A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond
By Dr. Linda Gaither email@example.com
The Presiding Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Frank Griswold, chose at the outset of his presidency the Gospel theme of Jubilee to shape an understanding of our mission as Episcopalians in the 21st century. What are the theological implications of the Presiding Bishop's theme after the momentous decisions taken at the 74th General Convention in Minneapolis? What is the Jubilee Year? Why is it appropriate to raise up this slender strand of tradition, an obscure set of texts buried in an ancient law code, as programmatic for our church' s life at the turn of the millenium? To answer this, we need to take a brief journey into the texts of the Torah, the 5 Books of Moses that form the bedrock of Hebrew scripture. If we consider in turn each phrase of the Presiding Bishop's theme, in light of its Biblical context, we may be surprised at what we can discover.
Proclaim Jubilee : If we read the Jubilee texts in Leviticus 25: 9-12, 23-25, 28, 35-36, 39-42, we find the Jubilee Year described in vivid detail. Blow the trumpets throughout the land, proclaim a holy year, when each male Israelite shall return to his property and his family. The Jubilee Year is a fresh start for Israel, when all the inequalities of wealth and status and land ownership that accure through time are readjusted. Once in every fifty years, land that has been sold away is to be returned to its original owners. Whatever the reason for the loss of land -- poor management, bad luck due to weather or ill-health, inadequate skills or intelligence, or just plain lack of gumption, or perhaps war, foreign occupation, high taxation -- whatever the cause, the basic dignity of each Israelite as God's beloved servant remains intact. The right to the land is based finally in this dignity, not in any special skill with money market accounts or cleverness in land management.
Leviticus 25 tells us the land belongs ultimately to the Lord who has an interest in fair distri- bution. Slavery in Egypt was an affront to God's creation; in Israel, there shall be no permanent servitude or gross inequity. Shalom, peace for Israel, is more than a spiritual condition; it involves all the institutions which shape common life, economic, political, cultic, familial, etc. Biblical scholars and historians are unclear whether this vision of the Jubilee Year was in fact every formally instituted in Israel or put into practice. But the vision of the Jubilee Year will have a powerful future in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Let us consider now the second half of the Presiding Bishop's theme.
Do Justice, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly with God. This ringing call to action is the answer given by the prophet Micah, in Chap. 6:8, to the question, "What does the Lord require of you, Israel?" What are you supposed to do to live faithfully with your God? Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.
The German scholar, Michael Welker, has pointed out that these three calls to action correlate with the three types of law that we find encoded in the Books of Moses. To do these three things is to keep the covenant and do ALL the law. Let us consider these three types of law.
Do Justice: because God is just. God's justice is reflected in Israel's equity laws, which spell out basic rights in a patriarchal culture, and how those rights are applied in particular cases. Equity laws take us into the realm of proprety law suits and adjudications to limit revenge and secure social peace or shalom. For example, Ex. 23:33, "if a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or ass falls in, the owner of the pit is responsible and shall pay the beast's owner. The carcass becomes his." The limits of liability are established : you can't take 5 oxen in return for one lost, or, worse, kill the pit digger. Equity laws are culturally determined. They only make sense in the social world for which they were created. For example, Ex. 21:7f. states, "If a man sells his daughter as a slave and she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, she must be redeemed (bought back); he has no right to sell her to a foreign people." It's a fair bet that the daughters of Israel are here being protected against common practices suffered by women in surrounding cultures. Yet in our perspective, the whole concept of selling a daughter is barbaric. These laws do not bind in our culture.
Like the equity laws, the cultic laws of Israel were also culturally determined. This area of law is expressed in the prophet Micah's phrase, "walk humbly with your God" : because God is holy. To walk in humility with Yahweh is to acknowledge the great incommensurability between creator and creature. Yahweh is holy, his people are called to be holy, to be pure and undefiled. Since humans cannot maintain such holiness in a fallen world, the laws for ritual sacrifice and purifi- cation offer a road back to communion with God. For example: Lev. 11:29 states, among the things that swarm upon the earth, the weasel, the mouse, the great lizard, the crocodile and the chameleon shall be unclean to Israel. If you touch a dead one of these, you are unclean until evening. If a dead one falls into a pot, you must break the pot, etc. What is clean and what is unclean, pure and impure, are determined by ancient, often mystifying codes whose rationale is lost in time. So a woman who gives birth to a male child is unclean for seven days, but she who gives birth to a female is unclean for two weeks. It is in the cultic law codes that we find the prohibitions against unclean sexuality between same-sex partners. These cultic codes are culturally conditioned; they cannot bind outside the cultural understandings that created them.
There is just one type of law that is not culturally conditioned: the mercy laws. Love Mercy : because God is merciful. In Ex. 22, the law states, "If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor's cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down, for it may be your neighbor's only clothing to use as cover. On what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate." Just what don't we understand about this law? The meaning is as acutely clear and binding in our day as in the day it was written. Its claim on us is unaltered by time. God is compassionate; God's people must be compassionate.
In fact, the mercy laws or compassion laws became a plumbline for the prophets in their attack on the corruption of Israel. The prophet Amos goes straight to the text quoted above and uses it in a searing indictment of the decadent religious cultic life of the men of Israel: a man and his father go into the same cult prostitute together (perhaps male or female), and lie on the cloak they took in pledge from a poor man, and drink the wine in the house of God that they swindled as fines from those outcasts judged unclean. God's response to this outrageous breach of compassion right in the temple is swift : even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, even if you keep every cultic law perfectly, I will not accept them. I hate, I despise them, says the Lord. But let justice roll down like waters, and compassion like an overflowing stream.
Amos the prophet, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus the prophet from Nazareth: all staked their lives on the compassion of God, the mercy of God, being the foundation of God's justice and God's holiness. Compassion. Love the Lord with all your heart, mind and soul; love your neighbor as yourself. This fulfills all the law and the prophets. We can't be holy people, good religious people, unless we act with compassion. Our laws, social order and justice will be flawed if they are not grounded in compassion.
The vision of Jubilee, taken from the mercy law codes, became associated in prophetic thought with the long-hoped-for saving reign of a compassionate God. When God comes to God's people, it will be a Year of Jubilee. The great readjustment will begin. In Luke's Gospel, Jesus is portrayed, at the beginning of his ministry, standing up in his home-town synagogue, reading from the scroll of Isaiah, blowing the trumpet if you will, to announce at last the Year of Jubilee for which he gave his life. It was a message of good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, liberty to the oppressed. It sounds so thrilling. At last God's reign begins; the year of Jubilee is upon us. But what was the response of Jesus' friends and neighbors? "When they heard all this, they were filled with wrath. They rose up and drove him out of the city, and took him to the edge of a cliff, to throw him over."
Compassion scares us to death. It threatens our privileges, it demands change in our social structures. Compassion is far more than a warm fuzzy feeling, a smile of encouragement or a hand-out. Compassion sees the dignity of every child of God, and acts to protect and promote that dignity, even at a cost to ourselves. To risk our privileges and our comfort is to fulfill our Baptismal Covenant: to proclaim the Good News of God's compassion in Christ, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to work for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human person. To live out our Baptism is to Proclaim Jubilee: Do Justice, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly with God. The 74th General Convention of the Episcopal Church dared to promote the vision of Jubilee, the Presiding Bishop's theme for the new Millenium. May the compassion of our God walk with us, sustain, correct and heal us, as we attempt to live out this covenant.
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