Just before Christmas, the Christian lectionary featured one of my favorite biblical stories. Two women, cousins Mary and Elizabeth, meet together and talk about God.
Mary opens her mouth to sing a psalm of cosmic proportion and local relevance. In Latin, it’s called the Magnificat, since Mary begins by singing “my soul magnifies the Lord.” The Lord of heaven and earth is acting again, fulfilling the promise to bless and save her people.
She praises God for showing favor to the vulnerable and downcast, “Lifting up the lowly and scattering the proud.” Mary declares that God gives the hungry good things and sends the rich away with nothing. She’s picking up a theme that resounds all throughout the biblical narrative: God who reigns over all creation is forever on the side of the poor.
Someone should tell Congress and the President.
With her song, Mary proclaims that the birth of Jesus is an affirmation and fulfillment of biblical economic principles: because of God’s radical generosity, God’s people will share what they have. And every 50 years, God’s people will redistribute land, grain and other wealth in order to prevent inequality. Slaves are set free, their debts forgiven. It’s called the Jubilee year. Since Mary connects this Jubilee practice of God’s people to the coming birth of her Son, the Savior, Christmas is a Jubilee festival.
Unlike Mary’s song, the Jubilee teachings in Leviticus and Deuteronomy don’t make it into the lectionary much, and I’m afraid it shows. I have yet to find a church that offers seminars on land redistribution.
Our national leaders, many of them public Christians, have just enacted legislation that amounts to the opposite of a Jubilee, concentrating more wealth among the wealthy and increasing the financial burden on the already poor. When leaders favor giving tax breaks to corporations over giving health care to children, it’s unmistakably clear that biblical principles are simply not important to them. The dark irony is that many politicians – including our own representative in Congress – speak loudly about their faith while trampling on the poor with their decisions.
Sing louder, Mary.
It’s not only members of Congress who need to hear Mary’s corrective voice. All of us find it hard to let go of property and privilege.
Walter Brueggeman, biblical scholar and seasoned lecturer, suggests that the idea of jubilee is the most scandalizing idea in the Bible. No other story in the Bible, he says, raises as much doubt about biblical history. “Did they really do that? Did that even happen?” It simply boggles our capitalist minds. Brueggeman thinks these questions about the historical reality of Jubilee come from a need to justify our present belief that Jubilee economic practices are impossible.
Our imaginations need redeeming. Our leadership needs swift correction. Our legislation needs reversing. Our voices need to learn Mary’s song, and our hearts need to take it deep within us.
Now we are well into the 12 days of Christmas. All four candles of the Advent wreath on our dining room table are lit, plus the center candle symbolizing Jesus Christ. Can these lights illumine the possibility of Jubilee? Guided by these lights, we will begin with prayer. We will pray for open eyes to see our way to an equitable, peaceful future. We will pray for the poor and the sick. It is ironic that the tax legislation was passed the very week in which Mary sang out her Magnificat in the lectionary. So we will pray with daring hope that the tax bill will somehow be reversed or its implementation forestalled.
May our prayers and songs yield bold action. Come, Lord Jesus, and bring your Jubilee.
The Rev. Liv Larson Andrews of Salem Lutheran Chruch believes in the sensus lusus, or playful spirit. Liturgy, worship and faithful practice are at their best when accompanied with a wink, she says.