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Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Redistributionism and Jubilee

The Great Isaiah Scroll. Wrong chapter,
but you get the general idea ...
Howard Bess is a retired Baptist minister from Alaska whose novel application of the Bible’s teaching about the Jewish Year of Jubilee to issues of social justice in twenty-first century America has attracted a lot of positive attention.

“Thank you — what a beautiful interpretation of that passage,” gushed one reader. “I love the sense of Judaism and Christianity out of which Bess operates. It immediately recommends itself to me as wholesome and authentic,” enthuses another.

But despite the alleged aura of wholesomeness and authenticity, it seems to me that Bess doesn’t so much reinterpret Luke 4 as miss its real meaning as completely as did the Jews in his hometown of Nazareth, the Lord’s original audience.

Missing the Point

Bess says:
“According to Luke’s gospel, the beginning of the ministry of Jesus as a reputational rabbi was marked by his public reading of a passage from the Isaiah scroll. His declaration was that a year special to God had arrived, a Jubilee Year that would redistribute wealth and end the economic persecution of the poor.”
— Howard Bess, Jesus: Redistributionist-in-Chief
He is referring to a passage in which the Lord quotes from the Old Testament, terminating his recitation of Isaiah’s prophecy before its climactic phrase (the prophecy actually ends not with “the year of the Lord’s favor”, but with “and the day of vengeance of our God”):
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The Year of Jubilee

Howard Bess is not necessarily incorrect about the very limited way in which most if not all of the Lord’s listeners initially understood what Isaiah had written, especially the sense in which it ended up applying to them. Almost surely the poor in the synagogues of his day were looking for good news in its most practical form: debt relief, relief from Roman oppression, relief from the burdens placed on them by their own religious leaders and many other things.

In that context, any gracious or favourable word was enthusiastically received.

So far so good. But the problem is that after 2,000 years and the testimony of all the rest of the New Testament, Bess seems to have learned no more about what the Lord meant than was generally understood on the day he first said it. His assumption is that a literal reading of Isaiah’s prophecy is its most significant level of meaning and that its fulfillment is primarily an earthly one.

Bess goes on to say:
“Jesus lived at a time of a concentration of wealth when working farmers had completely lost control of their land, which was owned by very wealthy men who lived in large cities some miles away. Under the prevailing economic system, the farmers became poorer and poorer.

Often, the farmers had to leave the farm and became day-laborers who worked at the mercy of absentee owners and their local enforcers. The greed of absentee land owners and the plight of poverty-stricken farmers form the backdrop of the entire ministry of Jesus.

When Jesus — at the beginning of his public ministry as a reputational rabbi — read the particular passage from Isaiah, his entire audience understood what he was saying. He was calling for the celebration of the Year of Jubilee.”
The Levitical “Economic Reboot”

Leviticus 25 details the rules for the nation of Israel’s observance of the Year of Jubilee. It was to be celebrated every fiftieth year, after seven cycles of seven years each. It was essentially an economic reboot for the nation. Those who had become indebted and had been forced by circumstances to sell themselves as hired laborers were to be released. Houses, property and land that had been sold as a result of poverty were to be returned to their original owners. And the land itself was to be given a year of Sabbath rest. Though its produce could be eaten as needed, it was not to be sown or tilled during the Year of Jubilee.

Had the Jubilee been observed, excessive and ongoing poverty in Israel would have been impossible. But so far as we can tell from the Old Testament, it appears that Israel never kept the Jubilee. The reason is obvious: for every poor man and family it relieved from economic oppression, there would have been a commensurate economic loss to every employer and purchaser of property. As we see today and throughout history, those who have their hands on the wheel of the economy are uniformly disinclined to relinquish that control in the interests of bettering the lot of their impoverished brothers.

The Spiritual Significance of the Jubilee

Of course no literal celebration of the Year of Jubilee in the Lord’s day could possibly bring about liberty to the captives and the oppressed — apart from some kind of revolution against Roman occupation. And it is only by making the unlikely supposition that no Jews other than the poor and downtrodden were present in that Nazareth synagogue that Bess can propose that they would suddenly choose to embrace something they had, to all appearances, consistently declined to celebrate ever since its institution by God. And it is utterly baffling to consider how any merely literal celebration might bring about the “recovery of sight to the blind”. Surely the spiritual in Israel were looking for much more than a call to reluctant observance of ancient Jewish Law and the unspiritual for something less.

Like so many things in the Mosaic Law, the Jubilee was no more than a real-world illustration of an exceedingly more important spiritual truth. While keeping the Jubilee would have blessed Israel in a very practical way throughout its history, its significance is far, far greater than debt relief, liberty and the return of property. It points to a vastly greater celebration, to release from a much more significant debt, to the relief of spiritual poverty and to the blessings of an eternal inheritance that never spoils, wears out or fades away.

No, a mere literal, earthly Jubilee was not what the Lord had in mind. Both the Jews of the Lord’s time and Howard Bess have equally missed his true meaning.

The Social Justice Jubilee

But the magnitude of Bess’s misunderstanding of the Lord’s words in Luke is even greater. He goes on to fantasize that the Lord is seeking a semi-literal fulfillment of a national Jewish holiday through the forced implementation by Western governments of a policy of economic redistributionism a full two thousand years after Christ. “Jubilee,” Bess says, “is any and every day when justice triumphs.”

Are we done? Oh no, we’re not. Bess’s mangling of the Lord’s message proceeds unabated. Having literalized the Jubilee and missed its spiritual significance entirely, he suddenly begins to allegorize the moment it becomes convenient to his real agenda:
“And the message of justice is not restricted to issues of economic injustice or the excessive power of the rich. It also applies to social justice.

It has been more than four decades since the Stonewall riots started the revolution for gay acceptance in America …”
For Bess, the real significance of the Jubilee is that, to his mind, it proclaims acceptance for gays, in his words, “a persecuted and down-trodden group of people”.

The Real Jubilee

Hindsight is 20-20. Of course, for those of us who know Jesus as Saviour, the meaning of the Jubilee seems obvious. We who had been enslaved by sin, stripped of our earthly inheritance by the sin of Adam, and spiritually blinded and oppressed by the world, the flesh and the devil have, in the death and resurrection of Christ, been liberated. We celebrate the true Year of Jubilee.

And the greatest Jubilee of all remains to be realized, because the freedom we have been given will one day be extended to all of creation. The “land” and everything in it will truly have its Sabbath rest and will enter into the freedom we have already been granted in Christ. Paul says
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
Caring for the genuinely poor and oppressed is something about which all believers ought to be concerned. But to miss the real significance of the Jubilee is to be every bit as blind and obtuse as the Jews who in one moment celebrated the Lord’s gracious words and in the next, drove him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff.

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