Monday, November 19, 2012

A Different Kind of Fiscal Cliff

Last week, I wrote about some of the surprising ways in which Leviticus calls us to love our neighbor. Leviticus 25 is another one of those somewhat surprising ways. Israel has already been commanded to keep a Sabbath rest every seventh day. Now God declares that the land is to have a Sabbath as well - every seventh year. In that year, the people of Israel were to leave the land uncultivated, allowing it to grow wild. It is easy to see how this would have been a remarkable practice of trust in Yahweh for the people of Israel - just imagine taking a whole year off of work and trusting God to provide in that year. God promised that if Israel kept this command that the land would produce enough surplus in the sixth year in order to provide throughout the scarcity of the seventh year. Israel was to trust God in the promised land just as they had to trust Yahweh to provide during their wilderness wandering.

But the commandment becomes even more exceptional. In addition to leaving the ground fallow every seventh year, Israel was also to celebrate Jubilee every 50th year. As a part of this celebration, Israel was commanded to proclaim liberty throughout the land; slaves were released from their slavery and property was returned to its original owner. It seems the year of Jubilee was a way of maintaining some level of economic equality within Israel. In other words, it was acknowledged that some Israelites might grow wealthier and others poorer and that in itself is not condemned. However, it seems there was also an acknowledgement that if left unchecked this disparity of wealth could become to great and therefore unjust. As a result, every 50th year was to serve as a "leveling of the playing field". If someone had grown so poor that they had to sell their property or sell themselves or a family member into slavery, then on the 50th year they or their family member or their land were to be released. God specifically states that land was not to be sold into perpetuity because the land ultimately belonged to God (v. 23). As such, God would not allow the land to be used to accumulate a wealth so great that it was crushing one's neighbor. There had to be limit on how much one could profit while another suffered.

This had to be one of the most radical of all of Israel's laws (so radical, in fact, that many scholars question whether or not it was ever actually practiced in Israel). If it is hard to imagine on an individual level what would happen if one intentionally went without work for a year trusting God to provide then it is even more difficult to imagine the kind of large scale economic restructuring that would take place in a society where every land-debt was forgiven and every slave released on one day. How would our own society be transformed if every debt was forgiven every 50 years? (To his credit, Pope John Paul II called for the year 2000 to be a year of Jubilee, a call which went largely unanswered by the corporations and nations of the world. However, there has been some discussion since then about the wealthier nations of the world forgiving the overwhelming debts owed by poorer nations.)

Isaiah 61 uses this radical language to describe Israel's own return from exile. The prophet declares:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor ; 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..."
 "To proclaim liberty" is language lifted right out of Leviticus 25. In his commentary on Isaiah, Walter Brueggemann argues that "the year of the Lord's favor" is also an allusion to the year of Jubilee. Isaiah uses this language of Jubilee to proclaim God's deliverance of Israel. The poor, brokenhearted captives described in this passage are God's own people who have been exiled from their homes by the nation of Babylon. God is, in effect, declaring a year of Jubilee through the prophet Isaiah for Israel itself by proclaiming that the debt of Israel's sins have been canceled, that they will be released from their captivity, and that they will return to the land God gave them. The God who commanded Israel to practice Jubilee is now enacting Jubilee on their behalf.

Jesus quotes these words from Isaiah in Luke 4. In fact, they are programmatic for the way Luke will go about portraying Jesus in his gospel. Bringing good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, and proclaiming liberty to those held captive by disease, disability, ritual impurity, and prejudice are precisely the kind of things we see Jesus doing in the gospel of Luke. After reading from the scroll in the synagogue, Jesus hands its back to the attendant and sits down - the position from which someone would typically expound on the Scripture just read. Jesus' only words are "Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Initially, the people marvel at Jesus' words. When Jesus read this, the people of Israel lived in their own land so they were not in exile in the traditional sense. However, they lived in their land under the rule of Rome. As such, many Jews considered themselves to be living in exile and looked for God to deliver them from that exile again just as God had in the days of Isaiah. So the synagogue audience is excited because Jesus has just proclaimed that Israel's return from exile is close at hand. Furthermore, Jesus' makes this proclamation in his hometown of Nazareth. Surely, the people assume, if the messiah who accomplishes the return from exile is from their very own town then they stand to find themselves at the head of the victory parade.

In fact, Jesus sums up those assumptions well when he says:
"Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Physician heal yourself.' What we have heard you did in Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well."
 But Jesus then undercuts those assumptions when he says:
And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
Not only does Jesus remind them that no prophet is ever accepted in his own town. Jesus also cites two instances of prophetic ministry in which gentiles receive God's deliverance while Israel does not. In other words, Jesus declares that his promise of Jubilee and return from exile is not for Israel alone but for non-Jews as well. The audience which first responded to Jesus' message so favorably now becomes so angry that they try to push him off a cliff.

I find it fascinating that Luke chooses to portray Jesus' proclamation of salvation in the economic language of Jubilee - to say that the salvation Jesus brings is akin to an emancipation proclamation and a nation-wide mortgage burning ceremony all rolled into one. Like the audience in that synagogue, our response to such a revolutionary message will probably be largely determined by where we stand. So long as we think we are the ones having our debts canceled then we welcome the word of liberation. When we find out that some one else might receive the same grace, we question this message or perhaps even become angry. Or to put it in terms of the wealthiest Christians who have ever inhabited the face of the earth, so long as Jesus' message of liberation is about canceling our spiritual debts we are happy to accept it. But what if Jesus' proclamation of Jubilee is also a call to restructure the economic systems which benefit us but lead to the oppression of others? What if praying for the forgiveness of our own spiritual debts entails our forgiving of all kinds of debts on behalf of others?

Will we find the nearest cliff?

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