Articles, Essays & Sermons

Good News for Yahoos - "The Year of the Lord's favor"

The emphasis on justice in the biblical theme of “jubilee," cf. Luke 4:14-21 & Isaiah 61:1-5

by Ken Sehested

In his first sermon, Jesus chose to read from Isaiah 61, an explicit references to the
covenant terms from Mt. Sinai regarding jubilee observance and its profound
project of social, political and economic restructuring.

{Written in 1998, prior to being a founding co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation, Asheville, NC.)

      I occasionally substitute for my wife, a pastor, when she’s out of town on Sunday. Several years ago her pulpit absence occurred when the lectionary text called for a sermon on the “jubilee” theme in Scripture. She had originally planned to address the celebrative aspect of jubilee, with a projected sermon title of “Jubilee Whoopee.”

      Which was fine with me. But as I began preparations for my own sermon, I discovered that the word “whoopee” carries some unfortunate associations with promiscuous sex. So, to circumvent that potential confusion, I went looking for an alternative term, preferably one with similar exuberance. “Yahoo” soon came to mind.

      Further study confirmed the choice. “Yahoo,” according to Webster’s dictionary, was the name given the race of brutish beings in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The term generally signifies “an uncouth or rowdy person.” Yahoos are lowlifes.

      What’s more, “yahoo” appears as a dictionary entry just prior to “Yahweh,” the most common Hebrew name for God. What a fortuitous opportunity! “Yahoo”—denoting the uncouth, sometimes rowdy, generally uncultured—listed right next to “Yahweh,” the one whom Jesus named as Abba. Yahoo and Yahweh, what an unlikely sequence of words . . . yet what a perfect coincidence to highlight the biblical theme of jubilee!

      Few in our congregations are familiar with the jubilee theme in Scripture. As a common English word, “jubilee” is generally associated with special anniversary celebrations or with the high emotional intensity of “jubilation.” The term’s historical background in Scripture—and its subversive implications for modern economic life—are unfamiliar even to most “Bible-believing” Christians. The practical function of the classic jubilee texts is similar to that of the Zacchaeus story in Luke’s Gospel: We teach our children the popular song about the “wee little man,” but the song fails to finish the story which outlines the content of Zacchaeus’ confession of faith in Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior.

      But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let’s review the basics.

      The fountainhead of the Bible’s teaching about jubilee is in Leviticus 25. The text represents God’s instructions, via Moses, concerning covenant strictures for the newly-freed Hebrew slaves upon entry to the “promised land” of liberty and freedom. Every seventh year was to be “a sabbath to the Lord” (v. 2). The initial character of this sabbath: the land was to rest—sowing and pruning were forbidden. Then, every “seven weeks of years” a grand sabbath was to be called. During this fiftieth year not only was there to be a halt to agricultural labor, but also: all lands revert to original owners, debts are canceled, slaves are freed, and the poor have equal rights to harvest at will (regardless of land ownership).

      Other Hebrew Scripture traditions feeding into this jubilee vision include earlier sabbath observance teachings from the “Covenant Code” of Exodus (particularly chapters 21-23) and Deuteronomy (especially chapter 15); and from royal proclamations of “release” found in Jeremiah 34, and Ezekiel 46, all of which invoke commands to free slaves (or indentured servants), particularly when that condition is related to indebtedness. {1}

      The jubilee theme is also heralded by the more well-known statement from Isaiah 61—and then quoted almost verbatim by Jesus (Luke 4:18-19) in his inaugural sermon at the temple in Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. . . “ (Isaiah 61:1-2a). The latter phrase from both Isaiah and Jesus are explicit references to the covenant terms from Mt. Sinai regarding jubilee observance. {2}

      The agenda of this mandate involves a radical reordering of social life, utilizing structural antidotes to the extremes of both wealth and poverty. Taken together, the jubilee instructions embodied in carefully worded Levitical legislation represent a profound renewal and revitalizing of life: of the land itself, of material relations within the human community, and of the community’s relationship with God.

Why isn’t this material taught in our congregations?

      You would think that any biblical theme prominent enough to stretch across this much history—from early covenant history between Yahweh and the people of Israel, to the later prophetic outbursts critiquing Israel’s apostasy, all the way to Jesus’ own self-defining statement of mission—would merit consistent and thorough attention in the preaching and teaching ministries of the church. But it’s not. A number of plausible explanations come to mind.

