Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Year of Jubilee

by Ben Hein
550 views 10 minute read

Several years ago, I attended a conference where I heard a message on Luke 4:14-30 which deeply unsettled me. In a conference that was intended to motivate its audience toward evangelism, this pastor used the majority of his time to tell us everything Jesus is not saying in this passage; why we shouldn’t use this passage to address social issues, how it couldn’t have any literal (physical) meaning, and why the emphasis of the passage is on gospel preaching – and preaching alone.

While I’m sure this wasn’t the pastor’s intention, I’ve never been so unmotivated to tell someone about Jesus as I was in that moment!

But more than that, I was really troubled. In a room filled with predominantly middle- and upper-class White Americans, the group which statistically already gives the least percentage of their income away, we did not need a (bad) theological excuse to be even less generous. Furthermore, if Jesus is not at all concerned with physical realities in this text, what do we do with passages like Luke 7:20-23 where Jesus confirms that he at least had physical realities in mind? What is it about the evangelical consciousness that is so afraid of “saving” the gospel that we actually “lose” it by twisting Scripture to meet our own ends?

For weeks I wrestled with this pastor’s message – sometimes even descending into bitterness and anger. I began to question why I was so hot and bothered by this pastor’s message. After all, it wasn’t the first sermon I’d heard that I had strong disagreements with. Finally it hit me: while I had massive disagreements with this pastor’s sermon, I didn’t actually live like I did. In other words, while I had plenty of ideas about what this important passage in Luke means, I had completely missed Jesus and the transforming message he declares to us in this text.

Few passages in the gospels are as important to understanding Jesus’ mission, his work of salvation, and the nature of his Kingdom, than Luke 4:14-30. No other figure in history, no nation or party, no manifesto or founding document has ever present a vision for humanity and creation that is as grand and as beautiful as what Jesus proclaims to us here. There are so many riches for us to cover in this text that I’d like to use the next two posts to try and unpack this text in more detail.

In this first post we’ll examine a brief history of the year of jubilee and its pressing significance for our lives today. In the next post we’ll examine more of Jesus’ use of the language and ideas of jubilee to describe his Kingdom.


Jesus emerged victorious from the wilderness and his encounter with Satan, filled with the Spirit and ready to begin his public ministry. Luke 4:14 is now the fourth time in Luke’s gospel where he has told us that Jesus is filled with, or anointed, with the Holy Spirit.

Luke’s account takes a sudden turn from the broad, grand ministry of Jesus to a near and personal encounter with Jesus. This is a story dripping with intimacy as Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth. In this town where he grew up, the people who knew him as Jesus the son of Joseph – little JJ –  had received reports about the powerful teaching and miracles he had been performing.

Keep in mind that Jesus had no formal rabbinic training. He was a carpenter’s son, likely a form of itinerant work where he would’ve been known primarily for traveling through the region doing works of manual labor. This would be an obstacle for many in his ministry, particularly the religious establishment. But among his own people this seems to have initially served as a kind of hometown advantage.

Whatever training in the Torah Jesus had received, it would’ve been by their side and in their synagogue. Much of his instruction likely occurred around the fireside as he practiced haberim, the name of a lay movement which spread around the Holy Land during Jesus’ day (Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 147). Jesus would’ve listened intently as a young boy as he listened to the exchange of Torah citations being passed back and forth among his elders.

We can understand why the people responded with favor toward Jesus: they had heard reports about their boy, and he had exceeded the expectations they had for him when he left home. You can even imagine, as reports are coming into town, some of the old guys posturing themselves up and saying, “Yeah, Jesus got that from me first.”

We don’t know all of the particulars of how these synagogue services were conducted. There’s no evidence, for example, of any kind of liturgical cycle for readings to occur on any kind of calendar. So as Jesus entered the synagogue to teach, he is handed the scroll of Isaiah. The scroll was selected for him, but the passage was not. It was the expectation for these readers that they would not only select a passage from the scroll, but that they would then offer a brief reflection or sermon on the text.

So Jesus took the scroll and, standing among his elders, peers, and older women who changed his diapers, he opened to that place in Isaiah 61 where it says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”

Jesus rolled up the scroll, sat down, and with all eyes on him simply said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The Year of Jubilee

Jesus’ use of the word “liberty” and the phrase “the year of the Lord’s favor” go back to an old, familiar ideal in Israel known as the Year of Jubilee. A deeper understanding of this practice yields many riches for our understanding of the nature of Jesus’ work and Kingdom.

Israel was never to forget that they had been released from Egypt and brought into life with God in the promised land. This salvation – this liberty – was to be the fundamental characteristic which would define their life together. As Herman Bavinck rightly said, Israel’s entire moral code was actually written from this perspective (Wonderful Works of God, 69-70). This is no more clear than in the giving of the Ten Commandments, when God proceeds his law with these words:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Exodus 20:2).

God’s people had been released out of bondage and into his service. This new reality was to completely reshape how they lived together. From top to bottom, God’s design for humanity is that we would embody his character, his salvation, in our dealings with one another. In God’s Kingdom, freed people live freely in the service of God and neighbor (1 Peter 2:16). Our outward reality conforms to an inward transformation.

