January 27, 2013
Inaugural speeches – while largely symbolic – are still very important. They are public statements of intent to which the speaker may be held accountable during the course of his/her mission. The inaugural speech of President Obama, for example, was notable in that – for the first time in US history – an elected President specifically mentioned Gay rights as an issue. Obama stated that the truth that all are created equal guides us today “just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.” He also stated that the nation’s journey to justice is not complete “until our Gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.” While words still remain to be translated into action (and while Bisexual and Transgender people were not mentioned), Gay and Lesbian Americans can take heart that their struggles are now visible as a part of the national, justice-seeking agenda.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because [YHWH] has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. [YHWH] has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (vv. 18-19).
At this point of the service, Jesus would have been expected to provide commentary and teaching on the Scripture to those in attendance. Instead, Jesus “rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him” (vv.20). Then, Jesus drops a bombshell: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (vv.21).
To understand the full impact of Jesus’ statement, it helps to know a little more about what “the year of the Lord’s favor” would have meant to those listening. Scholars are in agreement that the prophet Elijah was referring to the “Jubilee” year, which was ordained in Leviticus 25. The Jubilee year was the ultimate extension of the concept of the Sabbath, or ordained seventh day of rest (see Genesis). Not only was there rest of the seventh day, but on the seventh year (according to Mosaic law), the land would be allowed to lie fallow (rest) so that it would not be exhausted by over-cultivation (Lev 25:1-7). Then, at the end of seven sets of Sabbath years (seven times seven), on the 50th year – although there is some disagreement on the exact year – “… on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you” (vv.9-10).
The Jubilee year was not just a religious occasion. It was the equivalent of a giant “reset” button on the economy. Any land that was sold in the past 50 years would be returned to the original family of the owners. All bound Israelite servants would be released from their servitude. The Jubilee year was also associated with release from debt, which was mandated in Deuteronomy 15 and Exodus 21:2 and 23:10-11. It was also said of the Jubilee year that the Messiah would appear during that year. Consequently, when Jesus was saying that the verse from Isaiah was fulfilled at that moment, He was effectively inaugurating the Jubilee year and declaring Himself the Messiah. That was a radical inaugural statement – and it was meant to set the tone for the future of Jesus’ ministry.
Oddly, enough, the Jubilee year was rarely observed, particularly during the Second Temple period (500 BCE to 70 CE). Tim Atwater of Jubliee USA (a debt-relief organization), states that “Prophets and leaders regularly called Israel to account for neglecting the demands of the Sabbath and Jubilee texts (for example, Nehemiah 5:1-13; Jeremiah 34:8-18; Amos 2:6-7, 8:5-6; Ezekiel 18: 7-9, Isaiah 58)” (“Debt Cancellation: Biblical Norm, not Exception”). I also find it interesting that the Biblical literalists who harp on the two anti-Gay verses in Leviticus (18:22 and 22:13 – usually quoted out of context) always completely miss the entirety of Chapter 25, which spells out very concrete and radical measures for economic justice.
Could you imagine the consequences of the Jubilee year being inaugurated, right here, right now? What if we were to take seriously Jesus’ declaration of the year of the Lord’s favor? I have a few outrageous suggestions that might follow (please feel free to add your own):
Yes, the results would be startling. However, the intent of the Jubilee year was to put into place a concrete measure that counteracts creeping inequality and oppression in the economy. The Biblical precedent is there: The year of the Lord’s favor has already been declared. Maybe we should start taking it seriously.