The biblical principle of sabbath climaxes in the celebration of Jubilee described in Leviticus 25. In Luke 4:18-19 Jesus describes his mission in terms of bringing Jubilee to the world. So how does our church embody Jubilee?
I learned something as I was studying the biblical teaching of sabbath. Not only was Israel to observe Sabbath every 7th day, but every 7th year was a whole year of Sabbath (Lev 25 1-7). Then after 7 annual Sabbaths (7 x 7) the 50th year brought a Sabbath climax with the celebration of Jubilee.
In the Jubilee year the land not only rested, but debts were to be forgiven, land was to be returned to its original owners, slaves were freed, bankruptcies were discharged. Jubilee was the ultimate sabbath: Rest, restoration, renewal, release.
Strangely, we have no record of Israel ever celebrating Jubilee. This has led some scholars to suggest that this chapter was a later insertion by idealistic scribes. Most scholars however believe it was simply disregarded. One reason for this may be that Jubilee most benefits people on the margins of society. Little incentive exists for the the movers and shakers of society to free slaves and return land they’ve bought and cared for to the original families. It’s simpler just to overlook this part of God’s law.
In Luke 4 Jesus quotes the Jubilee language of Isaiah 61 when announces that he is initiating “the year of the Lord’s favor”. He brings “good news to the poor, freedom, and healing”. Jesus declares that his ministry will most benefit people living on the margins of society. The ultimate Jubilee has arrived.
If Jesus’ mission entailed ushering in Jubilee, and the church follows Jesus, then Jubilee must be part of our message also. How sad if, like Israel, the church also overlooks the climax of sabbath, the celebration of Jubilee.
Here’s some ways we can integrate Jubilee into our churches:
- Does the church proclaim Jubilee when we come together? Do our worship services proclaim Good News to those seeking rest, restoration, renewal and release/freedom? I’ve attended churches that were more concerned with pointing out the errors of other churches and the encroaching threat of the world than proclaiming the jubilant victory of Christ. Entering God’s presence should refresh not depress and the message of those leading worship has a lot of influence in this area.
- Beyond proclamation, do our corporate gatherings facilitate opportunities for people to share their exhaustion, struggles, failures and hurts? This doesn’t have to take place publicly, but can we facilitate it privately? For example, I know some churches that close their worship with an invitation to meet in a specific room with some designated prayer partners in addition to the traditional invitation to come before the church. I’m sure other ideas exist also. The more opportunities we have for people to express their burdens, the more opportunities will exist for the church to practice Jubilee.
- Which newcomers receive the greatest welcome among the assembled church? If Jubilee most benefits those on the margins then the body of Christ should welcome these guests into our midst. Paul described this need in this way “The parts [people] that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.” He recognises that this isn’t natural, because “we think they’re less honorable”, but the church makes the effort and learns to treat them with “special honor”.
- Jubilee should also extend beyond the Sunday assembly. The mission of the church demands proactive action. Ask yourself, “How prominent are the ministries of compassion within your church?” Ministry to the margins often falls under the responsibility of the benevolence ministry. Disregarding the importance of integrating Jubilee into all aspects of church life, the church should regard these ministries of compassion as core ministries not a social obligation every church needs to contribute toward. If the annual review of the benevolence ministry discusses dollars and cents rather than stories of lives touched have probably lost sight of Jubilee.
May each of us experience and spread the rest and freedom that Jesus initiated when he established “the year of the Lord’s favor”.
My list is hardly exhaustive. How do you see churches proclaiming and practicing the values of Jubilee?