The Politics of Jesus by Yoder has appeared in many a footnote over my seminary career. It’s been on my ‘must read’ list and eventually spent a year on my nightstand. Finally I’ve read this seminal text, most of it while in transit (ironic, I know) through LAX and on a long, long flight to Melbourne. Crossing the Pacific Ocean was the first time I encountered words like messianity, exousiology, radicality and jubilary. My mind hummed with all the goodness and I never could get to sleep!
That last word, jubilary, arrested my attention. I am a jubilee girl, have been since the first time I realized Jesus brought jubilee into the Gospels, on the ground in Palestine, according to Luke. What does it mean that Jesus declared the year of the Lord’s favor at the onset of His public ministry? The first thing I sensed in my bones had to do with time – jubilee is about present tense freedom, not escape to freedom after death or after the apocalypse. Jubilee is about the here and now – so Jesus meant to reorder the ground game before resurrection, before any second coming.
So when I noticed that Yoder devoted an entire chapter dedicated to the exploration of jubilee in the Gospels – I was lit! “(The remission of debts and liberation of slaves) are even at the center of Jesus’ theology.” Jubilee is central to understanding the theological praxis of Jesus – seeing through a jubilary lens opens up the Gospels and showcases some good news I think we often miss.
We tend to think the good news is salvation, a spiritual rescue that protects us from earthly tribulation or seals us for heaven. But jubilee is a concrete economic practice to release people from the real economic crises of life. We ought to be celebrating the good news that breaks the cycles of our perpetual indebtedness, allowing us to engage in a better kind of life here on earth. I think jubilary economics push us to see salvation as more earth-bound, less ethereal. I find that to be better news.
Yoder outlined the four basic principles of Biblical jubilee:
- Leaving the soil fallow
- The remission of debts
- The liberation of slaves
- The return to each individual of his family’s property.
When forced to look at jubilee structure again, two words surfaced for me: land and debt. Property matters, how we steward it season to season and who holds the deed in perpetuity matters to the health of the land. Short cycles of production and Sabbath keep land fertile. Long-term commitment and care, provided by generations of family, keep fidelity with the plot of earth once entrusted. Land requires rest and must finally be at rest in the right hands to maintain creation goodness.
And debt – people were enslaved by deep indebtedness, robbing them of resources and freedom. In Palestine, debt and slavery were part of the same continuum. If you lost a little, you fell into debt. If you lost a lot, you became a slave to pay off the debt. So here comes Jesus offering release from both kinds of debt as a central tenet of His public ministry. No wonder the poor, trapped on the underside of imperial economics, loved Him so much. He really spoke news worth heralding.
The Gospel, through jubilee eyes, allows us to envision freedom from the shackles of debt. We can imagine our debt burden forgiven. We can even expect some tangible liberation to come our way and provide another chance for us to re-enter the economy. No one should be locked into permanent poverty, but always cling to the truth that freedom will come back around. I think this is a big part of what Jesus meant when He invoked jubilee in A.D. 29. He looked at the real issues that crippled people – land management, land loss, indebtedness and slavery – and declared them powerless in the new Kingdom structure of a jubilary economy.
But indulge me three more words: prayer, parable and people. Because Yoder continues to demonstrate how Jesus wove that jubilee message through all His liberating rhetoric.
The Lord’s Prayer speaks of daily bread, real food for hungry people. And the prayer speaks of real debts that must be forgiven – monetary debt, not bad behavior. Jesus tells us to pray that our own debt load would be forgiven, since we all seem to struggle under more debt than is healthy. And then we’re instructed to pray that we would be the kind of people who had the courage to release others from their indebtedness to us. Lord, help us let go of the monies owed to us so that we can join you in breaking the unjust cycles of indebtedness that enslave our neighbors. We are to pray like this – about real food, real debt – so there will be real freedom in our neighborhoods. Jubilee stands central in this prayer bequeathed to all disciples. (Which makes me think that debt forgiveness is key to discipleship.)
Then there are those illusive parables Jesus always told about shepherds, ten virgins, stewards, land owners… as if plucked from the Palestinian landscape. Two in particular make more sense in light of a jubilee paradigm – the merciless servant and the unfaithful steward. Both take on fresh meaning in a jubilary context. When we experience jubilee release, we must turn around and offer it to others, too. And when we do finally practice jubilee in our community, our neighborhood becomes a safe place for us, even in our own poverty. Jubilee changes the streets where we live – at least it should for disciples of Jesus.
But two people show me, with each reading, truths about the jubilary possibility Jesus promoted on the Palestinian street. First we have the rich ruler, wealthy due to land dealings and debt management. (This ought to ring some bells…) He claimed to obey the commands of Moses, but Jesus leaves us to believe that the rich ruler neglected to enact jubilee practice which also was commanded by Moses. So Jesus gives him a direct invitation to sell and distribute, to join His jubilee campaign. But he couldn’t do it. Because one truth we ought to know – jubilee practice is hard. When we have lots of stuff, giving it back is hard, divesting isn’t the discipleship track we want. But without jubilee practice, he walks away sad.
Then, from a tree above the crowd, climbs down Zacc. And with one encounter with Jesus he intuitively knows what must be done to express his new found allegiance to the Rabbi. He must reverse his exploitive economic practices and enact jubilee right then and there! So he sells, distributes and reconnects with his community. He joins the jubilee campaign – restored himself and restoring others. He is the picture of jubilee, a reminder that this can be done even in the face of real debt and real empires and real neighbors. Jubilee happens!
But economic talk always becomes political talk. So Yoder speaks of jubilee as he tells of The Politics of Jesus. The economics of Jesus become the politics of Jesus become the salvation of Jesus for all of us, who labor under crushing indebtedness and other burdens.
Our discipleship must include jubilee – it’s woven into our prayers, parables and people who serve to guide us by their examples (or not). When we follow Jesus, we enlist into His jubilee campaign. We don’t just care about spiritual matters, but we are transformed into economic operators for the Kingdom. We free people – here on earth – because it is the year of the Lord’s favor!
(Thanks to Yoder for providing more language and a stronger lens to see that, indeed, jubilee is everywhere!)
So this is an open invitation to all those reading along in the #transitlounge this month, or any other friends who’ve read The Politics of Jesus, to join in with your own response. Please (1) link up and (2) read others and then (3) leave comments so our conversation continues across our various blogs!
It’s such an honor to read/tweet/blog with you! Thanks for reading in the #trnasitlounge and enriching my reading experience. Jubilee blessings to you all!
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