A sermon on Leviticus 25 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 27 June 2021
In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah.
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
This reading can be confronting for us modern people, because the message “freedom for the prisoners” sounds like bad news. It sounds like murderers and thieves will go free. It sounds like that there will be no justice.
And that’s a caricature of the gospel, isn’t it? That everyone gets a “get out of gaol free” card. That it doesn’t matter what you do. If you sin, you can just say sorry and you can go on sinning. But that isn’t good news. That’s bad news.
However, the reading from Isaiah only sounds like murderers and thieves go free because we modern people put murderers and thieves in gaol. In Isaiah’s time and in Jesus’ time, murderers and thieves weren’t put in gaol. Or at least, not for long. Murderers were put to death. And thieves were either put to death too or fined or sold to be slaves to work in mines. I’m not saying that that’s what should happen to them. I’m only saying that that’s what did happen to them. Whatever “release for the captives” means it doesn’t mean it for them. Roughly only two kinds of people were kept in prison. The first kind were political prisoners. The second kind were debtors. People who owed money. They were often put in goal until they paid back what they owed. Which is stupid, I know, because how can they make money to pay back what they owe if they are in goal. “Release for the captives” doesn’t mean murderers and thieves go free. It means an end to oppression. It means an end to being held hostage. It means that our misfortunes and mistakes shouldn’t be allowed to cripple us forever. It means that those who are distressed should be allowed to go free. “Release for the captives” means that Jesus delivers what the year of Jubilee promised.
We find the year of Jubilee in Leviticus chapter 25, a passage of the Bible which begins with the law of the Sabbath year. You are probably familiar with the Sabbath day. The seventh day of the week. God created the universe in six days, but
he blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it he rested from his work of creation.
And because of that everyone should rest one day of the week. It’s the promise of the weekend. That I don’t have to work until I wear out. But that I can put my labours down for a day and renew myself in enjoying the world that God has made and in praising its creator. And just so bosses don’t think that they can rest because their employees keep working, everyone gets a day of rest. The hired men. The day labourers. Even the donkeys and cows. It’s the promise of the weekend. That’s what people mean when they say, “Thank God it’s Friday.” It means that my work does not define my worth or who I am. For which we should truly thank God.
The Sabbath year in Leviticus chapter 25 shows us that if people and animal should get a day off a week, then the land should get a year off every seven years. If I work better because I get a day off, then the land also produces better if it gets a year off. In agriculture we call it letting the land lie fallow. Instead of stripping the land of its nutrients year after year, the land is allowed to recharge its natural batteries from the rain and native plants and soil microorganisms. The Sabbath year is also where we get the idea of taking a sabbatical, a break from our normal job, which is waiting for us when we get back. So that we don’t have to quit or retire to get the rest we need. We don’t have to stop working forever or find a new job just because we need a break. It’s also where we get the idea in Australia of long service leave. Something that no other country in the world offers its workers. But it is founded on the belief that we work better if we don’t have to work all the time.
And so we come to the year of Jubilee in chapter 25 verse 8. If people and animals work better if they get one day off out of seven, and if the land works better if it gets one year off out of seven, then the whole society works better, if one year out of fifty it gets the chance to start again. Like an electronic device that has been corrupted by a computer virus and needs to be reset to its original factory settings. They counted seven times seven years, seven Sabbath years, and then on the Day of Atonement, which fell in our September, the year of jubilee was announced by blowing the ram’s horn.
And two things happened in the year of jubilee. Firstly, the land was restored to its original owners. When the Israelites entered the promised land, every family got its own parcel of land. And an important principle of the law of Moses was that that gift of land could not be taken from that family for ever. However, if a family got into financial trouble, usually during a bad season, they could get an interest free loan and if the bad seasons continued and they couldn’t pay back the loan, they could sell the farm and try to start again.
But during the year of Jubilee they got it back. What it really means is that they didn’t really sell the land like we buy and sell land, because they weren’t allowed to. What they could do was rent it out to someone until the year of Jubilee. It’s just that instead of paying rent once a year, it was paid in one lump sum payment at the beginning. And that amount was calculated on the value of the land and the number of harvests that it would produce.
Because I love big words and confusing people, I’m going to say that the land was inalienable. Which means that it cannot be taken away from or given away by the person who owns it. Under the law of Moses, the land was inalienable because in a sense it didn’t belong to them. The Lord said,
The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants.
The Promised Land of Israel was a gift to his people. A refuge for them after their years of slavery in Egypt. They didn’t buy it, it was given to them. And so they couldn’t sell it, they could only rent it.
