January 25, 2009
Luke 4:16-21; Mark 10:17-31
Well, since last Sunday a lot has happened – right?
The Steelers won the AFC championship and are going to the Super Bowl again. Next Sunday they will be trying for their sixth super bowl championship. So, the Steeler Nation is happy!
And the other profound thing that happened this week was the inauguration of President Obama. As a Mennonite I am always cautious about embracing too much civil religion, but this inauguration made me proud to be American.
I think it says something to our nation and the world, after our country’s many years of slavery, that we have finally elected a Black person as president. Many of us, I think, thought it would never happen in our life time – and now it has. I think it is a very important step forward for us as a nation and we can celebrate it with joy.
I also thought his call for personal and corporate responsibility; his call for personal and corporate sacrifice; and his call for all of us to be engaged in service to our community sounded themes that are close to our hearts and how our church understands what it means to follow Jesus in the world.
So, let’s continue to pray for God to give President Obama wisdom and courage to make the difficult decisions he will be facing.
And let’s do our part in being a people who take seriously our calling to be agents of healing and reconciliation and to work for justice in our communities.
Well, those are some of the good things that happened this past week.
I want to continue our sermon series on “The economy of God” as we look at how to better organize our life to reflect Jesus’ way of justice and generosity.
One of the problems with this kind of sermon series is that each sermon builds on the previous ones. So if you missed one you may not see the connections. I will try to help by summarizing the past two sermons.
The first sermon was on God’s abundance of enough. I said that in Genesis God looked at the created world and proclaimed – it is very good! Creation was beautiful and there was enough to go around for everyone.
It didn’t take long for things to get off track, though, and so God had to call out a people to embody a new way of living in the world.
We looked at Exodus 16 and the story of how God fed the Israelites Manna in the wilderness after delivering them from slavery. During their sojourn in the wilderness God was trying to retrain a whole new generation of people to live in God’s abundance of enough – instead of living out of fear and anxiety.
We learned that first Sunday that God also instituted a Sabbath day of rest. After working for Pharaoh seven days a week and never getting any rest – the Sabbath day was a sign that God would provide for their needs.
The Israelites were to honor the Sabbath on a weekly basis so they would never forget that God delivered them from slavery and fed them Manna each day.
And then I showed how this weekly Sabbath rest got carried over into a “Sabbath year”. Every seventh year the land was to get a rest and the poor could gather freely from the fields so they would have food to eat.
Also, during this Sabbath year debts were forgiven so that power and wealth didn’t become concentrated in the hands of just a few people. Debt release gave people a chance to start over again.
And then we also learned that God instituted a Sabbath’s Sabbath. It was called the year of Jubilee. Every fifty years three things were to take place.
All debts were to be forgiven.
Land that had been lost was to be returned to the original owners.
And all slaves were to be set free.
You see, God knew what had happened in Egypt – so the year of Jubilee was instituted to keep the gap between the rich and poor from getting too big.
All of these Sabbath practices were meant to teach the Israelites how to live in God’s economy of enough for.
Last Sunday, then, we looked at Solomon and what happens when God’s people forget God and become greedy. Their greed leads the children of Israel to become the new Egypt and Solomon to become the new Pharaoh.
When Israel forgets God and God’s abundance of enough – they take on slaves and they become the new oppressors.
This kind of greedy and oppressive living soon lands Israel in exile.
Exile in Babylon isn’t just a physical location – exile is when you forget your story. Exile is really a condition of your soul. Exile is when you fail to convert God’s blessings into blessings for others.
Because Israel had become the new Egypt – God took them into exile. Exile was another wilderness experience so they could relearn again what it means to live in God’s abundance of enough.
While in exile, prophets like Amos, Jeremiah and Isaiah begin to retell the story of how God had delivered them from Egypt and they call the people to reconnect with God again and to practice justice in their relationships.
They continually call Israel to care for the poor and the most vulnerable members of their community.
The prophets are very clear about Israel’s greed, but they also begin to describe a new exodus that is coming. Isaiah says God wants them to “forget the former things because God is doing a new thing.”
Isaiah even names this new leader the “prince of peace” who will uphold justice and righteousness. This new ruler will have no palace-building slaves; there will be no violence and no arms dealing like King Solomon.
This new ruler, who is to lead this new exodus, is identified in the NT as Jesus of Nazareth.
Now, when Jesus comes on the scene he doesn’t begin his ministry in a vacuum. Jesus’ basic message echoed many prophetic themes from the OT.
In fact, in Luke 4, Jesus gives us his mission statement for ministry and this comes directly from the prophet Isaiah in chapter 61.
