Reflections on Jubilee

October 1, 1999

The concept of jubilee has caught on in the popular imagination - or at least is taking root in the consciousness of faith communities. It brings with it the notion of jubilation -- joy -- letting go -- all of which have an easily understood appeal. Jubilee 2000 in much of Christendom refers to the cancellation of Third World debt, which our church has affirmed and which I have supported through congressional testimony. Also, Jubilee 2000 very specifically in our own church refers to initiatives of past General Conventions toward "debt cancellation, environmental stewardship, and human liberation." I myself have spoken of my deep hope that we as Episcopalians might move toward a "jubilee consciousness," which I have described in various contexts as I have moved around the church, and which serves as something of an undergirding theme for our General Convention in 2000.

What is jubilee and why does this concept evoke in us a sense of yearning - of longing for some reality as yet unknown?

Jubilee is a notion deeply rooted in Scripture. It is an outgrowth of the Jewish understanding of Sabbath not simply as a day of rest, but a day of release in which, as Abraham Joshua Heschel observes, "we declare an armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature." It is a day on which we "call a truce" in all the personal and social conflicts which exist between us and enter into a renewed awareness that all is gift, nothing is possession. In recognition of this fact, all patterns of usefulness, control and self-generated productivity are suspended as we enter into the Sabbath rest. Members of one's household, slaves and servants and even one's animals are released from their tasks, and all are allowed to find their proper balance and relationship in union with God and one another. On the Sabbath we are liberated from acquisition and self-definition in terms of what we can do; what we can control; what we can dominate.

The weekly Sabbath was then extended to a sabbatical year which was a further intensification of the theme of liberation and release: "Every seven years you shall grant remission of debts…every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor…when you buy a Hebrew slave he shall serve six years but in the seventh he shall go out as a free person without debt." (Deuteronomy 15:1-3)

Releasing one another from debt and servitude from the patterns of relationship whereby we hold one another hostage through unyielding bias, prejudice, judgement, suspicion, fears and unforgiveness -- "forgive us our sins (debts) as we forgive those who sin against us" -- can be seen as a natural expression of underlying principles of the sabbatical year.

At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus announces the thrust and direction of his mission to do the will of the one who sent him and to accomplish his work by reading from the 61st chapter of Isaiah: "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."(Luke 4:18-19)

The year of the Lord's favor with which Jesus identifies his ministry is a further enlargement of the notion of Sabbath reflected in seven weeks of years, or 49 years followed by a 50th year of jubilee: "and you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants." Liberty is extended to the land as well. Only what the land produces on its own without human agency is to be eaten. Furthermore, the poor and the wild animals are to be given free access to what the fields and unpruned vines produce in recognition that all comes from the bounty of God's care and compassion for all living things. The jubilee year, so far as we know, was never observed; it remained a yearning and a hope. In Jesus the jubilee year takes flesh; it becomes a reality in our midst. And through our baptism into Christ we became people of jubilee, that is, sharers in Christ's ongoing ministry of reconciliation. Through the action of the Holy Spirit who pours the love of God into our hearts we are given a jubilee consciousness which is none other than the mind of Christ.

And so it is that we must ask ourselves what are the invitations God holds out to us to release us from the various bondages we inflict upon one another: the subtle and obvious ways in which we say, "I have no need of you"? What defensive borders need to be opened so that others, even those who threaten us by their otherness, may gather from the fields and vines that I so carefully tend for my own ends; what gated communities of like mindedness or socio-economic or racial sameness need to be made permeable to limbs and members of Christ's body who are not like us or whose living of the Gospel challenges and expands our own perception of God's ways and God's thoughts which are always larger and more generous than our own?

Jubilee is fundamental to our life as a community of faith: it is a way of being, it is more than a theme for a General Convention or an urgent and important initiative to reduce the debt burden of the poorest nations. Jubilee is about God's righteousness - the right ordering of all relationship according to God's justness, God's passionate desire for all creation to live in communion and mutuality with God and therefore with itself; jubilee is the reconciliation of all things in Christ including ourselves to one another as a sign to a broken and deeply divided world. May we, in every deepening union with Christ, become jubilee people from head to toe who by word and example proclaim not just a year but a new age of the Lord's favor.

The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA