Our Way: The Good News
Luke 4:14-30; Lev. 25
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
28 January 2007
If you haven’t figured it out yet, Wendell Berry, that Kentucky farmer, is my favourite poet. I quote him often enough in these sermons and other settings. In fact, there are three or four of his poems that I quote all the time. Tonight I’m going to open with “The Sycamore.” I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve used it in a sermon, a lesson, or a prayer.
In the place that is my own place, whose earth
I am shaped in and must bear, there is an old tree growing,
a great sycamore that is a wondrous healer of itself.
Fences have been tied to it, nails driven into it,
hacks and whittles cut in it, the lightning has burned it.
There is no year it has flourished in
that has not harmed it. There is a hollow in it
that is its death, though its living brims whitely
at the lip of the darkness and flows outward.
Over all its scars has come the seamless white
of the bark. It bears the gnarls of its history
healed over. It has risen to a strange perfection
in the warp and bending of its long growth.
It has gathered all accidents into its purpose.
It has become the intention and radiance of its dark fate.
It is a fact, sublime, mystical and unassailable.
In all the country there is no other like it.
I recognize in it a principle, an indwelling
the same as itself, and greater, that I would be ruled by.
I see that it stands in its place, and feeds upon it,
and is fed upon, and is native, and maker.
I think that poem is full of many deep, spiritual truths. It touches me in many ways. But one reason I love this poem and Berry himself as a poet, is that I am drawn to his love of the land.
I too love the land. My heritage is Irish and Cherokee, so I think that plays a big part. I also think that all of us Oklahomans love the land.
Living outside the state for a few years, I came to understand some things about Oklahomans. One lesson I learned during an adult bible study at Royal Lane that I was leading. We were studying Jurgen Moltmann’s In the End – The Beginning: The Life of Hope, specifically its chapter on youth. In that chapter he recounts how the Nazi’s co-opted the youth movements of Germany in order to further their own designs. This led to a discussion of our own adolescent years and our relationships with elders and authority figures.
Grace, a delightful woman who is an immigrant from India, talked with great negativity about the lack of respect for elders and authorities in American culture and compared this with her upbringing in India. I vocally and strongly disagreed with Grace’s impression of how young people ought to treat authority. I was joined by my friend Linda who is a middle-aged woman who has Oklahoma roots. As we continued talking, now about our cultural differences, Linda proposed a theory.
Linda said that our independent spirit is the result of our Oklahoma heritage. Since Oklahoma was the last part of America to be settled, our ancestors were the people who had not become established anywhere else – the Old World, the East Coast, or even the frontiers of the West. America as a whole is made up of the descendants of those who were not part of the European power structure – the younger sons who couldn’t inherit or the lower classes who couldn’t own property. And migration continued across the continent as those who didn’t own land and weren’t established kept moving to those last few open places. For many of our ancestors Oklahoma represented the last place where one could get cheap, sometimes even free, land.
After that conversation I realized that that is one reason this land is so much in my own blood. When living elsewhere, I enjoyed coming home. And I didn’t mind the drives across this land -- there is still something quite invigorating for me when I begin to near Ottawa County and the land becomes so familiar. There is hardly anything more stunning than an Oklahoma sunset in the summer.
Then, I came home. Inexplicably to many of my friends. But this place is part of me. This is “the place that is my own place, whose earth I am shaped in and must bear.”
In Luke 4 Jesus returns home to Nazareth, this place that is his own place. And it is there in Nazareth, according to Luke’s telling that Jesus explains his mission. Right now we are hearing many politicians announce their campaigns for the presidency. They outline their vision for the country and their plans. Jesus’ teaching here in the Nazareth synagogue is that kind of proclamation. His ministry has already begun, but he comes home to tell the world his vision.
According to Luke, Jesus sees himself as embodying elements of the Hebrew religion. Jesus reads from two different passages in Isaiah to explain his mission:
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.
It is a beautiful vision, long articulated by the prophets. It is the reign of God on earth. It is our fervent hope, just as it was the fervent hope of those listening that day. And they were pleased with what Jesus said. They were even quite excited that this new work of God’s would be headquartered there in their own village, by one of their own. These were proud neighbors who could say, “I knew him when.”
But Jesus surprises them. He tells them that not only will he not be headquartered in Nazareth, bringing favour and glory upon his home, but that God’s reign will be universal. This message of hope and peace isn’t only for the Jews, it is also for the Gentiles, even those who are enemies of the Jewish people. Jesus sites two scriptural precedents to prove his point.
This shocks and angers the people. Not only will they not be favoured among the Jewish towns and cities, Jesus’ message is for those they would rather not include. Oh how familiar we are with this story. As an Oklahoma Baptist come home to preach God’s inclusive love for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders, I have some taste of what Jesus encountered in those moments.
These Nazarenes are so angry because Jesus’ message is so good. What exactly has Jesus proclaimed? What is this good news that he is preaching.
My reading of this passage has been deeply influenced by the great Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder and his monumental work The Politics of Jesus. Yoder adopts the reading of Andre Trocme. You might be more familiar with Andre Trocme as the pastor in the French town of Le Chambon. Le Chambon, under Trocme’s leadership, successfully hid its entire Jewish population from the Nazis. I believe it was the only town to have done so. Trocme is one of the great twentieth century Christian saints, someone who knows something about the radical nature of Jesus’ politics.
According to Trocme and Yoder and now generations of Bible scholars, the key to this passage that Jesus quotes is the final line “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
What, you might ask, is the “year of the Lord’s favor”?
Many scholars believe it to be the proclamation of the jubilee. What’s the jubilee? For that we have to go back to Leviticus 25. This is one of the great passages in the Levitical Code. For all those people who pretend to take Leviticus seriously when they think it is speaking about homosexuality, I actually wish they’d take the principles of this chapter seriously.
