Tuesday, May 14, 2024

The Age of Jubilee

by Ben Hein
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In my previous post I began with a story of a sermon on Luke 4 that I heard at a conference. This conference was my first visit to Indianapolis in 2019, when I attended the conference here with my former lead pastor Charlie. My favorite memories from that trip were simply enjoying the city with him, which I believe primed my heart to think fondly of Indianapolis as a place for our current ministry.

I have a great video of Charlie and I taking electric scooters out along the White River near the IUPUI campus. The video starts out well, as I am excitedly surveying all the sights around the river: Lucas Oil Stadium, the campus, the beautiful waterfront parks. The video ends poorly, however, when I crash into a small hill I didn’t see right in front of me. As I go flying off the scooter onto the ground, you can hear me trying to laugh it off so as not to embarrass myself in front of my boss!

This tumble is illustrative of what I described was going on in my heart at the time. Like my scooter ride, I realized I could be so preoccupied with surveying everything about Luke 4, that I couldn’t see Jesus clearly standing right in front of me! Unfortunately, I think this is a common mistake many of us make in a text like this. We can be so quick to layer our cultural biases, theological categories, or missiological priorities onto the text. We confidently and comfortably make the passage fit our paradigms, while completely missing the magnitude of who Jesus is and what he is trying to say to us. In so doing, we become just like the people in Jesus’ hometown who close off their hearts toward him. We may not think we want to kill him, but we do want to drive him out of the comfortable parts of our lives we hold most dear.

There is very little difference; practical agnosticism is actual rejection.

Let’s pick up our study where we left off.

The Lord of Jubilee

Jesus stands in the synagogue, looking out among the people who he knew intimately. He sees the faces of those grown weary by hard labor in the vineyards. He knows his peers who despair because they are stuck in crippling debts. He sees those who are consumed by their anger against the Romans. He knows the pain of fathers whose sons had left to pursue a better life elsewhere. He knew of women trapped in exploitative situations. He knew whose children were deathly ill. He knew who had been victims of violence in their travels…

He’s handed the scroll of Isaiah, and of any passage he could’ve read, he reads these words from Isaiah 58:6 and Isaiah 61:1-2:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me
To proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovering of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Jesus rolls up the scroll, sits down, and the only explanation he offers is this: Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

The magnitude of this statement sent shockwaves through Nazareth and beyond. We can see from their response that the people in his hometown knew exactly what he was saying:

The greater jubilee you have been waiting for is now here; I am the Messiah who will accomplish an even greater liberty for his people. Today all your hopes and expectations for God to be true to his comprehensive vision for liberty and jubilee has been fulfilled in your hearing.

Jesus drew richly on the language and ideas of the Year of Jubilee to make this point: the Kingdom of God has come, and it is an Age of Jubilee.

The word that Jesus uses for “liberty” here can mean a release from debts which is why we sometimes borrow this language when we say the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). However, within the gospel of Luke, Jesus will most often use this language for the idea of the forgiveness of sins. Jesus took this familiar language and gave it added value. His Kingdom is inhabited by those who have been released from the debt of sin and brought into a transforming encounter with their God by the power of the Spirit.

How can these things be? Luke has been trying to show us in the preceding passages! In his humanity he has so identified with his people as to take on their sins on their behalf; he will pass through the judgment of baptism in his death (Luke 3:21-22). Jesus will be raised by the power of the Spirit in victory against sin and the devil (Luke 4:1, 14). Now, as the Spirit-anointed Messiah, he has the authority to pour out his Spirit on his own, releasing them from captivity to sin and the devil (Luke 3:16, 4:18).

Jesus is the Lord of Jubilee!

Here is the subversive nature of the gospel: it contradicts earthly powers of exploitation and domination by releasing us from the powers of sin and reconciling us to God, freeing us to live for God and neighbor just as our Father intended. To simply accept the status quo, or any manner of injustice, is to fall back into the condition of slavery which we were in before our liberation from sin. It is to retrogress.

The way of liberty and jubilee is our new path forward.

Here is what all this language means for those of you who have put your faith in Christ: you have been released. Jesus sees you all the way down, he knows all your sins, and he has released you from their enslaving power over you and has brought you into a life of liberty and freedom with the living God. This is your jubilee. Whatever else may be true about you, this much is especially true. You now inhabit the Age of Jubilee.

The Age of Jubilee

Our liberty from sin and the devil follows the pattern of God’s historic works of salvation for his people. In our jubilee we see once again that free people are to live freely. Just as the Year of Jubilee set in motion a reversal of the oppression of Egypt, the Age of Jubilee has set in motion a reversal of sin and all its effects. Jesus tells us at least three things about this new Jubilee Age, each with their own application for us to consider.