To guide them toward this end, God graciously gave his people laws which concerned, for example, generosity to the poor, fair treatment of employees, compassion for the disabled and elderly, integrity in judicial matters, the protection of life, care for the environment, and equitable treatment of ethnic minorities (see Leviticus 19).

We moderns love to speak eloquently of human rights, but long before we got here God decreed these things and he simply called them holiness.

My second job out of college was with a large government contractor in the DC area. My team was regularly expected to work 10-12 hour days, sometimes six days per week, in addition to odd hours in the middle of the night. We were run ragged, but we stuck with it for the money, and because we thought this is just what you do when you want to move up in the DC area. Many of my colleagues would openly drink at their desks to cope with their misery; the company didn’t care so long as the bottom line was met. At one point, one of my colleagues fell asleep at the wheel on their late-night drive home from work and got into an accident. The company responded not by reducing their expectations for us, but by getting hotel rooms for employees next door so they wouldn’t even have to go home anymore.

We were all miserable, but it didn’t really matter. In DC, like so many other places around the world, you exist to drive profit and meet the bottom line.

Looking back on that period of my life, you know what I can say now that I really would’ve appreciated then? Some kind of company policy, or an enforceable law, which simply said, “You can’t do that!” You can’t treat people like animals, like a cog in the machine that you can just drive into a state of misery. People must be viewed with dignity and respect and ought to be treated accordingly.

In so many ways, our world can be characterized by an exploitation of people for selfish ends. But this was not to be so among God’s people. As they entered experienced his salvation, the way they viewed people, the way they viewed all of creation, was to be radically transformed.

At the heights of all this legislation there was one practice which was meant to transform the people toward this end: the Year of Jubilee. In Leviticus 25 we read how on every 50th year, the people were to proclaim liberty to all of the inhabitants in Israel. In every place but one in the Old Testament, this word liberty simply means “release” and is used in reference to the Jubilee Year. This would be the year of the Lord’s favor.

Liberty among God’s people was to be marked by a joyful releasing of debt; both for those who may have become enslaved to pay off debt, or the returning of Land to those who may have sold it off to pay debt. It was a total reset back to the way things were supposed to be, thereby putting an end to cycles of injustice which would prevent God’s people from living in a state of release; a state of liberty.

Like the Ten Commandments, the Jubilee year echoes a similar pattern: twice in Leviticus 25 God reminded the people: “I brought you out of the land of Egypt, I am your God” (Leviticus 25:42, 55).

A released people release others, and this produces Jubilee: great joy among the people.

Practicality or Possibility?

Doesn’t this sound great? Since the people knew what great oppression they had been delivered from in Egypt, surely they were captivated by God’s vision and liberty and faithfully lived this out? We actually have no record, biblically or otherwise, of the Jubilee Year ever being practiced. While silence doesn’t prove anything, most scholars agree that even if this was practiced early in Israel’s history, it became neglected as Israel remained in the land. One Old Testament scholar summarizes,

This neglect happened, not so much because the Jubilee was economically impossible, as because it became irrelevant to the scale of societal disruption… this practice became meaningless for families as they fell victim to acids of debt, slavery, royal intrusion and confiscation, and total dispossession (Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, 205).

Translation: it was no longer practical. Jubilee was a practice which was too disruptive to the status quo! Throughout the prophets, the language and ideals of Jubilee become a source of judgment for God’s people (see Jeremiah 34: 17).

At this point, I think we need to do some serious self-examination. Are we in any way guilty of judging what is right, good, true, or just based simply on what is practical?

God’s design for humanity is characterized by joyful release and liberty; in what ways do our lives evidence exploitation and mere practicality instead?

Do our lives demonstrate an unwillingness to live in any way that would disrupt the status quo of our own comforts?

Maybe it’s in small ways, like in our relationships where we tend to treat some people with a “quid pro quo” mindset. Or maybe in larger ways we approach issues of justice with a scarcity mindset, one that is based on a practicality of limited resources, causing us to pit various good agendas against each other.

When I look at God’s heart in offering jubilee to his people, I can’t help but that that he doesn’t want us to live based first and foremost on what is practical, but what is possible. What is possible for the God of Jubilee? What is possible for us when we are captured by these desires of his heart?

Though it was neglected by his people, Jubilee did remain close to God’s heart. God still intends for his people to be filled by a transformative jubilee that would sink deep down into their hearts. His design for humanity did not, and has not, changed.

Glimmers of hope came through the prophet Isaiah, who spoke of a Servant who would declare the coming of an even greater Jubilee, one marked not only by a releasing of debts, but by the announcement of God’s good news, of ministry to the poor and the brokenhearted, of a release to those who are bound (Isaiah 61:1-2).

We actually know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that these qualities were attributed by the people to the coming of the Messiah (4Q278, 521). It was the hope of the people that where they had failed, the Messiah would come and restore God’s comprehensive vision for liberty, compassion, and justice.

So Jesus, standing in the synagogue, opens the scroll to that place where it says “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”

Jesus rolled up the scroll, sat down, and with all eyes on him simply said:

 “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

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