· Vatican City ·


Theological Point
The messianic words of Isaiah, Jesus, the Jubilees. And Francis

Liberation and freedom

 Liberazione e libertà  DCM-005
06 May 2023

The question has long been asked to what extent was Jesus of Nazareth -and the movement of disciples who followed him- related to the established order in a similar way to other marginal and subversive groups of the time. A response to this represents one of the possible reactions to the situation of injustice and suffering to which the play of unhealthy alliances between dominant Jewish groups and Roman occupiers condemned the people of Israel. After all, Jesus’ close retinue included one or perhaps even more “zealots”, who were defenders of the political independence of the Kingdom of Judah, and whom the Romans regarded as terrorists or common criminals.

A sequence from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar is merited as expressing the matter best. While on his way to his passion, in an imaginary dialogue with Jesus, the suffering and angry Judas cries out in dismay because he will go down in history as the betrayer but, in actual fact, it is he who has been betrayed. Had not Jesus himself presented himself as the one who would fulfil messianic expectations, restore peace and freedom to Israel, and finally restore justice? In addition, had not the beatitudes given hope that the God of the Kingdom would finally restore the people to justice? When I saw the musical in its film version, the spectators in the auditorium accompanied the end of Judas' desperate monologue with a long, liberating applause. It is not clear from the gospels whether Jesus himself understood and experienced his mission as a political project too, but it is true that they were written when by then faith in the Risen One was spreading as an essentially religious motion.

There is no doubt, however, that Jesus was put to death on the charge of subversion and on his cross stands a tablet on which Pilate wrote a purely political death sentence. In addition, it is no coincidence that, every time he intervenes on matters of social significance, Francis has to defend himself against accusations of being an alleged “Marxist”. In all ages the proclamation of the Gospel has had political repercussions too.

To get our bearings on this disputed matter, we must return to the scene that, according to the evangelist Luke, represents the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. When, in the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus attributes to himself the words with which the prophet Isaiah had described the coming of the messianic age, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord”. (Luke 4: 18-19; cf. Isaiah 61:1-2). How can Jesus say, “Today this scripture you have heard has been fulfilled” if in fact, after his death, even those who believed in him experience the same situation as before? The poor, the sick and the oppressed continue to be so, while Barabbas is the only prisoner to have been released. What value do terms like freedom-liberation have? In short, is the “Kingdom” whose imminent coming Jesus forcefully announces nothing more than a pious aspiration with no impact on the social and political life of his people?

The question of the liberation of prisoners, then, cannot but leave one perplexed. After all, in the long Christian tradition, any interventions for the poor, the sick, the oppressed have found their moral translation in what have been called the “works of corporal mercy”; but it is no coincidence that, as far as prisoners are concerned, the transposition sounds more like “visiting prisoners”, certainly not liberating them!

The prophet Isaiah’s oracle gives messianic perspective to two institutions by which Israel had attempted to stem the increase in poverty and the imprisonment of insolvent debtors (an increase due to the transition from the age of the tribes on which social equality reigned, to later ones dominated by increasing inequality); the first, the sabbatical year; the second, the jubilee year. Each seventh and fiftieth year was to be characterised, at least ideally, by a resting of the land, the fruits of which were to be left to the poor, and a remission involving the release of prisoners enslaved by debt. Just as the Sabbath was to remind us that time, and therefore creation, belongs to God, so the Sabbatical year was to lead Israel back to the foundation of its faith, that is, to the recognition that the earth is God’s, and to free the people from the dross of history. For the prophet Isaiah, this ideality would finally have its full realisation with the coming of the messianic age, and for Jesus, it was precisely his preaching of the Kingdom that would initiate the beginning of the great and definitive jubilee year.

Since the Middle Ages, the Christian tradition has taken up the custom of jubilees but transposed the practices to the level of inner conversion and devotional commitments. Whether and to what extent Israel ever respected the institution of jubilees is debatable. For the great jubilee in 2000 John Paul II called on rich countries repeatedly that they should write off the debt that prevents poor countries from being freed from slavery, yet no one would listen to him. While, for proclaiming the year of liberation in the synagogue of his country, Jesus risked being thrown off a mountain and, for proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favour”, he was put to death by those who knew very well what it was supposed to mean.