      First, the fact that the core jubilee teachings are found in Leviticus explains a lot. Leviticus contains the core “Holiness Code” regulations of ritual purity, a collection of minute and detailed rules and regulations, the “jots and tittles” of the Mosaic law. Their reading often sounds as obscure, puzzling and plain nonsensical as a book of Internal Revenue Service tax regulations. Theologically, the church has generally viewed this material as rendered obsolete, eclipsed by New Testament norms. {3}

      Second, the jubilee instructions fly in the face of modern economic theory and practice of free-market capitalism. Forgiving debt and returning land to original owners would undermine our economy, contradict our fundamental notions of the right to private property {4}, remove the economic incentive to hard work {5}, disrupt food security {6}, threaten basic liberties {7}, even compromise our national defense {8}. Surely we need not adhere to biblical teachings which call into question such cherished ways of life?!

      There is a third reason why our congregations are so unfamiliar with Scripture’s jubilee theme. But before turning to that, let’s examine some additional biblical material.

God’s bias toward the poor

      Shalom is the Hebrew word we usually translate as “peace.” But the notion is much bigger than its English rendering. In common English usage, “peace” means the avoidance or absence of conflict. It indicates the lack of something: war or lesser forms of overt violence.

      In Scripture, on the other hand, shalom indicates the active presence of multiple dynamics: well-being, harmony, honest relations, forgiveness. It is a relational concept indicating health and balance.

      The foundation of peace, biblically speaking, is justice—the quality of right-relatedness that used to govern (at creation) and will someday reign again (in the promised “new heaven and new earth”). Currently, the “principalities and powers” are aligned against God’s shalom as indicated by the pervasive presence of injustice and oppression which eventually erupts as open violence. This pattern of broken relations seems to saturate every area of life: within families and communities, between different racial/ethnic groups and social classes and nation-states, within the pollution-choked created order. Not to mention with God.

      •”Sow for yourselves righteousness [justice], reap the fruit of steadfast love [shalom],” says Hosea 10:12.

      •”And the effects of righteousness [justice] will be peace, and the result of righteousness [justice], quietness and security [qualities of right-relatedness] for ever,” says Isaiah 32:17.

      Justice is basic to the One depicted in Scripture as creator, redeemer and sustainer. Not as an “extra” item on the agenda, but as basic to divine nature. Not tit-for-tat justice; and certainly not the vengeance-based norms of justice which increasingly govern our criminal justice system {9}. The distinctiveness of God’s justice is the fact that it is based on need rather than merit. God’s vision—and the church’s, whenever we are faithful—is that of a redeemed, restored, renewed creation. In order to get from here to there, special attention must be given to those who have been left out of the earth’s bounty, who have been excluded from community—those for whom the world’s social, economic and political systems and institutions have no use.

      As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says so succinctly, justice means sorting out what belongs to whom and giving it back.

      Jesus blessed the “poor" {10}, in his sermon on the mount, saying “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Similarly blessed are the “meek,” who are destined to inherit the earth. Few themes are as consistently emphasized throughout Scripture as God’s special concern for the poor {11}. God has a distinct bias toward the poor—in the same way as Jesus portrays the shepherd as being biased toward the one sheep gone astray (Matthew 18:12-14). The many are abandoned in favor of the one at risk.

      A frequent note of the Psalmist is the mobilizing effect which the cries of the poor have on God: “‘Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now arise,’ says the Lord; I will place them in the safety for which they long” (12:5). The initial naming of God in Scripture occurs in the context of God’s mobilizing in response to the cries of the poor (Exodus 3) {12}. The only time Jesus speaks explicitly about the entrance requirements for heaven, the list involves no doctrinal questions, no measurement of religious fervor, not a word about personal morality. All the criteria involve our response to the marginalized, the neglected, the forgotten, the traumatized (cf. Matthew 25). In fact, oppression—the act of hoarding life’s resources (whether personal or corporate, actively or passively) in the face of want is an indication of atheism (cf. Psalms 10:11), of idolatry (cf. Matthew 6:24), of attempts to deceive the Almighty (cf. 1 John 4:20). Knowledge of God and advocacy for the poor are virtually synonymous (Jeremiah 22:16). It is a theological issue, not simply a social concern.

