In yesterday’s gospel we heard Matthew’s account of what happened when Jesus returned to his own country. Luke tells us that in his preaching at Nazareth Jesus quoted Isaiah talking about the jubilee year, ‘the Lord’s year of favour’. Today’s first reading from Leviticus tells us about the origins of this jubilee year. Just as there was a Sabbath day every seven days, and a sabbatical year every seven years, so after seven sevens of years there was a 50th year, a kind of super-Sabbath which was called the Jubilee.
The Jubilee was a time in which debts were cancelled, slaves were freed, and inequalities in ownership were rectified. In sharing goods and land a level playing field was re-established on which everybody began again with an equal chance. A situation of original justice, at least at the social and economic level, was created, and life began again from the beginning. It was a fallow year, a year of rest, a holy time for appreciating again the gifts of God to his people.
It is not clear whether the jubilee year was ever celebrated in the wonderful way in which it is described in Leviticus. As a year of grace, it becomes an ideal time to which the prophets could look back (or perhaps look forward) when things would be set right, sins and debts would be cancelled, and people could start afresh in their relationships with each other and with God.
Why would such a thing be a problem? At Nazareth they wondered at his words about grace but then quickly turned against him. Preaching the ‘year of grace’ excites opposition because it cannot happen unless injustice is exposed and undone. The freedom and indulgence of the Jubilee requires that the gains of injustice should be returned, that relationships based on lying and betrayal should be purified, and that what had come about through compromise and exploitation should be acknowledged and healed.
John the Baptist is a preacher of justice and a critic of injustice. The gospel reading today, following immediately on the account of Jesus’ visit home, tells of the beheading of John on the orders of Herod. John called Herod to the freedom and grace that come with living in the truth but Herod does not have the courage for that. ‘They went and told Jesus’ is how today’s gospel reading ends: the death of John the Baptist is a turning point in the public ministry of Jesus. It signals the beginning of a new stage of his ministry and echoes beforehand the destiny that waits also for him.
The Lord’s year of favour, the Jubilee inaugurated by Jesus, is a time for grace and mercy, yes, but also a time for justice and truth. We will always want grace and mercy, of course, but often balk at what we must do to live in justice and in truth.