Jesus Declares Jubilee
Luke 4:14-30 ESV
You have to imagine this scene as it first happened. This is probably a relatively small, humble setting. The synagogue would have been crowded and well-used, not unlike a lively rural church that smells like old coffee and Pine-Sol. The congregants are the oppressed, occupied people of Israel. They lived in relative peace with their Roman conquerors much of the time, but their lives were restricted, and their culture disrespected. Revolts against Rome were crushed mercilessly.
The synagogue was one place where they could be themselves, reading about the promises of their God to deliver them one day.
Over the grind of years, especially under the thumb of a decidedly pagan oppressor, some tribalism and animosity toward outsiders had developed. They believed Israel was God’s chosen people, and that Rome—with her disgusting gods and terrifying power plays—would eventually be destroyed on the day of God’s deliverance. Israel would be exalted again, and their enemies would be demolished.
During Jesus’ time, small Israelite terrorist groups existed that would stage riots and assassinate officials in hopes of bringing about God’s great military deliverance. God’s salvation would be for them as a people, and the rest of the world would pay for their arrogance.
And on this day, Jesus stands up to read where these promises are read. But he reads a different section for the day, and that’s where the story takes a turn.
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:14-30 ESV)
Today in our reading, Jesus takes aim at exclusivity. He places just the right dynamite at just the right places to explode our judgment of who’s “in” and who’s “out.” He topples our understanding of who the desirables and deplorables are; he breaks down the “us versus them.”
We need a few historical coordinates to understand what’s going on here. At that time in Israel, there was the belief that God would come and deliver his special people and destroy their enemies. Based on their reading of the Old Testament, they believed that God’s deliverance would be physical and political, and that the barbarian hordes, Rome especially, would be broken by God’s strength. Israel would be exalted.
We need to view that sympathetically, although it seems foreign to most of us. A few generations before Jesus came, people were tortured and killed for keeping Jewish practices and beliefs. Their grandparents had been killed for things like keeping the sabbath, which is why it was so important when Jesus confronted these realities. The people of Israel were a displaced minority, so their identity was extremely important to them. Within the story of that identity was the exclusive deliverance of Israel, hand-picked by God to be his people and the rest of the world could, quite literally, be damned.
Small note here: I am NOT saying that this what Jewish people believe today. Their faith has evolved and changed dramatically since the first century. I’m not saying these are Jewish beliefs as a whole, but these are the beliefs that were in play when Jesus was here and in the specific society he was in. Do NOT assume what Jewish people these days believe; that is a very diverse subject that is another discussion entirely. Please know also that any problems we see in the people of Israel, or in any other faith group, are sins we’ve committed as well. The church has been just as exclusionary as first-century Judaism ever was at different times in her history. These issues aren’t pointed out for us to judge, but to be warned lest we do the same.
Jesus is coming up against this exclusivity, against the idea that we know what God’s “chosen” will look like. Let’s get to the passage:
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. (Luke 4:14-15 ESV)
It says Jesus was in the “power of the Spirit.” What had he just come back from? What had he just been through? He’d just been through 40 days in the wilderness, fasting and praying and spending time with God, and having the harrowing experience of Satan bugging him like a horsefly. We don’t see him coming out of college with a fresh degree or coming off a nice long sabbatical, a long vacation, refreshed and ready. He has been recently tried and tested, emptied and encouraged, so that he can be filled with the Spirit and fully prepared for his ministry.
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:16-18 ESV)
We have to set the scene here as well. Jesus is walking into the synagogue, as was his custom. He was there doing what faithful Israelites of the day were always doing. They would open the scroll and read and then sit down and offer a teaching based on the reading.
But the scene here is different. As the passage indicates, they are aware of Jesus and what he has been up to. Word has spread about his teaching and his presence, maybe even his miracles. They were waiting for him to say something profound.
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:19-20 ESV)
He’d shocked them: “This is about me and it’s happening now.”
What?! He was reading about God’s deliverance. He was reading about God’s great deliverance of Israel that they’d all been waiting for. But it sounded different than what they expected; it wasn’t what they thought it would be.
Jesus is talking about those who are the undesirable, those who are the broken and on the margins: the blind, the poor, the prisoners, the oppressed. Luke’s gospel is often economic, talking about Jesus’ special love for the poor and destitute. But the definition of “poor” here is wider than that as well. It describes those who are of low social status in their society—women, children, disabled people, blind people.
Jesus is stating that the vision of God’s kingdom starts with and always includes these people.
The good news is not for those who think they’re together, but those who know they’re broken.
That’s the bombshell here. Jesus didn’t come to save the righteous, but sinners. He didn’t come to rain fire down on those bad guys, but to show the good guys and the bad guys that they need a Savior.
This is easy to forget in a changing world. Christianity was the dominant religion for a very long time in the west—several centuries. Many of us remember a time when almost everyone you knew went to church and the world stopped on Sunday. This next generation won’t grow up in that world. There will be a wide diversity of different worldviews in the air, different perspectives, and the traditional Christian one will become a minority.
Can we learn from this that we are not to view the rest of the world with fear and bitterness? Can we learn to be thankful that we know Christ as we do rather than be judgmental to the rest of the world that may not know him? The saved hostage doesn’t judge those that are still imprisoned—he aches for them, he prays for them, and he is grateful every moment that he has been rescued. Let’s let this be our attitude.
This is one reason it can be refreshing to hang out with recovering addicts, and if you never have, I’d recommend it! Those who have looked in the face of death and complete loss and know that every blessing in their lives is just that. Extra. They live with a certain freedom, knowing what it’s like to lose everything, knowing that they are just as capable of evil as the so-called “bad guys.”
Jesus says here that he has come to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (v. 19) That’s another important historical piece. Let’s look at that phrase, which is heavy with meaning, and what it would have sounded like to the original hearers. Turn with me to Leviticus 25…
Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields. (Leviticus 25:10-12 ESV)
This is what was called the Jubilee year. In the Jubilee year, all property was returned to its original owners and the land rested from being cultivated. Those who had become indentured servants because of poverty were to be freed in that year.
It was a year of liberation, of return of property, and of simplicity. They were to live on what naturally grew off the land, not to work the land and destroy it trying to get what they wanted out of it. This would have been a simpler time; wealth and competition would have been at a lull because everyone was living under the same restrictions of production.
The year of Jubilee—the time when everything restarted, and those who were imprisoned were released. That’s what Jesus is talking about here. This was a very strict and serious part of being God’s people. The sabbath day and the sabbath years pointed to the great Jubilee of God delivering Israel one day. It was an integral part of what it meant to be God’s people.
Jesus declares that he has come to bring Jubilee. He has come to bring a time of release, of starting over again from ground zero. The over-complicated, sin-infested ways of “who owes what to whom” and “who offended whom” and “who’s winning and losing” need to be demolished. Jesus has redeemed all of that and enables us to start over. But this time we start over with him.
Here are a few things to put in our pocket today, as we look at this special reading of Jesus.
- Jesus didn’t come for those who think they have it all together, but for those who are broken—whether they realize it or not. Every good thing in life is from him, every blessing we have is a gift from him, so let’s be freshly grateful.
- Jesus came for all. In this same vein, we as God’s people need to be gentle with those who don’t call themselves Christians. Jesus gives several examples here of God’s mercy shed on those who were “outside” of the chosen. He had his strongest words for the religious establishment, for the US not the THEM. Let’s continue to tell truth in love, and be known for our welcoming and hospitality, for our feasting, instead of how well we withdraw.
- The year of Jubilee—Jesus declared the year of Jubilee, the year that has never stopped. In Jesus we are released from our sin, guilt, and shame. Do you need a year of Jubilee in your life? Is there something that you need to let go of? Some bitterness or rage against someone, or against life itself? Let Jesus take care of that for you. Let this be the year of Jubilee. Let this be the year when you claim God’s peace and love against all odds.