If you’ve kept up so far, I doubt you’ve struggled to pick up on my goals for this series. I want you to see God’s deep concern for the earth, the life that lives on it, and the ways in which societies arrange themselves (which is a less offensive-sounding way of saying “politics”). I want you forever rid of the modern private-salvation-in-the-afterlife Christianity that saturates most churches these days and instead become immersed in a theology of here and now. To work on that, we’ve raced in a dizzying route from one part of the Bible to the next: Rome’s war with Israel, Messiahs, Caesars, the Gospel of Mark, pigs, Herod, Isaiah (lots of Isaiah), Armageddon, stonings, Daniel, genealogies, and Jesus’s baptism. When you go deep into these topics, you start to see patterns that repeat and feel weight that supports these themes I’ve talked about. Because these themes show up virtually everywhere in the Bible, I’ve written this series—unlike the last series—with almost no plan. I’ve not needed one!
So of course today is all about the Jewish calendar.
The sacred calendar—like the rest of the Torah—was designed to form the Hebrews into a weird sort of people. By that I mean, a small people uniquely equipped to prophetically critique the practices of their big, destructive neighbors—while enduring the punishment that would accompany that vocation and conducting their nation with integrity to their own words. And, yes, to do that well, you have to be sort of weird. You can’t fall into the standard patterns of normal. You have to be formed in ways that are a bit out of this world. I use the word “weird.” The Bible uses the word “holy.” And that gets me to the calendar.
Shabbat intensely reminds the Jews that humans—all humans—are made in the image of God.
Seder reminds them of the inhumanity of humans owning other humans. Jews for centuries have been on the side of learning this the hard way.
Sukkot reminds them of vulnerability. God’s heart is mostly with the vulnerable.
Shavuot reminds them of justice. Justice is most uniquely and powerfully articulated among the vulnerable.
Yom Kippur reminds them of grace and mercy. The world will never heal while arrange ourselves according to who we understand are most deserving.
But the calendar events aren’t ends in of themselves—they are going somewhere. If most of the calendar is about preparation and formation, one part of the calendar answers the question, “for what?”
This is Yubal, the Year of Jubilee.
Jubilee happened every 50th year of the Jewish calendar, but before I say anything further, notice that this is a once-in-a-lifetime event. If you didn’t know anything else about Jubilee, that one observation should at least hint that the human was the principal aim of it. And if Jubilee is the destination of the entire Jewish calendar, that should hint that the actual lives of humans are what this whole religion is about. And if that’s what you’re thinking, you would be right.
Jubilee is what God wants for the world. It’s how he wants it to work. Three things happen during Jubilee. As I explain it, resist the temptation to spiritualize it. Make it earthy. Make it political, economic, radical, and scary as hell.
- All debts: cancelled.
- Everyone who sold themselves into slavery to pay debts: freed.
- All land that was lost from failure to pay debts: returned.
Just think about that. Debts are cancelled, debt collection practices are ceased, and people are returned to their foreclosed homes. You may not be able to imagine that actually happening, but the Hebrew prophets did.
I can already hear the ancient Hebrews grumbling how debt is an essential part of a free market economy and the government can’t pick winners and losers and if we release people of debt we’ll create economic moral hazard and they shouldn’t have borrowed so much money and Israel is becoming nothing more than a socialist nanny state and Yahweh is punishing the job creators and the Torah is just a bunch of job-killing regulations!
Can you hear it? I can because I live in America. Not only can I hear it, but I can show you graphs and charts and formulas that support each of these contentions. These are the arguments, both before and after studying economics in college, that I too would make. But God doesn’t call us to economic models. He calls each of us to faith. He calls our nation to faith. Real faith. Not what we write on our currency kind of faith, but what our nation spends its currency on kind of faith.
And God’s heart is for those who fall into the poorest rungs of society—even when we believe they get there only by making poor choices (because everyone makes poor choices, but some pay more than others). Even when it requires a society to make decisions that the economists at the Heritage Foundation say will reduce growth and destroy our economy.
But let’s dig deeper.
I want you to notice something else about this.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Jubilee is that almost no one in Israel had to follow it. Virtually no one had money to loan or land to foreclose. Almost everyone was too poor. Basically nobody had any means of disobeying this command even if they wanted to. Think about what I’m saying. The year of Jubilee applied to just a handful of wealthy families and businesses.
(Yahweh wants to take your land and give it to a bunch of people who will just waste it. What we need is to cut regulations like the Torah and create jobs.)
And yet, this calendar event—this command that applied to almost no one—was the fulfillment of all the contemplation in the other Jewish holidays. It is the fulfillment of Sabbath, when Jews think about the divine in all humans. It is the fulfillment of Passover, when the Jews think about the ways in which humans can own other humans. It is the fulfillment of the Festival of Tabernacles, when the Jews think about the plight of the most vulnerable. It is the fulfillment of Pentecost, when the Jews think about restorative justice (the principal kind of justice in the Hebrew mind). And it is the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement, when grace and mercy are extended regardless of merit.
And that brings me to Jesus—the man who gives me the only reason I as a Christian have any business ever being in the Torah. In the same way that Jubilee is the fulfillment of the Jewish calendar, Jesus is the fulfillment of Jubilee:
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
When Jesus over and over calls himself the fulfillment of the Isaiahs and the Jeremiahs and Ezekiels, he is talking about the world he is creating. If you confess Jesus is Lord, that categorically means your vision is of a world in which those who fall into the slavery of financial ruin are given Jubilee. A society with no permanent elite and no permanent underclass. So, of course, modern American Christians do what we always do: we spiritualize it all.
The only time you will hear Christians use the word Jubilee is when we talk about forgiveness of sins so we don’t burn in fire after we die. “We are all slaves to sin and Jesus is the Jubilee” is a common American sermon. But the Jews weren’t waiting on a Messiah who would forgive their sins; they already had Yom Kippur.
What Jews were actually waiting on (and what you actually find in the prophet descriptions of the Messiah) was one who would fulfill their vocation: to take what the Jews already had and share with everyone else.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
If the whole point of centuries of the Torah was simply—as is way too often said in churches—to prepare God’s people to believe (1) that sin leads to eternity in fire and (2) you need God’s son to avoid the wrath of Jesus’s angry dad, you just have to understand what a big “haha, just kidding” move that would have been. The whole Old Testament would be like a big “psyche!” A sick kind of joke to be honest.
When Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount tells the Jewish crowd “you are the light of the world”, he isn’t saying, “you are in charge of telling everyone how an angry God is appeased by killing his son.” He is reminding his listeners of their purpose. He is reminding them that they are weird. And he is bringing to completion what made them weird.
He is bringing Jubilee to the world.