The Jewish law dictated that every seven years the people were to leave the land fallow. They weren’t to grow or cultivate crops. They would eat whatever the land naturally produced, but were to give the land a year of rest. It is actually a wonderful agricultural principle. It also says something about creation itself. Creation needs restoration, healing, and redemption.
The way of God took this great agricultural principle and expanded it. If this one part of creation needs restoration, healing, and redemption, then probably all of creation does. So, every fifty years the people were to celebrate a jubilee. There were four prescriptions in the jubilee year: “(1) leaving the soil fallow, (2) the remission of debts, (3) the liberation of slaves, (4) the return of each individual of his family’s property.”
This system respected the power of land and property as necessary for well-being. It assumed that everyone was entitled to land and a home, land that they could use to support themselves and their family. If, for some reason, a person sold that land in order to cover a debt, then it would revert to that person or his family every fifty years. No one would be allowed to accumulate wealth in such a way that it oppressed others and robbed them of their well-being in perpetuity. Everyone got a chance at a new beginning.
It is a stunningly radical economic vision. Scholars debate whether or not the ancient Jews actually held to this practice. There are at least a couple of instances in scripture where something like the jubilee is celebrated.
Whether or not it was practiced diligently, it was the ideal to which the prophets aspired, often denouncing the oppressive and unjust economic systems of their day which robbed people of land and property and enslaved them through debt.
We know that in Jesus’ own time the peasant population had lost most of its property and were suffering under extreme debt, causing many to sell themselves into slavery.
Into this environment Jesus comes and proclaims the jubilee. The jubilee proclamation is central to his message. When he teaches us to pray, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” he is referring to the jubilee. The parables are filled with stories of indebtedness. A large part of Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees, those conservative literalists, is that they were neglecting the aspects of the Torah that truly expressed God’s will for humankind. It was the great Pharisaic rabbi Hillel who had interpreted the rules to allow loopholes around the jubilee rules.
Jesus’ vision of the reign of God was not only a rebuke of empty religious ritual, Roman militarism, or political oppression. It was a call for a restructuring of the human economic system.
The jubilee tradition that Jesus preached is not Marxism. It does not call for a collectivist state. It is attuned to economic realities. What it does share with Marxism is its critique of economic systems that allow the economy to run on its own without consideration for the ways systems can become oppressive. The jubilee tradition calls for restoration, healing, and redemption of creation.
In fact, the jubilee tradition has played a surprisingly powerful part in global politics in the last decade. You might remember that as the millennium approached, there was a call for a jubilee to forgive the debts of developing nations. Pope John Paul II and U2’s lead singer Bono played leading roles in this effort. It was partially successful, with many debts forgiven, though not all.
That jubilee spirit continued into this decade as the developed nations of the world formulated the Millennium Development Goals. This project is supposed to cut in half extreme poverty worldwide by 2015. Extreme poverty is defined as living on less than one dollar a day. For the first time in human history, the technology and financial ability to eliminate extreme poverty exists. What is lacking is the political will to carry it out. For example, battling malaria is one of the goals. Harvard economist Jeffery Sachs argues that a serious malaria reduction plan for Africa can be implement for only 3 billion dollars. This year alone Wall Street handed out 24 billion dollars in Christmas bonuses.
All the major economic powers, including ours, signed on to the Millennium Development Goals. President Bush spoke about it just this week in the State of the Union address. But every report on them that comes out finds the world behind.
We do live during exciting times. The Millennium Development Goals, Jeffery Sachs’ work, the projects of the Gates Foundation, and many others are seriously combating the inequities of our global economic system having been influenced by principles that are central to the Christian gospel and the Hebrew Torah.
The essence of Jesus’ proclamation of the jubilee is that all of God’s people and all of the creation needs to be redeemed and given an opportunity. The specifics of the ancient Levitical Code don’t fit our contemporary circumstances, but we can find ways to live out these principles. If we call ourselves Christians and followers of the way of Jesus, then we must take to heart the radical economic messages of Jesus and practice them in our own lives and seek to influence our workplaces and our governments.
It is a universal message that starts at home. The jubilee tradition has great respect for the power of home. It’s one reason Jesus probably proclaimed it in his home town. Because it values home and land, I resonate with it because I’m an Oklahoman. The jubilee tradition, like we Oklahomans, loves the land and seeks its restoration, healing, and redemption. We all live here because this is home. There is something about Oklahoma that it is deeply rooted in us, otherwise, we, of all people, would go someplace else.
Now, it’s all well and good to proclaim this jubilee message in a sermon. It bothers me that I can’t conclude with practical information on how you can participate in public policy advocacy or ways to volunteer in our community to fight poverty, homelessness, and hunger. Or even ways to participate in environmental programs that seek to restore creation according to the jubilee vision.
Recently a close friend of mine said that what he finds lacking in churches is this very next step. A sermon like the one I just preached should conclude with all the practical ways we as a congregation can be involved.
As a result of that conversation, I am embarking upon a new project. The Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City is going to create a ministry that will be a clearing house for all the volunteer opportunities available in Oklahoma City. I want to create a website that would list all the volunteer opportunities while also listing the offers of volunteer services that individuals make. We would work at matching people with opportunities and keeping our information up-to-date and effective.
It is a ministry that will get us more involved in this community, working to fulfill our vision of the reign of the God. It will also provide more knowledge for our congregation so that we can participate. It is an exciting new venture that I think can define our congregation’s mission within the larger community. And it will be one way that we follow in the way of Jesus, proclaiming the good news.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon us,
because God has anointed us
to bring good news to the poor.
God has sent us 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.
In this place that is our own place,
whose earth we are shaped in and must bear.