Jubilee!: Mark: 2:13-17 (7) Pharisees Attack![1]

After the skirmish with the scribes over forgiveness, Jesus retires to the countryside, the bailiwick of the Pharisees who were more interested in village and family life than affairs of the temple. With a crowd watching on he encounters and calls a tax-collector, Levi, to follow him. This risk and scandalous move by Jesus could come back to bite him in the butt. And it does. Pharisees bristle at his welcome of such a one into the FoK and sharing a table with him and other rabble at his house.

Tax-collectors were “damned”

-by virtue of their job requiring them to work with Gentiles,

-because they were often unscrupulous, and

-because they symbolized the hated colonial rule of Rome over Palestine.

In essence, Israel was in debt to Rome, and tax-collectors were debt-collectors, recouping what was due to Rome (and a chunk more for themselves). No surprise they were despised! The presence of debtors (the rabble) and the debt-collector (Levi) at the same table is an act of social dynamite. What could bring these two sorts of people together in an act that is tantamount to the host welcoming the guests into his family?

Only a “good news” that announced an unprecedented and unexpected grace that cancelled out this debtor-debt-collector frame could reshape social life in such a far-reaching way. Only Jesus as the agent and reality of such good news can gather the Alt-Left and Alt-Right to the same table in friendship and celebration of an event that means good news for both.

And what might such good news be? It can only be that Jesus announces that the kingdom Jesus announces as becoming reality in and through him is a version of Jubilee. You remember Jubilee, don’t you? It’s the hyper-radical social experiment God expected his people to conduct. It’s found in Lev.25 (yes, that Leviticus!). In this extraordinary legislation God mandates he people to organize themselves so that economic disparity between the have and have nots is never institutionalized in Israel. Here’s how it works.

-Every seventh year was to be a sabbatical year. “Debts are to be forgiven, agricultural lands to lie fallow, private land holdings to become open to the commons, and staples such as food storage and perennial harvests to be freely redistributed and accessible to all” (Ex.10).[2]

-After seven sabbatical years (49 years), the next year, the 50th is to be a Jubilee year. The preceding Sabbatical year has effected the forgiveness of debt. The Jubilee year adds to that a return of all land lost for whatever reason in the previous generation to the families to whom it was given when the land was originally allocated when Israel entered Canaan under Joshua. Further, slaves were given their freedom.

-Jubilee reinforced the truth that all land belonged to Israel’s God and Israel was its caretaker. And they, as a people freed from slavery, must never allowed such a way of life to become a part of the “way things were” for them. So every generation was to level the playing field and offer each family a chance to renew or become productive members of society with all the rights, responsibilities, and respect that entailed.

Breathtaking as this vision is, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Israel never mustered the “oomph” to practice it. Sabbath years they practiced but not, according to the evidence we have, Jubilee.  And it’s not hard to figure out why. Those who “made it” didn’t want to give their gains up any more than we would. So they didn’t.

But their failure did not doom God’s dream in this respect. Jubilee remains in scripture as God’s will for his people. Even under very different circumstances, economic systems, and social orders, God’s people are charged to find ways to practice a Jubilee way of life that Jesus announced as his way and his mission in Luke 4:18-19:

“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.”

“The year of the Lord’s favor” is the Jubilee year. Since Jesus, his people live in a perpetual Jubilee year. It’s the rational for their lives, the way they serve God, and grow into their relationship with and calling by Jesus. In the measure that our lives and mission reflect such liberating words and practices, we are aligned with him. To the degree that they are not, well, . . .

Jesus’ message and practice, as exemplified here in Mark 2, evidently had this liberating power. Enough to bring the very volatile ends of the social and political spectrum of his day together as family to celebrate a family meal in Levi’s house. Even though the Pharisees balked because they worried about anything not according to their vision of how things should be, Jesus says he came to call the “sinners,” those who knew they were on the outs with God as defined by the Pharisees, not the “righteous,” those who thought themselves to know and practice God’s way. Thanks be to God!

[1] I am indebted to the work of Ched Myers on this passage in his Say to this Mountain, 22-25.
[2] http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/what-is-shemita-the-sabbatical-year/.


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