Jesus quotes Isaiah saying – “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.”
The year of the Lord’s favor is the year of Jubilee described to us in Leviticus 25!
Jesus grounds his calling, his life, and his work in ushering in the new exodus based on the year of Jubilee.
Jesus’ message of freedom from slavery is very good news for the poor who were living in bondage to the Roman Empire.
His release of captives was very good news for those who had been taken captive in war or because of bad debts.
And Jesus’ proclamation of the year of jubilee meant there was going to be a redistribution of resources so that everyone had enough live on.
Jesus’ way of ruling was based on God’s abundance of enough through the sharing of resources.
Jesus’ central message was to call people to repent of their pride and arrogance, their hatred toward others, and their selfishness and greed – and to turn toward humility, love, generosity, and sharing of resources with those in need.
Now, there are many scholars who don’t take Jesus’ proclamation of the “year of Jubilee” very seriously. They dismiss Jubilee because they say Israel didn’t practice it or they only practiced it inconsistently.
But if we use the logic of inconsistency to dismiss Jubilee, then we would have to also dismiss the Sermon on the Mount because Christians have rarely embodied Jesus’ instruction to love our enemies.
There might not be evidence that Israel practiced Jubilee but if you look for “jubilee footprints” in Jesus’ story and ministry they are everywhere.
These jubilee footprints are certainly in his mission statement in Luke 4.
I also see them in Jesus’ prayer that he taught his disciples. This prayer is so familiar to us that it hardly stimulates our imagination in new ways.
And yet, the opening words – “Our Father” are radical. This prayer to “Our Father” contrasts sharply with the popular “prayer of Jabez” which is all about me, me, me and God blessing me and enlarging my territory.
Jesus’ prayer is about “Our God” and being part of God’s work in the world which blesses all people.
Jesus teaches us to pray for “Our daily bread” and for “our forgiveness” and for “our deliverance”.
When Jesus teaches us to pray for our daily bread – he is referring back to God feeding Israel manna in the wilderness. This is a prayer of trusting God to provide for our daily needs.
And when Jesus teaches us to pray – “forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors” – this comes right from the year of Jubilee when debts were to be forgiven. Debts are an economic term and so we see in this prayer the economic dimensions of sin and an invitation for us to practice forgiving our debtors.
Jesus also teaches us to pray – “lead us not into temptation”. Remember how the Israelites wanted to go back to Egypt to a life of slavery, instead of living this risky life of trust in God? They also doubted God’s power and will to provide for them in the wilderness and so they collected more than what they needed.
Jesus says pray regularly that you won’t be led back into the ways of Egypt and that slave mentality – there is enough for everyone when we share.
So, we see here how Jesus’ prayer is deeply rooted in Jubilee practices.
We also see “jubilee footprints” in Jesus’ efforts to rebuild community between socio-economically alienated groups.
In Luke 14 we have this banquet story where Jesus undermines the old ways of doing things by inviting in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.
Jesus says in his new economy of jubilee we must not only invite in our friends for dinner, but we also are to invite those “who cannot repay us”.
Jesus’ new jubilee community rejects the back-slapping, prestige-posturing, and ladder-climbing approach to building community and opens its doors to include the poor and the outcasts who can’t repay you.
So, Jesus’ economy of jubilee is all about redistributing resources and promoting economic justice among God’s people.
We also see Jesus rebuilding community between socio-economic groups in how he relates to tax collectors.
Jesus’ outreach to tax collectors, who made their living exploiting others, was a big part of his jubilee message.
In Luke 19:1-10 we have the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector. When Zacchaeus encounters Jesus – it says he took half of his possessions and gave them to the poor. And to those he defrauded – he paid them four times as much as he took.
When he did this – Jesus said – “salvation has come to your house.”
By repaying those he defrauded and by redistributing his wealth to the poor Zacchaeus is practicing Jubilee economics. Jesus just expected his followers to enter into this new economy of jubilee and many did.
Levi left all to follow Jesus. There were many wealthy women who followed Jesus around and supported him out of their resources. (Luke 8:1-3)
But we also learn through the story of the “rich young ruler” in Mark 10 of one person who said no to Jesus’ economy of jubilee.
Here was a very wealthy young man who came asking Jesus what he must do to “inherit eternal life”. He wanted to be part of God’s new movement in the world.
This young man has kept all of God’s commandments, but Jesus tells him only one thing is keeping him out. Jesus tells him to – “sell what you own and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven”.
When he heard Jesus’ response it says he “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
And Jesus’ disciples were just as shocked and perplexed at Jesus’ answer because their response was – “well, then, who can be saved?”
