive us, we pray. Set before us again the clear teachings of Jesus about our responsibility to use all that you have entrusted to us to bring justice to the poor, the sick, and the handicapped. Help us to adjust our values to conform to the life and teaching of your Son, rather than the other way around. In the name of him who pronounced the poor "blessed" we pray. Amen.
Lowell D. Streiker