First, the Jubilee Age will be marked by proclamation, both of good news and the year of the Lord’s favor. The gospel will be and is being proclaimed; the Kingdom of God is expanding as more and more people come under the care of Christ the King. This message will go out to all people, but it will be principally received by the poor.

It’s in this language where we start to insert our own biases and agendas into the text. What did Jesus mean by the poor? Was it the literal poor? Or, as he’ll say elsewhere, the poor in Spirit?

Caution is needed so as to not adopt an oversteering mentality, where in our fear of falling off into one ditch we overcorrect into another. Whatever we think about God’s Kingdom, it is far bigger than can see or imagine. Many of the questions we bring to a text like this aren’t bad, but they are reductionistic ideas that are a result of our limited and diseased imaginations. Jesus welcomes us to expand our vision for the world; with Spirit-filled imaginations we can begin to see what is possible and not merely what is practical.

The gospel can only be received by those who are poor in spirit, those who recognize their need to be released from sin, those who want jubilee. In his earthly ministry, where does it seem most evident that Jesus found the poor in spirit? Among the literal poor and socially marginalized. The Jubilee Year was designed with special protection for the poor. So is this new Jubilee Age. Jesus is saying to us: “Do you want to receive my good news? Then follow me and see how it is received among the poor.”

In this proclamation there is invitation. There are many good and different ways to encounter Jesus, but there are two places where such an encounter is nearly guaranteed. The first is in God’s Word, where we find the message of his good news to us. The second is in ministry to the poor and marginalized, among those who in every age our God has had special compassion for. Missiologist Harvie Conn explained:

It is not hard to see why many now argue that God is biased toward the poor. That phrasing probably says too much. But to say that God is on the side of the poor in a ruthless world where the poor are oppressed nonpersons surely does not (Conn, Urban Ministry, 100).

Many secular people position themselves on the side of the poor and the oppressed. In these pursuits the Christian and non-Christian can find great unity. However, what many secular persons still seem unwilling to wrestle with is why the poor often position themselves on the side of faith, and the Christian faith in particular.

It is not enough to simply admire Jesus as an ethical teacher. Jesus’ audience was impressed with his words. But once they found out what they meant – a disruption to the status quo, ministry to their enemies – they’d reject him. It’s not enough to admire Jesus. We must take him at his word, in full repentance and faith, as the Lord of Jubilee who releases us from our sins.

The invitation Jesus has for us is this: look for him in his Word and in ministry to the poor.

Second, the Jubilee Age is marked by transforming forgiveness that leads to advocacy. Jesus tells us he would proclaim liberty to the captives and the oppressed. Once again there are several words we can get hung up on here. Many have taken the word “captive” to mean literal prisoners behind bars. They say that since we never see Jesus too occupied with setting such prisoners free (I’d disagree, see Acts 5:18-21 and 12:6-19), we ought not take this idea literally.

Jesus’ audience would have associated these words with captivity and bondage to foreign oppressors. They were expecting Jesus to continue in his reading from Isaiah, declaring a day of vengeance from God and a plundering of the Gentile nations (Isaiah 61:5-6). Jesus flipped their expectation on its head when he recounted the story of the Gentile widow and Naaman the Syrian. In effect he was saying, “I’m not here to judge your enemies. I’m here to show them mercy and proclaim release to them as well – and I want you to join me!”

That’s the switch from admiration to rage. This is why they seek to throw him down a cliff.

How did Jesus do this? It’s in the double meaning of the word “liberty.” When we are released from the debt of sin, the way we view and treat others ought to be completely transformed. Our newfound jubilee reshapes all our relationships from the top down. In fact, if the Lord’s jubilee has really sunk down into our hearts, we’ll even become advocates of mercy and justice for those who we once thought were our enemies.

Finally, the Age of Jubilee is marked by compassion. Jesus pronounced a recovering of sight to the blind. Once again, this has a broad meaning of the spiritually blind demonstrated in compassion to the physically blind.

The entire ministry of Jesus could be characterized by generous deeds of compassion. In Luke 7, the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus to ask for a report. Jesus would confirm his ministry, saying:

Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. 23 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Luke 7:22-23).

These words are a comfort and a challenge to us. They are a comfort because they remind us of the deep, abiding compassion of our Lord for the vulnerable and brokenhearted.

But they are also a challenge, because they require we ask some important questions of ourselves: Can this same compassion be seen in my own life? In the way I spend my time? The way I budget my money? The way I treat my family or coworkers? Is my life marked by the generous compassion of jubilee, or by a practicality that doesn’t want to disrupt the status quo?

Good news, transforming forgiveness, ministry to the poor and marginalized, compassion; these are the means by which Jesus is releasing all of Creation from sin and its effects.

This is the Age of Jubilee.

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