Justice and Renewal for Humans, Other Creatures, and the Land – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the biblical Year of Jubilee authorizing us to establish laws and practices for ecojustice.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022, 2025)
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
The Gospel reading for this Sunday confirms what we have come to expect from our reading of the narratives of Advent, Christmas and especially Epiphany, namely, that Jesus’ mission includes concern for the healing of the Earth. Luke’s relocation of Jesus’ appearance at the synagogue in Nazareth to the very beginning of Jesus’ work and his inclusion of the citation from Isaiah in the speech of Jesus, Luke Timothy Johnson writes, make the account “into a programmatic prophecy which guides the reader’s understanding of the subsequent narrative.” The passage, he argues, shows unequivocally “what kind of Messiah “ Jesus was to be: “anointed with the Spirit,” the “servant of the Lord” is, in the words of the prophecy from Isaiah, “to bring good news to the poor . . . 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 Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 199; pp. 79, 81). The last of these purposes is particularly important relative to care of the Earth.
“The acceptable year of the Lord,” David Tiede observes, may be “the most telling phrase” in the list. The phrase refers to the “year of Jubilee” commanded in Leviticus 25, a “time of restitution and restoration for all Israel” culminating a series of seven seven-year periods, each involving rest for the land of a year. More a statement of hope than actual practice, the “acceptable year of the Lord” would remain “a religious symbol, projected into an uncertain future when God’s dominion would be revealed to the whole word” (David Tiede, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke. Minneapolis, Augburg Publishing House, 1988; p. 105). Walter Brueggeman identifies the connection the symbol makes between agricultural practice and faith as follows:
“[T]he land itself shall be subject to the sabbatic principle (vv.1-7)—the land shall have periodic rest from cultivation. This may be a wise principle of agriculture, so that the land is not exhausted from overuse. In the total witness of Israel, however, this practice of Jubilee for the land is to be understood as an acknowledgment of creation, as respect for creation, and as awareness that the land belongs to Yahweh and not to Israel. This remarkable chapter [Leviticus 25] enunciates the practice of the Jubilee year, a celebration of the fiftieth year (after seven sevens), in which there will be a return to one’s property and one’s family—a homecoming—and in which family land that has been forfeited in the normal transactions of business is returned. This is a remarkable provision, for it relativizes all economic transactions for the sake of rootage in the community.”
At the core here, Brueggemann notes, is a “repeated claim of the governance of Yahweh.” While there is reason to doubt that Israel ever actually implemented this “visionary law . . . on the horizon of Israel,” it is the “culminating assertion of the God of Sinai (who is the God of the Exodus), who intends a very different regimen of social wealth and social power” than is our practice: “the social fabric has the political economy as its instrument, unlike our practice, where the social fabric receives the leftovers of the political economy” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997; p. 189-90).
We are in revolutionary territory with these readings. As John McClure notes, “Paul shows that the Spirit subverts the way that we understand our social relationships (1 Corinthians 12)”: starting with “ground-leveling oneness of the Holy Spirit” he “argued for the diversity of the body of Christ” and then “moves on” to argue for “the profound interdependence of the members of the body, in which “the ‘weaker’ and commonly regarded as ‘less significant parts of the body’ are, in fact, ‘indispensable’ and worthy of honor and respect (vv. 23-24)” (John S. McClure, “Third Sunday after Epiphany” in New Proclamation Year C, 2003-2004. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003; pp. 94). It is a profoundly non hierarchical, relational and, one might argue, ecological, model of community. So also the idea of Jubilee is “nothing short of a revolution in the way that economic relationships are to be conceived.” It “undermines the ability of a few to accumulate wealth at the expense of others” and “mandates that every fifty years the entire economic system must begin all over again from scratch.” Applied to the world in our time, the “Jubilee plan” would mean that
“many of the goals of productivity and capital gain have to be checked at the door. The Jubilee plan requires that the land be permitted to rest, that we live in support of the environment so that it might support us. The Jubilee plan mandates that the wealthy forgive debts that are owed in order to provide a fresh start for those for whom the burden of debt has become debilitating. It requires that the system of exchange that has become a prison-house of debt, envy, and greed loosen its grip on the lives of each one of us so that we might be freed up to discover relationships that are not defined and motivated primarily by the need for monetary gain or success. The Jubilee plan encourages the limitation of growth, earning, accumulation, and speculation. At the same time, as Maria Harris points out, Jubilee encourages us to take the limits off of literacy, education, and the provision of basic economic needs such as life, liberty, health care, housing, and food. Finally, the Jubilee plan means justice, that we “sort out what belongs to whom and return it” (McClure, p.98; the quotation is from Maria Harris’s Proclaim Jubilee: A Spirituality for the Twenty-first Century. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996; pp 86-87).
