The overarching story of the Bible is God’s mission to redeem and restore all of creation. It is about the healing of broken relationships – the reconciliation of God and humanity through the process of atonement in Jesus Christ. Tearfund has always believed that broken relationships are the root cause of poverty, and that our work with communities facing poverty and injustice around the world, and with the church in Australia, is a part of the church’s role in God’s restoration mission.
As Tearfund turns 50, we asked a range of Tearfund friends to share with us on the teaching of Jubilee as announced by Jesus in that synagogue in Nazareth. What does it mean that “today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” and where do we see and hear the sounds of Jubilee ringing out throughout our world?
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Led by the Spirit into the wilderness, Jesus is tested for 40 days: 40 days of repeatedly refusing the easy way, the popular path, the quick fix, the soundbite solution, the bandaid approach. In the power of the Spirit, Jesus returns to Galilee. He stands up to read in his home-town synagogue and is given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolls the scroll, finds and reads his text, rolls and returns the scroll, sits down, and says, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” That is what people want to hear! The Spirit of the Lord, good news for the poor, freedom for captives, recovery of sight for the blind, forgiveness of debts, release for the indebted, the year of the Lord’s favour. Bring it on! But Jesus continues. This good news, this glorious future, comes with a challenge; Jubilee comes at a cost. How dare he suggest that they are part of the problem, that they need to change! Intent on silencing him permanently, they drive him out. That is not what they want to hear.
At its best, Tearfund Australia inhabits the tension between the reality of the world as we’ve made it, and biblical visions of how God has said the world should and one day shall be. We are inspired by images of Shalom, the future to which Jesus invites us, and alive to the groaning of God’s good creation and the suffering of our neighbours. The Jubilee and Sabbath traditions Jesus evokes chasten and call us. The covenant given through Moses was designed to establish a society that would reflect God’s character. Its Jubilee and Sabbath legislation required land and other resources to be equitably distributed and regularly redistributed, debts to be forgiven, Sabbath rest to be granted to all. This was to be a society in which all have enough and none too much, a society without Pharaohs and without slaves. What would that look like? The prophets envisaged each family resting beneath their own vine and fig tree, enjoying the fruit of their own labour, living in the land securely and unafraid, streets resounding with the laughter of children.
At its best, Tearfund is a movement of hope and repentance. We embrace Jubilee yet the stories of the communities with which our partners work testify that we are part of the problem, that we need to change. We and our ancestors have plundered the earth, despoiled oceans, rivers and skies. We’ve created a global society of Pharaohs and slaves, of frequent fliers and slum dwellers. This is not what we want to hear!
At its best, Tearfund does not flinch from the good news of repentance. We reject false myths that promote easy ways and popular paths, quick fixes, soundbite solutions or other bandaids. The restorative, redemptive and redistributive dimensions of justice remind us that hope comes with a challenge; Jubilee comes at a cost. Prophetic and pastoral, we stand with the poor and with the prosperous. We commit ourselves to enact Jubilee, to anticipate and embody Shalom, living and speaking the kingdom in ways that resonate with our generations – until He comes.
In Jesus, the church is called to translate this law into practice, to live it out. We don’t have to go back to the Old Testament and say “have we fulfilled this law, that law?” But if you walk in the Spirit and you love God and you love your neighbour, you will surprise yourself that many of your life expressions are actually there – living out the Jubilee message.
The Jubilee laws exposed human greed and selfishness in society. Yet the law did not have the capacity to change it. It only showed what was there. So I think when we talk about poverty and the Jubilee, you must understand, the Jubilee is still a law as far as the Old Testament is concerned and the law can only take us so far. And the only way the law can be put into practice is by imposing it, with punishments if you violate it. Instead God came up with a corrective – “I will take away the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh and I will pour out my Spirit upon you” (Ezekiel 36:26-27). And he said “The law will be written in your heart” (see Jeremiah 31:33). So it’s still the same law, now written in our heart by the Holy Spirit.
In Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit came on the disciples, there was no teaching of Jesus that said they should share their property, share all things in common and that there would be no poor among them. Of course, Jesus had spoken and taught them so much about how to treat the poor and the place of money and wealth, give to the poor and don’t hold back, invite the people who cannot invite you back, all those teachings we read about in the gospels. But as soon as the Holy Spirit came upon them, it looked as though the law was actually written on their heart – because they sold property and there was no poor among them.
The corrective of Jubilee was basically because “you are tight-fisted and you are hard-hearted”. I have found that when we talk about Jubilee today, people are reluctant. It’s not because they’re thinking about good economic theories, but rather that Jubilee exposes our “tight-fistedness and hard-heartedness”. It’s a problem of the heart, not a problem of economics.
I think a spirit-filled church which is committed to discipleship will actually care for the poor because that's all in the year of the Jubilee, that is living the good news, that is the year in which there is restoration ... the people who benefited most would be the poor.
In every corner of the world there are people suffering from the cruelties of injustice. Their every effort to create a better future for themselves and their children is thwarted by oppression and exploitation or the ongoing impact of intergenerational disadvantage. This is why I made justice the focus of the very first issue of Target (the predecessor to this magazine) when I became National Director of Tearfund Australia in 1984.