      God is especially concerned over the welfare of lowlifes, yahoos. And any faithful reflection of that priority will be marked by those who (in the descriptive phrase originating in the Latin American church) exhibit a preferential option for the poor.

      All well and good, you say. We believe in charity, and we’re liberal-leaning Democrats (or at least moderate Republicans) in social politics.

      But there’s the rub. Our social commitments are shaped more by a combination of class interests and political ideology and are only tangentially connected to our faith, to our Bible reading, to our Christ-confessing. Many in the church are “reading” current realities through the social sciences (plus a few proof texts from the Bible); and some have become actively engaged, on genuine humanitarian grounds. But few are engaged in contemplating and responding to the pain of the world as a spiritual discipline—seeing the violence, injustice and oppression ravaging our personal and corporate lives as within the scope of spiritual discernment.

Spiritual formation and prophetic action

      Which brings me to the third and final response as to why the jubilee theme is so unfamiliar in our congregations. Whether “liberal” or “conservative”—as an organizer I find surprisingly little difference between them in this regard—our people generally fail to see what salvation (the big issue for believers) has to do with demanding justice and making peace. And thus our evangelism, where it’s carried on at all, is confused with religious marketing.

      Some years ago a friend contacted me and asked me to speak at a Baptist conference on peacemaking. In her letter, she said: “I want you to speak on ‘Why should we work for peace when folk just need to get saved?’” At first—realizing my friend has a great sense of humor—I thought it was a joke. Then I realized what a genius she was! Whether framed this straightforwardly or not, this is the core question with which the majority of our people are wrestling.

      In short, our congregations are marked by a warped spirituality. We have been formed spiritually in ways that bracket the realities of violence and poverty and oppression, ignoring them (at worst) or confining them (at best) to the margins of our attention. We have segregated “spiritual” matters from “physical” or “material” ones, emptying our preaching and teaching of its ability both top bless and to condemn. The “salvation” we offer is more like cotton candy—mostly air and empty of calories. Reigning notions of spiritual reality are vacuous, a judgment reflected in the Mother’s Day “Family Circus” cartoon of several years ago, where the young boy turns to his sister and says, “I’m going to give Mom a spiritual bouquet and save my money for a catcher’s mitt.” Or they have been utterly co-opted, as in the full-page newspaper ad headlined: “For a spiritual uplift on low monthly terms, contact your local BMW dealer.”

      Preaching and teaching more “social concerns” sermons and lessons won’t change this. We need to start at a more fundamental level, teaching our members how to read the Bible through the eyes of those who suffer—study done in conjunction with active mission involvements which bring our people into sustained contact with actual suffering people.

      We need to learn again how to pray, somehow in proximity with those now crushed but who recognize genuine good news in our Lord’s prayer: Thy kingdom come, on earth, as in heaven. And our worship needs reviving, in ways that put us in touch with the experience of (in the words of that old hymn) leaning on the everlasting arms. Not as escapist piety, but in the power of Spirit, facing the forces of animosity, hatred and destruction, as did those who gathered the evening of December 5, 1955, for the mass meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, at the end of the first day of that historic bus boycott. “What a Fellowship” was their opening hymn, and they sang about “leaning on Jesus” because they knew that the angry crowd forming outside and threatening to mob the sanctuary would not be restrained by the police.

      Bible study, prayer and worship {13} in this mode—at some point, to some degree, in some fashion—will get the church into trouble with “the world.” Ironically, though, being in trouble is the ideal environment for studying the Bible, prayer and worship.

      Justice is at the heart of the jubilee agenda, an agenda enveloped in a spiritual vision. Practicing jubilee does not entail a mimicking of Levitical social, political and economic policies. Scholars themselves acknowledge that the details of jubilee legislation shifted and changed as circumstances were altered. Rather, jubilee must be enacted with creativity and imagination, as well as courage. In the end, though, it is not our courage, our will-power, that saves us. This is the message of sabbath-keeping: that hard work is not self-generated but is nourished in rest, in confidence that there is a buoyancy in the universe which we can trust, a power to which we can connect but do not sustain or manage.

      This confidence, this hope, is the ace up every believer’s sleeve. Ironically, its powers are not available to those who seek to secure their own safety and security and sufficiency. Only by relinquishing such claims, only by “losing” our lives—for Jesus’ sake, which means for the sake of his “little ones”—do we find true life. Only then are we in a position to inherit the earth.

