by Peter Blood
I have been reflecting since late last year on the spiritual meaning of the end of the millenium. At first I wasn’t coming up with much. I was intrigued by the ideas put forth by Jubilee 2000, a movement using the end of the millenium as an opportunity for challenging developed nations to forgive the crushing debts of poorer countries. Beyond that, most of the thoughts I had heard seemed to fall into the category of “media hype” rather than serious reflection.
I was carried deeper in this inward journey in an unexpected way. My wife and I received an invitation by New Zealand Yearly Meeting to do six weeks of music ministry in that country last winter. After flying for 13 hours across the Pacific, our New Zealand Quaker hostess arranged for us to spend a few days at a retreat house built by Friends on an island across the bay from Auckland. Amid family preparations for a very different Christmas far from home, I discovered a stack of back issues of the New Zealand Friend. I decided to skim through these as preparation for our work among Friends there.
Jesus’ call to open prison doors
I came across an extraordinary article in the November 1997 issue of this periodical entitled, “Quakers, Jesus, & the Theology of Prison Abolition”. In this article, Llewelyn Richards zeroed in on what was perhaps Jesus’ first act of public ministry, recorded in Luke 4:16-20. In this passage (long a favorite of mine) Jesus is asked to read from the scripture during Sabbath services in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. He unrolls the scroll from Isaiah 61:1-2 and reads: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to announce pardon for prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind; to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s amnesty.”
This last phrase is also translated as “the time of the God’s favour” or the “Jubilee Year”. One translation has Jesus announcing that “This is God’s year to act!” Jesus then rolls up the scroll, hands it back and states: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Although those present at the service are at first impressed by the authority with which Jesus speaks, they quickly become angry at him. Luke says that Jesus was fortunate to escape with his life. Richards went on to challenge Friends to use the ending millenium as an opportunity to re-examine deeply our attitudes towards prisons and prisoners.
Reading this article struck me deeply. What was Jesus talking about in announcing that the good news of Jubilee was fulfilled that very day? I knew that Jubilee had something to do with forgiveness and new beginnings. Reading through Leviticus 25 I discovered that these rules were all based firmly on the idea that everything and everyone belongs to God: the land, homes and other property, wealth and the Hebrew people themselves. They were based on the understanding that however far we stray from our roots in God, it is critical that we return from time to time to our beginning state of belonging to God.
Origins of Jubilee in the Hebrew Bible
This in turn spurred me to find out more about what the Old Testament idea of Jubilee actually involved. What I discovered (in reading through Leviticus 25) Jubilee were all based firmly on the idea that everything and everyone belongs to God: the land, homes and other property, wealth and the Hebrew people themselves. It said that however far we stray from our roots in God, it is essential that we return from time to time to that beginning state of belonging to God.
According to Leviticus, every seven years was to be a Sabbath year. In this year all agricultural lands were to be left fallow so that the land itself could experience the spiritual and physical restoration of Sabbath rest. (You may have heard that there is great controversy today in Israel because the Orthodox leaders of Judaism have decided to no longer endorse the loopholes under which Jewish farmers went through paper transfers of their property to non-Jews each seventh year.) The earth is the Lord’s, not our own. It deserves to be loved and cared for and rested and given spiritual renewal just as we need to rest every week. This year, every year we need to love the land (and air and water and all of God’s creation) and care for it and allow it to flourish once again.
This status as belonging to God extended down even to the very poorest individuals and families whose desperate economic circumstances caused them to lose everything they owned, leading them not only to sell away their family property or to accumulate large debts, but even to the point of selling away their status as free people and becoming slaves to their neighbors.
As a result, every seven Sabbath years, a much more radical returning to beginnings was to occur. Once every fifty years, all outstanding debts were to be forgiven, all Hebrews who had the status of slaves were to become free, and all properties that had been sold during the previous fifty years were to be returned to the families that sold them. (How different U.S. – and New Zealand – history would have been if all the broken treaties and shady land deals under which indigenous people lost their lands were annulled every fifty years!)
It is unclear to historians to what extent these radical principles were ever put into practice in ancient Israel. To the extent they were, they were applied to the Hebrew people alone. Land acquired from non-Jews was presumably not returned. Nor were non-Jewish slaves or prisoners set free.
