The jubilee year in the gospel of Luke
Jubilee 2000 Search

Theological-Historical Commission


Albert Vanhoye

For the preparation of the Great Jubilee particular importance must surely be given to the passage in the Gospel of Saint Luke which tells us about Jesus' preaching in Nazareth (Lk 4,16-30). The passage in fact is the only one in the whole of the New Testament which mentions a jubilee year, giving it great importance. Therefore it would seem opportune to offer some reflection on this subject.

1. Saint Luke is not the only evangelist who records Jesus' visit to Nazareth "where he had been brought up" (Lk 4,16). Saint Mark and Saint Matthew also refer to this episode, although without mentioning the name of the town, referred to simply as "his home town" (Mk 6,1; Mt 13,54). There are however several differences between the story told by Luke and those of Mark and Matthew. We have already implicitly indicated one, when we observed that Luke is the only one who gives the contents of Jesus' preaching. The other two evangelists limit themselves to saying that Jesus "began to teach in the synagogue" (Mk 6,2; Cf Mt 13,54); but they do not say what he taught. Luke, on the other hand, tells how Jesus "stood up to read, and they handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll he found the place where it is written: The spirit of the Lord has been given to me ...!" (Lk 4,16-18; Is 61,1). Very significantly the last line of Isaiah read by Jesus says: "to proclaim the Lord's year of favour" (Lk 4,19; Is 61,2), and immediately afterwards, Jesus' message was a declaration that precisely "this text" was being fulfilled on that day. The expression of Isaiah 61,2 "year of the Lord's favour" clearly refers to the prescriptons in the Book of Leviticus on the jubilee year (Lev 25,10-13). Therefore at Nazareth Jesus was proclaiming a Jubilee year.

2. Another important difference between Luke and the other two synoptic Gospels concerns the position given to this episode in the books. In Mark, Jesus' visit to his home town is found not at the beginning of his ministry, but after a long period of preaching the Gospel and healing, even after the discourse in parables (Mk 4,1-34) and the resurrection of Jairus' daughter (Mk 5,21-43). In Matthew, Jesus has also already pronounced his address on mission to the "Twelve Apostles" (10,2-42). Luke, instead, chose to give this episode first place in his narration of the ministry of Jesus. At first sight we could think that it was Luke's intention to correct the chronology of Mark and Matthew. A detail of his story demonstrates however that this supposition is incorrect: as Jesus preaches he says that the people in Nazareth will say to him: "We have heard all that has happened in Capernaum, do the same here in your own countryside" (Lk 4,23). These words show that before going to Nazareth, Jesus had begun his ministry in Capernaum and had already provoked great admiration among the people, to the point that his fame had reached Nazareth. It is clear then that Luke's intention was not to give chronological clarifications. What was his intention then? It was - commentators agree - to confer a programmatic value on the episode. In Nazareth Jesus defines his mission as messianic, saying it is the fulfilment of a prophecy which announced the preaching of a jubilee year. The whole of Jesus' ministry therefore must be understood in this prospective.

3. The way in which Luke quotes Isaiah presents also details which reveal a certain manner of interpreting the jubilee year. After speaking of "proclaiming (...) to the blind new sight" Luke adds: "to set the downtrodden free", an expression inspired by another passage of Isaiah, (Is 58,6) where its serves to define the "fasting" which pleases God; this authentic fasting does not consist in observing ritual ("hanging your head like a reed, lying down on sackcloth and ashes": Is 58,5), rather, it is "to break unjust fetters and undo the throngs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke": (Is 58,6). 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. This aspect was already present in the prophecy of Isaiah 61,1-2 which said they were "to proclaim liberty to captives"; the Gospel underlines this, repeating for a second time "set free" (the Greek text uses twice the same word aphesis, saying literally: "set the downtrodden free"); furthermore the theme is amplified, because the second time it says not only to "proclaim" but actually "to set free". This evangelical orientation corresponds perfectly with the biblical understanding of the Jubilee in Lev. 25,10. This text in fact says: "You will declare this fiftieth year sacred and proclaim the liberation (Hebrew derur, Greek aphesis)of all the inhabitants of the land. This is to be a jubilee for you". In the Greek translation of the Old Testament the relation between jubilee and liberation is even closer because the Hebrew term jubel is not translated into Greek as it was in the Latin of the Vulgate (jubilaeus) and in other languages, it has been translated as "liberation (aphesis)" (Lev 25,13), or "year of liberation" (Lev 25,10) or again "sign of liberation" (Lev 25,11-12), so that the word "liberation" is repeated five times in four verses. This liberation was first of all for the Jews who were slaves, but it also included the remission of debts. It was prescribed for every seventh year (cf Dt 15,1-3,12; Jer 34, 13-14), but in particular after seven times seven years, that is, in the jubilee year. The Gospel insists on this prospective to characterise the mission of Jesus. The fact cannot fail to be enlightening and stimulating for the celebration of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, which should contribute considerably towards the liberation of the human person in many ways.