Psalm 10 graphically describes and laments the oppression of the powerless and expresses a deep faith-quandary: why does God allow this evil cruelty to continue unchecked?
The intense honesty of the singer’s lament is profoundly confronting but does not end in debilitative despair. Quite the opposite – he concludes with a remarkable affirmation of faith. He sings of a God who is neither absent nor blind, of a God who will “do justice”. Divinely inspired affirmations such as these, which can be found throughout the Bible, energise and lead us in the pursuit of justice. But wait – there’s more, much more!
At the very moment in which he publicly announced and defined the purpose of his mission Jesus put justice and liberation front and centre. Standing in the Nazareth synagogue Jesus read from Isaiah 61:1-2a. But it is VERY important to note that he, or possibly the writer of the gospel, inserted an extra phrase from Isaiah 58: to let the oppressed go free.
Why were these extra words inserted? David Bosch, arguably the pre-eminent missiologist of the 20th century, offers a compelling explanation. He argues that it was done … in order to communicate something … which was apparently not sufficiently clearly expressed in Isaiah 61. The phrase “to let the oppressed go free” has a distinctly social profile in Isaiah 58. It stands in the context of prophetic criticism of social discrepancies in Judah, of the exploitation of the poor by the rich.
Jesus made it crystal clear that justice for the poor is at the heart of his gospel. Consequently, as Jesus’ disciples our response to their circumstances must be one of both compassion AND justice.
With this in mind I invite you to join me in a prayer from the Iona Community:
you came into a holy place
and read the sacred word
about sight for blind folk and freedom for prisoners.
Come to this place now.
Read these words to us
till our own lives are opened, our faith is unlocked,
and we can see the world as it is,
and as it could be;
till the yearnings of ordinary people are taken seriously,
and the visions of the young are valued,
and the potential of the old is realised;
till your kingdom is celebrated everywhere,
and your church is good news to the poor.
A gaggle of teenage girls laugh and tease each other as they pose for the camera, proudly holding up their hand-made menstrual pads. Now they’ll no longer be shut up in the “bleeding hut” during their monthly periods. They can come to school, be with their friends, learn and play sport.
No-one will say: “Go home! You are unclean.”
They are free.
Their sandals shuffled along the path as they came, clutching the hand of a relative. They sat quietly on the verandah, waiting their turn. The surgeons cut cataracts all day in the make-shift operating theatre. The next day, the pads were removed from their eyes. They blinked; they smiled; they beamed. Light flooded their darkness.
“Let’s go home,” they say. Their steps are firm on the path.
They can see.
Lines of loss criss-cross the faces of these women. War, disease, accident – it doesn’t matter why or how, they are widows, despised and rejected. But in this group, there is hope. Together, they share their pain. Together, they grow food, earn money, raise their heads with dignity. Together, they make a safe place for their children.
“Come home,” they say proudly.
They are respected.
For years they lied to us. They said we were nothing, worthless. The priests said that sins of previous lives had to be paid for. The government said we were lazy, shiftless, and stupid. The health workers said we were dirty, unhealthy. Then the Christians came. They said we were special, accepted by God, made just like him.
“You’re home,” they say. “You’re part of God’s family.”
We are loved.
For 50 years, Tearfund has made Jubilee real for poor communities around the world. For 30 of those years, we have been privileged to volunteer for Tearfund, work for Tearfund, visit Tearfund projects and live as Tearfund fieldworkers in India and Nepal. We’ve heard, seen and felt what Jubilee is: women and men able to provide for themselves and their families, healthy babies born and raised well, children in school, communities with water and sanitation, churches emerging as people respond to God’s love expressed through Christian workers. Change is possible – we know it because we have been changed too.
When we think about celebrating any significant anniversary, we instinctively turn to the way we want to celebrate any big party: inviting our friends, important people, and people that have helped us over those last 50 years. It's about having lots of fun, lots of food, and it's about inviting people who are important and who invite us to their celebrations.
But when you look at scripture (Luke 14:15-24), and refer to what Jesus did, you have to think about, whom did he invite to celebrations? Not the people who are going to invite you back, not the people who invited you the last time so you're obliged to invite them this time. Jesus instead invited those who were in the margins of society, who are there in the nooks and corners, the neglected, those with disabilities, the poor, the homeless, those were the ones of whom Jesus said: “Go and invite them for the celebration, for the feast”. So, when we think about the way we celebrate Jubilee, the point we need to return to, through scripture, is the countercultural idea that our celebrations should be good news for the poor.
So, as Tearfund celebrates its 50 year anniversary, the question we need to think about is how is this more than sharing a piece of cake with friends? How does the Good News ring out from this moment?
I’m reminded that at the beginning of the lockdown we had this dual situation where on the one hand we did see signs of hoarding and selfishness, but on the other hand we saw a more powerful, more beautiful sign, where people showed real generosity to strangers. That was one thing that I was like, “Yeah, there is hope left”, because I saw so many people sharing whatever they had with others – in terms of food, in terms of money – so many churches, who never really did social action, were compelled to do it because they had no choice. They saw people hungry, they saw people without rent to pay or without any money to go home: they gave it to them, because they felt that that was what they had to do. So, these churches that we've been working with – maybe trying to teach them about integral mission and social action – automatically did that. And so, I thought: “This is actually the Jubilee”.