Jesus and Jubilee ethic
It is also clear, however, that the very heart of Christ’s good news was to extend the basic principles of the Old Testament ethics beyond the boundaries of the Hebrew community to the entire human race. No longer is Christ’s message of liberation and forgiveness limited to one’s own extended family/faith community.
When Christ unrolled Isaiah in that synagogue 2000 years ago, it didn’t fall on the official Jubilee year of the Hebrew community (see Luke 4:14-30) . What Christ was saying is: “This is my challenge, my invitation to you right now, today!” In his promise to be with us always, to the end of time, he challenges us to live this good news every year, not just every 50th year or even every 1000th year. Here, at the very outset of his ministry to this world, Jesus was saying: “What my messiahship is about is a radical new beginning, a fresh start, a change that will turn the world upside down.” Surely, this provided a key to what this new millennium was about: far beyond the specific issue of forgiving Third World debt!
Our economic system does much good in creating things we treasure and rely upon. It is hard to imagine the upheaval it would create in our economy and social life if those old Jubilee rules (forgiveness of debts, reversal of property sales back to original owners, leaving land fallow for a year, release of prisoners) were put into effect today. But our economic system also creates almost inconceivable inequities among us, leaving some in enormous wealth and others in utter poverty. I hear Christ challenging us to remember that every human being is a member of God’s family and deserves to be given a fresh chance to start over without crippling burdens from the past of debt or lack of economic resources. How can Christ’s good news extends even to those in prisons or in a state of effective slavery (due to the economic, political, gender or ethnic status they find themselves in) – to all of these he offers a fresh new beginning to under His reign?
These are powerful, disturbing messages. I recognize the fears in me of trying to put them into practice today. If I listen to a call to prophetic witness to the society around us on these issues, I could easily face the same hostility and resistance from today’s “powers that be” as Christ did in Nazareth. Closer to home, I know I have to face resistance to this Jubilee message in my own heart.
Letting go of attachment to material wealth today
When I returned from New Zealand I was laid off from my well-paying secure (I thought!) job as a hospital administrator. I struggled with whether to rush into another job of this kind. After prayer and discussion it felt scary but right to try and cut way back on our family expenditures and see if we could make it on my wife’s much lower salary from a Friends School. We decided we were not really using the top floor of our large old farmhouse and found a college student to rent it from us. It left us a bit cramped, but not nearly as cramped as most families around the world. Annie (my wife) acknowledged ways in which she had come to use shopping as recreation or even therapy and expressed readiness to find other outlets. My six year old has difficulty understanding why we are much less ready and able to buy him as many of the toys he wants as before. I threw myself into ways we could save money in my new unfamiliar role as primary homemaker. But I too can easily give way to spending money on non-essentials. And there are so many “things” we own that I am attached to: it is hard to hold them up to Christ’s challenge and know what is right.
I am also just beginning to recognize the need to move beyond these ways of trying to alter my relationship with God’s “imprisoned” children in the inner city or across the world through economic changes. I am also trying to practice radical reformation here within my family and in the ways I spend my time each day. What does it mean for me to give all back to God, to make a Jubilee new beginning in my daily life? To make a fresh Jubilee beginning in my response to my son who struggles with an emotional and behavioral disability or in my marriage?
I struggle with ways to establish balance and rhythm in my day-to-day life as I embrace each day as a new beginning in Christ. Our monthly meeting has always been helpful in supporting us when we feel called to carry our ministry around the world. It is harder to ask for help and support when we are struggling with more mundane struggles, such as how to make ends meet or how to achieve peace with God each day. We still have a long way to go – and yet I know we have many partners available in this journey to faithfulness.
Christ invites us to start over each year as if we are all radically of equal value to God, as we were when God first created us. Only by taking this challenge to heart as a faith community and as a nation can we begin to find the courage and vision to discover how we can respond to his invitation, this millennial year – and every year to come.
The author spent seven weeks in late 1999 and early 2000 traveling with his wife and family under a minute of religious concern from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to Friends in New Zealand and Hawaii. A shorter version of this essay was printed in the January 2001 issue of Quaker Life.