by Jake Aikenhead
The Sabbatical Year and the Year of Jubilee are impressive institutions in the socio-economic life of Israel, but they aren’t regular topics of conversation during Advent. And this is, ostensibly, with good reason. It would seem that even the most creative theologians might be hard pressed to establish a connection between Israel’s socio-economic life and our expectant awaiting of the birth of Jesus.
But a faithful reading of the Gospel of Luke – the gospel we turn to for an in depth account of our Saviour’s unorthodox birth – suggests otherwise. In fact, in the Gospel of Luke we find that there is a very precise connection between the laws of Sabbath and jubilee and the child for whom there was no room at the inn. Luke tells us that Jesus is the agent of a new kind of jubilee.
For us to see this connection properly, however, we’ll need to look briefly at the Sabbatical Year and the Year of Jubilee.
The Sabbatical Year is characterized by remission and release. In short, its laws state that any social or economic imbalances that have accrued between Israelites over the course of six years are to be leveled in the seventh. (Deuteronomy 15) All claims held against one’s neighbour are to be dropped and all Israelites who have been forced to sell themselves into slavery are to be set free (and sent away with a “liberal” provision of wheat and wine!). So the Sabbatical Year is about restoring socio-economic equality within Israel.
And the Year of Jubilee is characterized by return. Every fifty years, on the Day of Atonement, the Israelites are to sound the trumpet loudly throughout the entire nation in a proclamation of jubilee. They are to return to their ancestral land – land which has been sold or leveraged in the process of economic exchange – and receive it back. (Leviticus 25) The Year of Jubilee ensures that every Israelite has access to land, and in an agricultural society this is of primary importance. Jubilee is regulated asset recovery. In the same way as the Sabbatical Year, it promotes equality within Israel.
The Sabbatical Year and the Year of Jubilee are limits placed by God on the economic life of Israel that point toward the realization of shalom. And when we consider their relation on a more fundamental level, it becomes evident that they are rooted in three common ideals: forgiveness, liberation and healing.
The forgiveness of debts and the liberation of the enslaved in the Sabbatical Year are acts which bring about healing. And the redistribution of assets in the Year of Jubilee is a kind of socio-economic healing that, combined with forgiveness, brings about liberation. To those who are indebted because they fell victim to circumstance and to those who have squandered their inheritance on reckless living, there is forgiveness, there is liberation and there is healing in the Year of Jubilee.
And here’s where the connection with Advent exists. When we read on in the Gospel of Luke, what we find is an account of the life and ministry of Jesus that is structured around themes of Sabbath and Jubilee. But this isn’t coincidence; this is an overt statement from the author that Jesus’ life and ministry are about forgiveness, liberation and healing.
The first indication is Luke’s opening account of Jesus’ ministry, where Jesus reads a jubilee passage from Isaiah in Nazareth: “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 recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the Year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18–19) Jesus doesn’t just happen to read this passage, he reads it with intention. And this same intention is present in his exceedingly short meditation on the scripture that follows: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)
As Luke tells it, Jesus begins his ministry by announcing that he is the agent of jubilee. Who is this man? He is the one who has been anointed to proclaim good news to the poor and liberty to the captives. He is the one who brings forgiveness, liberation and healing.
But in case we missed the first jubilee reference, Luke includes a second one. When the disciples of John the Baptist are sent to Jesus asking if he is the one to come, he responds first by healing people of diseases and restoring sight to the blind (enacting jubilee), and second with a proclamation of jubilee: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.” (Luke 7:21–23)
Again, there is nothing cryptic about these words. Is he the one to come? Yes! He is the Anointed One, the agent of jubilee who brings forgiveness, liberation and healing!
Since Luke makes this point so clearly, we can think of his Gospel as a kind of jubilee proclamation. Of course, there is something slightly different about the jubilee that it proclaims. As opposed to Israel’s socio-economic jubilee, it bears witness to the jubilee of all jubilees. It announces that Jesus grants remission and release from sin, and he restores the distorted and the broken to new life. This jubilee is not oriented only toward shalom in Israel, it is the means by which shalom is restored between God and humanity. Jesus brings forgiveness, liberation and healing to all of us, and his forgiveness, liberation and healing go all the way down.
In Advent, then, what we expectantly await is the arrival of a new kind of jubilee. It is for all people, and it comes to us in the form of the infant Jesus. And if the entirety of Luke’s gospel is a proclamation of this new jubilee, then the birth narrative of Jesus can be thought of as the trumpeter drawing in her breath, pursing her lips and raising her instrument on the Day of Atonement.
In Advent we are filled with excitement because we know what the child in the manger is about to deliver. We know that a radical new jubilee has been proclaimed by the life and ministry of Jesus, and we know that against the hopelessness and the chaos that remain so tangible, the trumpet is about to sound.