What this means is that every 50th year everyone got their land back. A run of bad seasons had meant that they had had to leave for a time. But not permanently. On the year of Jubilee their ancestral land was given back as if it had never been taken away. It didn’t mean just a fresh start. It meant that every 50th year they could go back home where they belonged.
That’s the first thing that happened in the year of Jubilee. The second thing that happened is that debts were cancelled. It wasn’t just farmers who could get into financial trouble. Drought wasn’t the only problem that people faced and some people who needed to borrow money didn’t own farms. And if a man could pay back the loan and had no land to sell to pay it back, if he had nothing of any value then he could sell himself into a kind of slavery.
But in the same way that the land couldn’t really be sold, it was more like the man was renting himself. He would be paid and he would pay back the loan, and he would work for another man who could tell him what to do. But it couldn’t be forever. In the fiftieth year, in the year of jubilee, the man was let go and he could go back home. For the Lord said,
Then he and his children are to be released, and he will go back to his own clan and to the property of his forefathers. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves.
And yet it would have felt like a kind of slavery, doing what he’s told, but every fiftieth year, they were set free. His debts were paid and he was truly free. It was more than just a fresh start. He was free to be who he was meant to be.
All in all, the year of jubilee was meant to ensure that no misfortune was permanent. That no mistake, no setback was to determine anyone’s future forever. But there would come a time when the lost and the poor and the oppressed would be set free. That someone would blow the ram’s horn and proclaim freedom. It was the promise of release for the captives.
And it was the year of jubilee that inspired Isaiah’s language to talk about the work of the coming Messiah. Which Jesus read out in the synagogue of Nazareth and said to them while they all looked at him,
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Because that’s what Jesus was doing in their midst. He was proclaiming freedom. He was announcing release for the captive. Because what we see in the year of jubilee is the promise of salvation. Rescue. Freedom. Blessing. And it is this promise that Jesus came to deliver. We see it in his earthly ministry. He preached good news to the poor, not just to the wealthy and entitled. He healed the sick. He cast out demons. He made the bent able to stand up straight and the lame to walk. The cripple did not have to depend on the kindness of strangers, but he could live and work for himself. Tax collectors who were shunned by their community were welcomed into his fellowship. Women who were often treated like second class citizens were invited to learn and to work just like the men. And in his trial and death Jesus was treated like an outcast, a blasphemer, a bandit, a slave, like a landless, godless nobody. In every way he became like us.
For every single one of us longs for salvation, for release, for freedom, for blessing. We feel lost and oppressed and estranged and alienated. We have debts we cannot pay and we are slaves to guilt and shame and fear and to impulses that control us. We do and say things that embarrass us. Or we are weighed down by loss and grief and we live like we are a day closer to the grave than we were yesterday. We live like the man who had to sell his farm or like the man who had to sell his freedom to pay his debts. It’s like we have to give up the best thing in our life just to survive. Sometimes it’s like we are treading water in poison, frantically trying to keep our head above water. It distorts our thinking and takes away our joy.
But In his death, Jesus paid our debts. He experienced our lostness, our frustration, our grief and despair. He drank our cup of bitterness. He dived into the poison we are swimming in. He took it all on himself, like a sponge soaking up the poison. And he died so it might die with him, all our toxic waste thrown in the garbage. But he was raised to life, dressed in immortality, leaving the rags they wrapped him in behind in the tomb. And his resurrection announces the year of jubilee. Like blowing on the ram’s horn. Our debt to God cancelled. Our slavery ended and we are set free. A home in heaven awaits us that cannot be taken from us. And we are no longer outcasts but children in the family of God. The kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the good news.
It is not the message that it doesn’t matter what we do. It matters very much what we do. Love as you’ve been loved. Forgive as you’ve been forgiven. It is not a message of injustice that lets thieves and murderers get away with it. Instead it means the coming of God’s perfect purifying justice that puts us right with him and takes away the wrong that we have fallen into. It doesn’t mean that we can say sorry and keep on sinning. Instead it means taking up our cross and following Jesus. It is our year of jubilee. Like the man who gets his farm back, like the man who gets his freedom back, we are back where we belong in a living relationship with our Lord Jesus and free to be who we were made to be. The image bearers of God, reflecting his glory in every aspect of our lives.
It is good news for the poor. It means freedom for the prisoners of their own poor choices. It means release for the those held captive by fear and hate and despair, promising peace and love and hope. In one word it is salvation. Let us all repent from all our toxic thinking and believe the good news.