In contemporary parlance, accordingly, this aspect of Jesus’ teaching supports practices to promote both ecologically sustainable agriculture and social and economic justice, bridging one of the great divides in the question for justice in our society (See Larry Rasmussen’s discussion, in his Earth Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford: Oxford University Press; pp. 207-19).
When is this to be realized? From Jesus’ words, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” we infer that it began already that day with his proclamation in the synagogue and that it continues where he is present in the worshipping community. It is important to note that, in Brueggemann’s view, alongside this “trajectory of command” in Israel’s Mosaic tradition represented by Leviticus 25, which is oriented to “theological needs and sensibilities of the economically disadvantaged,” there is a second trajectory, “also derivative from the exclusive claim of Yahweh,” which “reflects the theological sensibilities and needs of those who experience life as profoundly disordered, and who have no doubt (and so testify) that Yahweh has provided concrete disciplines whereby the life-threatening disorder may be overcome.” Whether the “surging chaos on the grand scale of cosmos, the social experience of disorder” such as “the loss of the Jerusalem temple and king and the profound displacement of exile,” or the more personal “disintegration in which life is deeply marked by behavior that is felt to be contaminating, thereby placing everything in jeopardy,” such “massively threatening” disorder is addressed in “public worship, where life may be experienced in order, symmetry, coherence, and propriety” (Brueggemann, p. 191).
Expressed in terms of rules for ritual purity, this trajectory became the primary responsibility of the priesthood, who “wisely and rightly order worship space, time, and activity, whereby worship becomes an environment for a God-given order available nowhere else.” But late in the tradition initiated by Ezra’s reading and interpreting the Torah in community, celebrated in our first lesson this Sunday, the literature of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers itself “became a sacramental vehicle for Israel.” Henceforth, it has provided “a rich, dense field of imagination in which Israel is free to receive its life, playfully, as the people of God.” In an increasingly “hostile, inhospitable environment, “what Israel could not discern in the world of events was given in the artistic world of Israel’s sacramental texts” (Brueggeman, p. 590).
Jesus, we are told, “went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom” (Luke 4:16). On the one hand, Luke no doubt makes the point to remind his hearers that Jesus is a pious Jew (Johnson, p. 78); for Jesus himself, on the other hand, we can reasonable assume that he and those who wrote his story were beneficiaries of this process. The regularity of his participation should in any case alert us to the likelihood of his having sufficient confidence in God’s good order to counteract the threat of the “disordered” cosmos, whatever the particular form of disorder he encountered. With respect to his advocacy for the “acceptable year of the Lord, might it not be true, as McClure provocatively suggests, that “[m]ore and more, Jubilee is looking less like an impractical ideal and more like good common sense, a practical pathway toward repairing the fabric of human relationships on local, national, and global scales” (McClure, p. 98). The idea of Jubilee is strikingly similar to the wisdom Larry Rasmussen uncovers in the Earth Charter, as we discussed in our comment on the readings for the Sunday of the Epiphany (see that comment and Rasmussen, pp. 344-48).
In this connection, it is important in addition to note that in the Hebrew tradition such threats are also addressed, strikingly, by “’procedures, practices, and agents’ sanctioned by the God of Sinai, by means of which an ordered, reliable, livable life is maintained and guaranteed,” and which do not differ that much in purpose from the rules and regulations of a more scientific age that protect us from such contaminations as are “posed by nuclear waste products that cannot by willed away but must be managed,” or “toxic waste products such as mercury” that require “careful, legal supervision.” As Brueggemann comments, “It will not do for us to regard this tradition of purity as primitive and therefore obsolete, for the issues are still with us, even when they gather around different sorts of threats” (Brueggemann, p. 192). Global climate chaos now heads the list of concerns.
Rules that regulate our relationship to the environment, along with those governing socio-economic relationships, thus find an anchor here in such ancient provisions that protect from threats both feared and actual, both spiritual and material. Wouldn’t Jesus be an advocate for these as well? If so, can his church do less? The capacity to fashion such rules is, after all, the practical counterpart of the wisdom which represents, as we put it in our comment on last Sunday’s readings,
“the careful, constant, reflective attention to the shapes and interconnections that keep the world generative. Where those shapes and interconnections are honored, there the whole world prospers, and all creatures come to joy and abundance. Where those shapes and interconnections are violated or disregarded, trouble, conflict, and destructiveness are sure. There is wisdom in the very fabric of creation. Human wisdom consists in resonance with the ‘wisdom of things,’ which is already situated in creation before human agents act on it” (the quotation is from Brueggemann, p. 532).
If such rules need today to be informed by ecological science as well as the accumulated experience of the human community in worship, the psalm which accompanies this reading expresses high confidence that the cosmos, along with Torah, is a reliable source of truth (Psalm 19:1-6). Jesus, teacher of all wisdom that he is, would surely agree.
Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2013.