      The meek, as they say, are getting ready. Blessed are you yahoos—along with all who recognize God’s jubilee intentions and step forward to affirm the acceptable year of the Lord.

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Endnotes

1. I am dependent on Sharon Ringe’s Jesus, Liberation, and the Biblical Jubilee (Fortress Press, 1985) for this background information. Her study is clearly the most careful tracing of the jubilee theme throughout Scripture. The best popular survey of the biblical theme of jubilee is Proclaim Jubilee: A Spirituality for the Twenty-First Century by Maria Harris (Westminster John Knox Press, 1996).

2. Scholars debate the extent to which other New Testament texts are self-consciously rooted in the jubilee announcement. Textual and literary evidence clearly demonstrate this to be true in a number of places. Other texts, while underscoring the same or similar themes, cannot be explicitly traced to jubilee references. See Ringe, p. 33ff, for a discussion of this question.

3. The exception, of course, is the Levitical proscription forbidding a man to lie with another man “as with a woman” (18:22 and 20:13). Lots of church folk know those references, which judge such behavior as an “abomination.” Yet other abominations in the list include eating pork, misusing incense, intercourse during menstruation, wearing garments made of two different materials, sowing a field with two kinds of seed, etc.

4. At this point we’re generally inclined to discount New Testament evidence as well, particularly the “community of goods” accounting of life in the first Christian community in Jerusalem.

5. The Apostle Paul, in admonishing the thief to stop stealing and do honest work with his hands, was not arguing from a Protestant work ethic. Rather, it was out of concern for the poor, “so that he [the thief] may give to those in need” (Ephesians 4:28).

6. In this regard, note the irony in this statement entitled “An Adaptive Program for Agriculture,” written in 1962 by the Committee for Economic Development, a group of 200 leading business people and educators: “Where there are religious obstacles to modern economic progress, the religion may have to be taken less seriously or its character altered.” Quoted in PeaceWork, Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, September/October 1987, p. 12.

7. Note that the famous Liberty Bell inscription—”Proclaim liberty throughout the land”—is a direct excerpt from the jubilee teachings of Leviticus 25:10. Many have commented on the fact that the jubilee teachings exempted “foreign” slaves from the mandate of release: only Hebrew slaves qualified for this provision. In this regard, U.S. law generally conformed to jubilee requirements: slavery was sanctioned only for the Native population (at first) and then for African imports—far and away the most massive instance of human slavery in recorded history.

8. During the Carter Administration, the Central Intelligence Agency undertook an intensive study of the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America, specifically in those circles where liberation theology was influential. This investigation was initially disclosed by Mexico City’s influential Excelsior news paper; the paper’s Washington bureau chief reported that members of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, noting earlier U.S. “unpreparedness” in understanding religious currents in Iran, feared “another Iran” might break out in Latin America. Reported in Cry of the People: The Struggle for Human Rights in Latin America—The Catholic Church in Conflict with U.S. Policy, by Penny Lernoux, Penguin Books, 1990, pp. 444-445.

9. The U.S. has by far the largest rate per-capita of incarceration. Prison construction is among the largest growth industries at present. Two states (Florida and California) already spend more money on prisons that on their colleges and universities.

10. The difference between Luke’s “poor” and Matthew’s “poor in spirit” are in tone and inflection only, not in substance. The Aramaic word’s root meaning refers to rural peasants of humble (meager) means having no access to mechanisms of social, economic or political power.

11. The “poor” are not defined solely in economic terms. The word is more fluid and covers a wide range of other conditions—any who have no place at the table, including the weak, the powerless, the excluded, the unclean, the disreputable, the lame. Jesus recognized Zacchaeus as among this number. Though relatively wealthy, he lived as an outcast, a collaborator, given his work as a tax collector for the occupying Roman administration.

12. A Bible study exercise I regularly recommend is this: Look up the word “poor” in a Bible concordance. You’ll find a listing of every place the word is used throughout the Bible. Read each of those texts, preferably all in one sitting. (Plan to spend a bit of time—there are some 300 citations.)

13. We will, of course, also need training in practical matters—learning how to intelligently “read” our situation and practice in developing strategic responses.

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org