[I had the privilege of listening to Adam Conley’s sermon at 10:00am before I delivered these remarks for the 5:00pm shared homily. Not only was Adam’s preaching wonderful, as usual, but the two of us explored different aspects of the day’s gospel; Adam from a wider perspective, me with a narrower focus. I think our two pieces of work loop back into and reinforce each other perfectly. Take a look at Adam’s sermon as well.]
I know it can and should happen every Sunday, but I’m always grateful when the historical distance between us and our Scriptures narrows and narrows until it almost disappears. Ezra reading the long-forgotten book of the law of Moses before all the people of Israel, with interpretation (Nehemiah 8:10). Jesus standing up to read the words of the prophet Isaiah to his hometown folk in Nazareth and proclaiming them fulfilled that day in their hearing (Luke 4:14-21). And us, here at our 5pm Sunday mass, listening to those stories of Ezra and Jesus with the opportunity to interpret them together and apply them to our individual and communal lives. The square before the Water Gate in ancient Jerusalem. The synagogue in Nazareth during Roman occupation. This intimate downstairs worship space at St. Paul’s church in Seattle. Historical distance narrowing and narrowing until it almost disappears.
The story of Jesus unrolling and reading from the scroll of Isaiah matters greatly in the gospel of Luke. It’s the very first story in the narrative of Jesus’ public ministry. After his baptism – a story about identity: who is Jesus? This is my child, the Beloved, God’s voice proclaims (Luke 3:21-22). After the story of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. Really? Well, if you are God’s anointed one, then turn these stones into bread; seize the power and glory of all the kingdoms of the world, they are yours; throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple and you will be miraculously spared (Luke 4:1-13). No, no, no. Instead: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).
Jesus interpreting his mission through the words of Isaiah has to be among the top three scriptural texts setting out for some Christians, at least, what it means to follow Jesus. Along with the one from Micah: what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (6:8); or Matthew 25: Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison, and acted to meet your need? – Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me (31-46). As Adam Conley described it in his sermon this morning, what we have here is Jesus’ mission statement and his calling to us: “God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18).
What I wonder most about this evening is that last line of Jesus’ mission statement and our calling: “…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (4:19). I suspect that without some interpretive work, this rather tame and gentle translation might make it seem a throw-away line tagged on at the end to all the more important stuff about proclaiming good news to the poor, and so on. No, no, no. It’s the clincher of the whole Isaiah passage Jesus reads; the point of it all. So, for starters, how about: God has anointed me to blow the ram’s horn and proclaim the Jubilee Year?
Our English word “jubilee” goes back to the Hebrew of Jesus and Isaiah (ybl). It’s the root word for release or redemption – but in very concrete social/political/economic terms. We all know the Jewish people of Isaiah and Jesus observe one day out of seven as a day of rest – the weekly sabbath. But did you know that the law of Moses also commands every seventh year to be a complete rest for the land – no sowing or reaping, no pruning; just living off what the land produces on its own (Leviticus 25).
And every fiftieth year – after seven times seven years of social/political/economic business as usual, everybody is to return to their ancestral hometown. All land, all buildings are to be returned to their original owner. All debts, cancelled. All slaves and impoverished people hired by or bound to others as laborers are to be redeemed, that is, released. That’s the Jubilee Year. Let the land lie fallow. Forgive debts. Free those in bondage. Find out what belongs to whom and give it back (more Leviticus 25).
And how is this once every fifty years Jubilee Year to be proclaimed? Proclaimed, notice, not litigated or negotiated. By the blowing of a ram’s horn (yobel, in Hebrew). Hardly a soothing, melodious instrument, but a ram’s horn: harsh, loud, discordant, and yet unmistakable.
Now we have the opportunity to interpret together Luke’s story of Jesus in his hometown synagogue and the meaning for us of the words Jesus reads from Isaiah concerning the Jubilee Year.
Where in our world do you hear the harsh, loud, discordant, and yet unmistakable sound of a ram’s horn being blown?
What across the weary, overworked land of our individual and communal lives needs a complete rest so that all might be released and redeemed?
And to what hometowns must you, must we, return, in order to proclaim Jubilee?
I invite your responses.
Maria Harris, “Proclaim Jubilee: A Spirituality for the Twenty-first Century” (Westminster John Knox Press, 1996).