Monday, January 18, 2016

A Jubilee of Mercy

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

It is not just mere coincidence that the Holy Father decided to proclaim an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy to coincide with the new liturgical year that features the gospel of St Luke in our Sunday readings. The reason for this choice would soon be made clear as we journey through the pages of this gospel which is rich in the theme of mercy. Today, we begin our marathon reading of the first volume of St Luke’s work, which is a composition of the preface (1:1-4) and Jesus’ inaugural programmatic speech (4:14-21). The lectionary skips four whole chapters which is comprised of the infancy narrative, the Baptism and Temptations of the Lord, to string together these two sections in order to present to us St Luke’s catechetical purpose and Jesus’ ministerial goal.

The account of Jesus preaching in the synagogue of his adopted hometown, Nazareth, is only found here in the Gospel of St Luke. The little details given by St Luke are significant who records not only his preaching but his every action tiny action. Very significantly the last line of Isaiah read by Jesus says: “to proclaim the Lord's year of favour”, and immediately afterwards, Jesus' message was a declaration that precisely "this text" was being fulfilled on that day. The expression taken from the Book of the prophet Isaiah, “year of the Lord's favour” clearly refers to the prescriptions in the Book of Leviticus on the Jubilee Year (Lev 25,10-13). At Nazareth, the Lord was proclaiming a Jubilee Year. The whole of Jesus' ministry therefore must be understood in this prospective.

The Jubilee Year was the end of a cycle of seven sabbatical (every seventh year) years. There is dispute of whether it fell on the 49th year or the following year, the 50th year. The biblical requirement is that the Jubilee year was to be treated like a Sabbatical year, with the land lying fallow, but also required additional activities that needed to be undertaken to ensure a redistribution of wealth, the restoration of justice by narrowing the economic gap and the freeing of slaves. According to the Code of Holiness it required the compulsory return of all property to its original owners or their heirs, in addition to the manumission of all Israelite indentured servants

The stirring passage lifted from Isaiah 61:1-2 was originally a promise made to God’s beleaguered people in ancient Judah. They had recently returned to their homeland after decades of exile in Babylon. In fact, most of them would have been born in exile and returned to a homeland they had only heard about from their elders, parents and grandparents. Having heard of a land flowing with milk and honey, of Solomon’s glorious temple, of the magnificence of the king’s palace, what could have prepared them for a dry, parched land, the charred ruins of a temple, or the strewn rubble of the king’s palace? The words of the prophet were meant to instil hope in them. Good news for those suffering in poverty: people in bondage were to be unshackled! The blind would see again and wherever there was oppression there would be glorious freedom instead!

The year of favour Isaiah proclaimed must have seemed very far away. They continued to wait for the Day when God’s mercy would be fully revealed. In telling his fellow Nazarenes that, “this text is being fulfilled today even as you listen,” Jesus was announcing that he was there to fulfil the prophetic promise, that he was the one anointed to bring glad tidings to the poor, to free the captives, to give sight to the blind. The time of mercy had arrived!

The effect of Jesus’ declaration was stunning as the locals tried to come to terms with the fact that the Holy One of God had turned out to be one of their own, a home grown boy. The hope of ages had been born in their midst. As it was for them, the challenge for us is to believe in the messenger in such a way that we also become agents of God’s mercy, announcing the good news of God’s kingdom, bringing God’s mercy to the poor, the blind and those held captive to the materialism of the world.

But there is more here than the pronouncement that Jesus is fulfilling the text of prophecy. Jesus, did more than  read verbatim from the prescribed text of Isaiah 61:1-2. The way in which St Luke quotes Isaiah presents also details which reveal a certain manner of interpreting the jubilee year. He does this by way of an addition as well as an omission. After speaking of proclaiming to the blind new sight Luke adds: “to set the downtrodden free.” This is an allusion to another passage taken from Isaiah 58:6, “to break unjust fetters and undo the throngs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke.” The effect of this addition in the gospel is therefore greater insistence on the fact that the jubilee year must be a year of liberation. It underlines this important point by inserting another action of setting the downtrodden free. Furthermore the theme is amplified, because the second time it says not only to “proclaim” but actually “to set free”.

One more particularity of Luke’s quotation of Isaiah is an obvious omission. He does not quote the whole phrase of Isaiah but only the first, which is “the Lord's year of favour,” neglecting the second which is “a day of vengeance for our God”. The original oracle of Isaiah foresees two aspects of divine intervention, the first the liberation of the Jewish people, the other punishment of her enemies. The Gospel has not retained this opposition. This omission has two consequences: it highlights the mercy of God who wishes to liberate and free His People, but it is also implicitly universal. There is no longer any suggestion of distinction between Jews and non-Jews. This would be made explicit in the verses that follow thereafter where Jesus uses the example of two non-Jewish figures as examples of recipients of God’s providential favour. In preparation and celebration of the Jubilee of Mercy, universal openness is an essential character. Our prayer must be that mercy must be poured out on both our friends as well as our foes, on those who are deserving as well as the undeserving.

The message of the gospel, first preached in Nazareth, Galilee, is to be spread today through us. We are no longer passive recipients of the good news. We too have received anointing from the Spirit of the Lord. The word of God which first came to birth in our souls at baptism is anxiously waiting to burst forth and take root in the lives of others. Every year is a year of favour from the Lord. But this is especially true this year during the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. There are many ways we can make these words of Christ, about bringing glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives and sight to the blind, our very own and have them fulfilled in our hearing. When we help those whose hearts have grown cold and are heavily weighed down, those whose lives have been injured by the injustices and humiliation they had to endure, when we offer forgiveness instead of judgment, the love and mercy of God shines through us and we make them realise that Jesus Christ, the true face of the mercy of God, is not a memory but is living among us today. No more waiting. This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen!

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