The Politics of Jesus | John Howard Yoder (Ch. 3)


Chapter 3: The Implications of the Jubilee


1972: The thesis of this chapter is simple: Yoder believes that Jesus proclaimed a Jubilee year in his Nazareth sermon. (The entire chapter is an adaptation of André Trocmé’s work, Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution.) Yoder sets out to discover allusions throughout Jesus’ ministry to the four elements of Jubilee:

  1. Leaving the soil fallow
  2. The remission of debts
  3. The liberation of slaves
  4. The return of family property

Leaving the soil lie fallow is not directly spoken of but assumed. He cites Donald Blosser who gives evidence of seven year grain scarcity cycles to show that this was already being practiced. Jesus’ words against worrying (Luke 12:29-31) are cited as allusions to the worries that come when you let the ground lie fallow to trust God.

The second two elements of Jubilee are “central in the teaching of Jesus” (61). The Lord’s prayer’s call to forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors refers properly to monetary debts (at least in the Matthew version—not necessarily in Luke). Yoder then cites two parables which can be more fully understood from the background context of Jubilee: The Merciless Servant and The Dishonest Servant.

The fourth element of Jubilee is assumed in Jesus’ command to the disciples to sell their goods and to give alms (Luke 1:30-33). This tough command is neither a higher rule for special saints nor a new constitutional law. It is the outworking of Jubilee.

1994: Here Yoder offers a few comments on scholarship which has helped his premise (Robert B. Sloan, Jr., Sharon Ringe, and Donald W. Blosser) as well as one scholar who has undermined his work due to heavy-handed rhetorical criticism (Jacob Elias).


Yoder follows the same MO here as he did in the preceding chapter. He states some solid truth then overstates the case for it. In the 1972 edition, he assumed that the Nazareth sermon referred directly to the year of Jubilee. In the 1994 epilogue he notes that this belief is not unanimous. I tend to believe that Jubilee was one ways Jesus spoke about the Kingdom, but I don’t believe it forms as much of the background of his teaching ministry as Yoder suggests.

For example, Yoder cited Luke 1:29-31 on not worrying for what you will eat drink or be clothed in as evidence that people were worrying about lack of produce since they were being called upon to enact the year of Jubilee. Yoder made this connection because of a thematic connection between Leviticus 25:20-21 and Luke. This smacks of eisegesis.

Yoder’s interpretation of the two parables from a Jubilee background also seem tenuous. Take the parable of the Merciless Servant (Matthew 18:23-35). Yoder assumed that the servant’s debt was forgiven by the king because of Jubilee. Then the servant refused to live according to Jubilee toward his servants. I can’t think of a way that this works. Who could the King be in this interpretation:

  1. Casesar: Not interested in doling out Jubilee forgiveness to his Jewish subjects.
  2. God: The king in the parable seems too heartless to be a type of God.
  3. The Messianic Ruler (Jesus): Again, does the ruler sound like Jesus?

I think the king has to represent the authority of Rome which nullifies a Jubilee background. I need to pull Snodgrass off the shelf and see what he’s written about this!

To conclude: Yes! Jesus used the idea of Jubilee, which most scholars doubt was ever truly enacted, as a way to describe his Kingdom. That doesn’t mean it’s the controlling leitmotif behind every mention of “debt” in the gospels.

< Ch. 2: The Kingdom Coming

Ch. 4: God Will Fight for Us >

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