Still in Epiphany, with Jesus revealing himself to the nations, in our gospel reading from Luke, Jesus has been in the wilderness, baptized by John and tempted by the devil, filled with the Spirit he returns to Galilee where he teaches in the synagogues and was ‘praised by everyone’. In his home town of Nazareth, it’s Saturday so he goes to his local synagogue and reads from the prophet Isaiah chapter 61. This isn’t a coincidence, and it’s no ordinary saying, it is one of the prophetic passages referring to the Israelite tradition of the Year of Jubilee. There is some ambiguity around this kind of event, perhaps because it changed at different times in Israel’s history.
It is made up of seven cycles of seven years each, that is 49 years, and the Jubilee is announced in the 50th year, on the Day of Atonement, when the ram’s horn – jobel – is blown to signal its beginning. It partly had to do with the ownership of land, that is any land that had been sold, because of debt, would be returned to the original family. This wasn’t because they were socialists, but because the land belonged to God, and was meant to remain in the stewardship of the families it was originally given out to.
There are three different passages: in Exodus, Deuteronomy, Levicticus 25 and it is mentioned in our Isaiah passage. If that all sounds strange, it is not that different to a change in our own culture that has happened in my lifetime – in the 1990s – when Mortgage companies used to be ‘mutual’ companies, that is, belonging to the people who borrowed from them, and the Trustee Savings Bank, similarly belonged to the people who banked with it. They were self-help companies; now they exist to provide profit for their shareholders. Such was the Jubilee tradition. A form of self-help.
Records of debt in the ancient world were kept in Temples; not least the Jerusalem Temple. When, in the late 60s of the first century, in the Jewish War with Rome, the zealot rebels got into the Temple, the first thing they did was to destroy the records of peoples’ debt; a fire which did a lot of damage to the Temple, then they started fighting each other, so that when the Romans came in they finished it off.
But, back to the Year of Jubilee also called the Year of the Lord’s favour. It probably had more to do with what it represented – a metaphor really – since there is no record of it ever actually happening. Some scholars say it never did, but we don’t really know. Not unlike the stories of the very first Christians in Acts, 3 and 4, holding all things in common. I’m inclined to think is has some existence historically, but we don’t really know what. Let’s face it, it hasn’t been a tradition many have wanted to follow.
Isaiah, 3rd Isaiah, who probably lived after the exile, in the passage Jesus reads in the Nazareth synagogue, uses the Jubilee tradition to describe his, apocalyptic hope that God would reverse all the nasty things that have happened to God’s people Israel – defeat, humiliation, bereavement, exile, imprisonment – and proclaims a year of Jubilee, of release, of freedom, of liberation.
In the Nazareth synagogue, Jesus says, ‘Today, this scripture has been fulfilled.’ Spoiler alert. Because our gospel ends in the middle of a paragraph. They don’t like it! In spite of the hope that Jesus offers, they reject him. And though these promises are a metaphor for Jesus’ Good News, the ‘salvation’ he offers was social – political implications if you like.
Some parts of the metaphor are more metaphorical than others. ???
This brings me to an important message for us from a book I’ve been reading, by a young theologian called Simon Cuff, whom Father Myles introduced me to. His book, Love in Action, is an introduction to Catholic Social teaching, by which I mean Roman Catholic. I hope that that doesn’t bother you – he said in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. If it does, know that Justin Welby the Archbishop of Canterbury, not our most ‘catholic’ archbishop, was surprised to discovered Catholic Social teaching and was very impressed, enough to write a book, in 2017, called Reimagining Britain, about how to address the changes – not always for the best – there have been in our society since the end of Second World War – 1945, which happens to be the year I was born. I have to confess that I too was surprised, because of my prejudice I’d rather dismissed Archbishop Welby, Mia culpa. The Archbishop uses that teaching to reflect on how we could improve Britain for everyone, again, for everyone, socially, educationally, healthwise, economically, environmentally, politically.
Catholic Social teaching, really goes back to the end of the19th century, with Pious XI’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum – Of New Things, these being the ways in which industrialisation had disenabled working people (men), as their wages were being driven down and their hours remaining very long, leaving them no quality time to be with their families. One of the things the Church feared was the rise of Socialism, but let’s not worry about that now. It asserts the right to own property, but to fair wages and working conditions too.
Catholic Social teaching begins with the dignity of everyone, that is everyone, because we are all created by God, in God‘s image, to have a right to a decent domestic life as well as to work. It is about the Common Good.
The family is the core unit, even as families themselves are changing. Housing needs to be fairer for all, (Grenfell is a case that illustrates the inequalities), Education needs to provide more equal opportunities for everyone, Health, as we have seen in the pandemic, is not equal for everyone, and indeed care for the elderly. The economy needs to serve all of us, rather than us serving it – and not just a few people with offshore bank accounts.
It carries a terrible indictment of our culture; that we have threatened the future of our own unborn children, with our indifference to our physical environment.
I don’t of course have enough time here to deal with all the issues Cuff and Welby discuss: I’d like to suggest that we might try to find a way to do that together in the near future.
It is like the Jubilee traditions, though, based on the sovereignty of God. That everyone, again, that is everyone, is created in the image of God and has real worth.
So, although Jesus offers us salvation in his Nazareth synagogue message, perhaps better expressed as liberation, as freedom; it is to do with much more than going to heaven when we die. It’s about living life to its fullest now, abundantly, as John’s gospel says. Here in this community of God’s people and in what we share with all our neighbours around us, I repeat, all our neighbours, perhaps most especially the ones we find hardest to accept.
This I believe gives us a profound hope for our future together in this global, rapidly changing, world. Full of injustice and hatred, but also this beautiful diverse planet, and the beautiful people God has given us to live among. Our faith can sustain us if we all work together, work together to make this world and its people more in the image of our creator God, than it is. A world of equity, justice, compassion; of love.