The Exodus is a story of liberation and the subsequent, gradual, and sometimes painful formation of an alternative community built on trust in God, equality and economic justice. It became the foundational story that informed the social practice of the people of Israel throughout the following millennia even though they often fell miserably short of its values. (Not unlike our far-from-perfect American commitment to freedom, equality, and justice for all).
The Exodus story inspired the Hebrew prophets who chastised their people for failing to fully trust God and live as a liberated people. And it is the bedrock for what is best called the “politics of Jesus.” We cannot understand Jesus and his ministry without understanding this vision of freedom, equality, and economic justice as a people of God. Furthermore, without it we cannot grasp what will necessarily be involved as we seek to renew the church as followers of Jesus.
One way to get a better handle on this is to take a closer look and what we might call Jesus’ stump speech on the reign of God that he delivered at the synagogue in his home village of Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30). Jesus’ call for freedom and economic justice is taken directly from the prophet Isaiah and is rooted in the Law of Moses. Central to this agenda are: (1) God’s concern for the poor and dispossessed, (2) liberty for those caught in a web of oppression and debt slavery, and (3) far-reaching economic redistribution.
The “year of the Lord’s favor” that Jesus proclaimed in his home synagogue was the sabbatical year of Jubilee that had been instituted by Moses. On every forty-ninth year all productive land was supposed to be returned to its original owners (Lev. 25:8-22). In essence, Jesus was announcing that the time to implement the sweeping social and economic leveling of the Jubilee year had arrived. This was good news for many struggling, disenfranchised people in Palestine but certainly not for those who had accumulated power and wealth under the oppressive Roman system. It helps explain both the support for Jesus among ordinary people and the opposition to him among the religious and political elites.
André Trocmé, the French biblical scholar, pastor, and peace activist, who spearheaded a nonviolent effort to rescue Jews from Nazi oppression during World War II, is largely recognized for retrieving the implications of Jubilee for understanding Jesus and his ministry. He writes:
“Moses had instituted a genuine social revolution aimed at preventing the accumulation of capital in the hands of the few. This was to recur every seven and every forty-nine years. I use the term ‘revolution’ intentionally because the social readjustments commanded by Moses were far more radical than the efforts of modern revolutionaries. Contemporary revolutions grow primarily out of economic disparities caused by technological developments. Jesus’ revolution, on the contrary, drew its strength from God’s liberating justice. By proclaiming the Jubilee, Jesus wanted to bring about a total social transformation, with an eye to the future, yet based on the vision of justice God had already set forth in the past” (Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution, 16).
In my next post I will explore the implications of Jubilee for followers of Jesus in our era of ever-widening global and domestic disparity between the rich and the poor.