4. One more particularity of Luke's quotation of Is 4,18-19, completes the prospective. This time it is an omission. In fact the Gospel does not quote the whole phrase of Isaiah, which includes two compliments of the object after the verb "proclaim" in Is 61,2. The Gospel quotes only the first ("the Lord's year of favour") neglecting the second which is "a day of vengeance for our God". The 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. The omission has two consequences: a) the message contains nothing negative; b) it is implicitly universal. In fact there is no suggestion of distinction between Jews and non-Jews. This is discreet preparation for the universal nature of the Gospel message, which will become explicit after the death and resurrection of Jesus: when the most fundamental liberation, from sin (aphesis hamartion) will be proclaimed "in his name to all people" (Lk 24,47). In preparation and celebration of the Great Jubilee, universal openness is an essential character.

5. The Gospel passages which follow show how difficult it is for us to attain to a universal vision. Spontaneously our reactions are egoistic; our hearts refuse to open completely. It hurts to open up ourselves! We see this in Jesus' own people. Listening to Jesus they were filled with admiration for "the gracious words that came from his lips" (Lk 4,22). His message of liberation was marvellous. Then they recognise this young prophet as one of them and they say: "This is Joseph's son surely?" The question is not explained any further, by them. What is its implicit meaning? Here we must avoid interpreting Luke by looking at the texts of Mark and Matthew. There is a difference. In Mark and Matthew the people consider the humble origin of Jesus who was "the carpenter" (Mk 6,3), "the son of the carpenter" (Mt 13,55) and use it to doubt the greatness of his mission. Luke, on the other hand, makes no mention, here or elsewhere, of Jesus' humble origin. On the contrary, he underlines from the beginning the noble origin of Joseph "a man of the house of David" (Lk 1,27) and repeats this to explain the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem: "Joseph went to the city of David called Bethlehem because he was of the house and the family of David" (Lk 2,4). After the baptism of Jesus, Luke presents the genealogy of Joseph's descent from David (Lk 3,23-38). The reader of Luke's Gospel has just read this genealogy when the evangelist proposes the story of Jesus' visit to Nazareth; therefore he has no motive to interpret in a derogative sense the people's question.

What was the meaning then of this question? Jesus himself provides the anwer. Jesus knows the working of human hearts. He sees that the question corresponds to a possessive attitude: you are the son of Joseph and therefore one of us; you belong to us and therefore you must do for us all that you are able to do. "We have heard all that happened in Capernaum, do the same here in your own countryside" (Lk 4,23). Jesus resists decisively this possessive attitude; he does not accept it at all. On the contrary he urges the people to open their hearts. They must know that "no prophet is ever accepted in his own country" (Lk 4,24) and not because the people refuse a priori to believe in him, but because the prophet himself refuses to place his extraordinary gifts at their service, putting strangers first. To inculcate this point in their minds Jesus quotes two well known examples: that of the great prophet Elijah sent by God, in view of a miraculous intervention, not to a widow in Israel but to a non-Jewish woman (1 Kings 17,9-16) and that of the prophet Elisha who healed "Naaman the Syrian" from leprosy (2 Kings 5,8-14). The lesson is clear: if the people of Nazareth wish to correspond to the desires of God, they must willingly accept that "his" prophet works his miracles not in Nazareth but in the other towns and villages. Jesus wants his people to be generous of heart.

6. This was a question of a radical reversal of prospective, of difficult conversion. The people of Nazareth did not agree. They refused to renounce their possessive attitude. Now when possessive love is thwarted or obstructed it produces a violent reaction. Many dramas of passion are provoked by this sort of reaction, the drama of jealousy for example. Hearing the words of Jesus "everyone in the synagogue was enraged (Lk 4,28) and they sought to kill him" (4,29). Refusal to open our heart can lead to such extremes. Unfortunately, also in our day we witness similar events; we think of the seven Trappists slaughtered in Algeria, the Bishop killed in Oran, we think also of the inhuman cruelty of "ethnic cleansing" in former Yugoslavia and elsewhere. At the root of these horrible crimes there lies an extremely virulent attitude of possessiveness and exclusion.

Sad to say, not only the first part of the Gospel story, that is, the preaching of Jesus (Lk 4,16-21) is seen to be programmatic but also the second (Lk 4,23-30), that is, the negative reaction of his own people. Jesus was bitterly criticised because he demonstrated great openness of heart, particularly towards " publicans and sinners". This attitude of his caused rising opposition which led him to the cross. In the Acts of the Apostles we read more than once that the success of Saint Paul's preaching to the pagans provoked jealousy among some of the Jews, who opposed the Apostle and stirred up persecution against him (Cf Acts 13,45;17,5; 22,21-22). Also within the Christian community a possessive attitude caused serious harm. In Corinth for example, many believers attached themselves jealously to one apostle or another; this caused conflict and division in the community. Paul had to intervene forcefullly (1 Cor 1,10-3,23).

To conclude: it will undoubtedly be most useful for the preparation of the Great Jubilee to meditate on the gospel narration of Jesus' visit to Nazareth according to Luke. Because the story indicates the principal orientation of the jubilee year and warns us to be on gurad against certain attitudes which are incompatible with the spirit of the Jubilee Year, the tendency to be possessive and egoistic and to be small in mind and heart. The Great Jubilee must be a time of great openness of heart, in union with the Heart of the "Saviour of the world" (Jn 4,42).