Forming Faith Blog

Jubilee and Justice (December 13, 2020)

A set of legal scales on a table. Isaiah prophesies a time of Jubilee when justice will reign and all will balance out.
Exile and Return

Overall, life has sucked for God’s people up to the point of our reading from Isaiah 61. The injustice and idolatry in the kingdom of Judah led to the destruction of the city and the temple, and then to a forced relocation of the people to a land not their own. The people waited for release and return to their homeland, but even when that happened, the city, the temple, and the land were still in ruins. They may be back, but the suffering continued.

Warnings and Promises

In a complete oversimplification of the complexity of the biblical prophetic tradition, the prophecies of the period leading up to the destruction and exiles of first Israel and then Judah were warnings. “You are doing bad things, so bad things will happen to you,” says God. “Stop it and return to me.” During and after the exile, the tone of the prophecies changed and became more positive. “Things are bad now,” says God, “but they will get better. A lot better.” You might notice that the warning prophecies are predicated on human behavior and can be conditional (you can prevent the bad things if you repent). The promise prophecies are declarative and only dependent on God. Good news indeed.

The Great Reversal

Isaiah 61 is a part of that good news. God is declaring a promise to the people. “Things will get better! And not only better, but best!” This chapter begins with a promise that might sound familiar, as it is what Jesus reads as his “mission statement” in the synagogue in Nazareth (with some changes):

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.

Isaiah 61:1-2

“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 proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:18-19

In either case, this is a promise of a great reversal. Those who are oppressed go free, those who are brokenhearted are healed, those who are captives and prisoners are released, those who are blind are given sight.

In Isaiah, the primary audience is the whole post-exilic people of God. They have been oppressed, brokenhearted, captive, and imprisoned. These will all be reversed!

Jubilee: The Great Reset

Both passages proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. What does this mean? It’s a reference to the practice of the year of Jubilee commanded in the Torah (Leviticus 25). Put very simply, the Jubilee is a Great Reset; the pieces are all put back in their original places. All debts are forgiven; those in [debtor’s] prison are released. All land is to be returned to those whose ancestors were allotted it. Any Israelite slaves/indentured servants are freed.

Winners and Losers

This describes a massive economic shake-up. Who benefits? The people who have debts—who were forced to sell their land, their family, or themselves—are the ones who benefit. They are those who are poor and vulnerable. In the year of Jubilee, they can start over with a clean slate, and with their means of support (land) returned to them.

Who loses? The people who hold the debts, who had increased their land holdings due to the confiscation of the property of the debtors, who were served by servants, indentured for the repayment of debts. They are the rich. This is basically the redistribution of wealth on a national scale. Wealth—and the power over and oppression of the people that it’s built upon—is ultimately temporary. [Wealth may not necessarily be built on oppression (“the backs of the poor”) but, in this case, the focus of the Jubilee is on the redistribution of a set and specific type of wealth.] Note, however, that the wealthy here are not left without. They do not become poor. They just become economically equal to everyone else.

While the year of Jubilee only applies to Israelites, Isaiah (and Hannah, Mary, and Jesus) goes further. In Isaiah, God’s Great Reversal applies to the nations; those who humiliated Israel will be humbled and Israel will become great. The others extend this promise to everyone.

Imagining Justice Today

There is a historical question about whether the year of Jubilee was ever practiced in Israel. Given the condemnation of the wealthy in many of the prophetic warnings, it does not seem to have been a lasting practice. Whether it was or wasn’t practiced, it gives us a description of life as God intends it to be. It’s not just about straight-up equality, at least not in method. Everyone didn’t get the same quantity of debt relief. Those who owed less got less. Those who owed more got more. Those who had lent money lost money. But, in the final scene, everyone had enough, all that they needed. This is justice. Justice is when everyone has all that they need when there is no lack, no poverty, but neither is there comparative wealth (at least in terms of the means of producing wealth).

Free Resource

This week’s free resource looks specifically at the imagery in Isaiah 61:4 with the “Ruins to Life” activity from our Living the Word: Kids (PK-2nd) Narrative Lectionary curriculum. This activity has been adapted so that it can be done anywhere by anyone: singles or groups, online, at home, or in church.

May God provide you with all that you need.


Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

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