Now, my guess is that when we hear this story we are just as shocked and perplexed as the disciples were. We are not used to hearing how our money and possessions affect our spiritual life – other than we are taught to tithe.
We see our money as a private affair and how we make our money, how we spend our money, and how much money we have is no one’s business – not even God’s.
However, in some church circles – if God cares at all about our money – it is that God wants us to be rich. If anything, faithfulness to God and wealth are to go together.
I am sure that is the reason the disciples were shocked at Jesus’ answer – because they had always been taught that wealth was a blessing from God.
Now, I hope we don’t take from this story that rich folks are not welcome in the kingdom of God. They are welcome. Jesus loved this rich young man.
What this story is about is the nature of God’s reign here on earth and it reveals that God’s economy operates differently than the world’s economy. God’s economy is about sharing, not hoarding; it’s about generosity, not stinginess; it’s about economic justice, not just charity.
In God’s economy, prosperity is always tied in with the collective well-being of the whole people of God.
Wealth, as a blessing from God, is meant to be shared so all of God’s people have enough. Wealth is meant to help bridge the gap between the rich and the poor.
Zacchaeus caught this vision and practiced Jesus’ new economy of jubilee – the rich young ruler was possessed by his possessions and so he sadly turned away from Jesus.
Now, you might be asking – what does this ancient practice of jubilee have to do with your real world of paying bills, taking out loans, setting up savings accounts, and making a living?
One thing I learn from these biblical stories is that we are to use our wealth to help us move closer to those in need, rather than using our wealth to distance ourselves from the poor.
In my experience I have discovered that many rich Christians do care a lot about the poor, but most do not know people who are poor.
Mother Teresa said once, “Today it is very fashionable to talk about the poor. Unfortunately it is not as fashionable to talk to the poor.”
Our natural tendency is to use our wealth to improve our lives and to distance ourselves from those who are poorer. It is possible, because of highways and cars, to completely isolate ourselves from the poor so that we do not have to interact with them or see them in any way.
We can even donate food and clothing and supplies to charities without ever meeting anyone who is poor.
Our donations are used for good causes, but we remain at a safe distance from the poor. If we never open up our homes or our beds or our dinner tables or our lives to the poor we will never be transformed and our community will never be transformed.
Jesus’ new economy of Jubilee is about building relationships with the poor and sharing our resources in a way that builds up the whole community.
So, we need to ask ourselves – is our wealth moving us away from the poor or closer to them? Are we becoming more open to the poor or are we becoming more isolated from them?
Another thing these biblical stories teach me about Jesus’ new economy of jubilee is that wealth is meant to be shared for the good of the whole community.
Now, I don’t believe the bible teaches us that everyone will have the same amount of money. I don’t believe the bible teaches us that one economic system is better than another.
I do think, though, that the bible says a whole lot more about money than that Christians are to tithe 10% to God.
We may not be able to agree about what we buy or how much we should save for retirement.
But can we all agree this morning that God cares deeply about the poor and about injustice in our world? If we all agree that God cares about the poor and wants us to share our wealth with the poor – then the question is how do we do this in a healthy way?
Since most of us are not farmers we can’t offer our fields for gleaning or return land to the original owners. Generally, we can’t forgive debts because most people borrow from banks, not us.
So how can we practice jubilee? Maybe we can do it through our “wills” so that our money gets redistributed to people or institutions that help the poor. Maybe it is done by investing in community development projects that help people rebuild communities. Or maybe it is through organizations like Habitat for Humanity that help people get homes interest free. Or maybe it is done by advocating for a “living wage” so people can actually earn enough to live on.
I don’t know how to do it but I think there are many ways wealth can be shared – so let’s let our creative ideas flow and let’s dream together on ways to make old jubilee practices contemporary.
But lastly this morning – sharing our wealth is not just about us helping someone else. It is about our own spiritual freedom and salvation.
If we don’t share our wealth – the anxieties of this age, the love of riches, and the lust for more will choke out Christ’s life in us and we will be unfruitful.
Sharing our wealth is an integral part of what it means to follow Jesus and for us to grow in our capacity to be generous and compassionate.
I think many of us feel like living this jubilee kind of life is just too hard, if not next to impossible.
And yet, Jesus’ word to us – as they were to his disciples many years ago is – “I know it seems impossible to you, but for God all things are possible”.
The closer we stay to Jesus, the more God will bring a new economy of abundance to the world. As we stay close to Jesus none of us know what risks God’s Spirit may empower us to take.
Our faith, our ministry, and our hope are that God will empower us to trust God’s generosity – so that Jesus’ new economy of Jubilee will flourish and there will be enough for everyone. Amen.