Pro-environmentalism is embedded in Jesus’ moral manifesto found in Luke 4:18-19, a note long ignored among Baptists who consistently water down, spiritualize or privatize this text.
Reading from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, Jesus concluded that God had sent him “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (NRSV).
The Cotton Patch Version of Luke says “to proclaim the Lord’s new era.” The King James Version translates the phrase “to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.” The Revised Standard Version reads “to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
What is the “acceptable year of the Lord?”
Most Bible scholars and preachers believe that “the acceptable year of the Lord” refers to the year of jubilee which is best explained in Leviticus 25.
When the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, he said that when the people entered the land he had given them they were to work the land for six years. “But in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land” (vs. 4), instructed the Lord. “And you shall hollow the fiftieth year ¦That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces” (vs. 10-12).
The jubilee year was to occur at the end of a cycle of seven times seven years. At the end of the 49th year was the year of jubilee. The Hebrew word “jubilee” came from the word “ram” or “the horn of a ram.” Jubilee was the year when the ram’s horn was blown, announcing the beginning of a time the land was given rest, property was returned to its original owners and slaves were freed.
Both the sabbatical and jubilee years were rooted in the observance of the Sabbath Day (Exodus 20:8-11). The Ten Commandments instructed the Hebrew people to honor the Sabbath through concrete action. On the Sabbath Day, owners, offspring, slaves, aliens and livestock were given a time to rest, protecting all from overzealous productivity.
Unlike those of us in a work-addicted culture, the Bible’s moral vision recognized that overzealous productivity, non-stop work, resulted in exhaustion–exhaustion eventually resulted in extinction. In addition to the protective necessity, the Sabbath Day vision pointed toward God’s mighty hand in liberation from slavery (Deut. 5:12-15), forced labor.
Now, exactly how do the sabbatical and jubilee years translate into a pro-environment message?
“Rest for the land” suggests theologically that the earth has inherent value apart from any value assigned to it by human beings. The earth has value because God has given it value. The divine mandate for rest places land, livestock and human beings are on an even par.
Certainly the covenant between God and Noah underscores the value of the earth (Gen. 9), for the covenant includes human beings, living creatures and the earth itself.
Make no mistake: Human beings are the crowning jewel of God’s creation. But avoid the mistake of anthropocentrism–the sin of human pride–that concludes that human beings are the only jewel in the crown. The crown of creation has many jewels, including the non-human and material world. Even mountains praise God (Ps. 148) and trees clapped their hands for God (Isa. 55).
“Rest for the land” suggests pragmatically the need to protect the earth from maltreatment.
From the opening pages of the Bible, the message is that human beings have responsibility to care for the non-human creation. Naming animals represents responsibility for them (Gen. 2:19-20). Being told to serve and guard the garden represents another form of responsibility (Gen. 2:15).
The acceptable year of the Lord, the jubilee vision, includes earth care, even though a lot of thoughtful Baptists gloss right over this biblical truth. Some don’t make that error, however, such as Belmont University religion professor Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder in our new DVD “The Nazareth Manifesto.”
Perhaps in the long providential arch of the universe, God has led goodwill North American Baptists to come together at the beginning of a new epoch around an essential passage which has embedded in it a pro-environmental priority.
Thankfully the leading Baptist environmentalist, Al Gore, will be a featured speaker at a luncheon at the New Baptist Covenant meeting in Atlanta next year.
Would that all Baptists heard on that day the ram’s horn calling for the acceptable year of the Lord.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
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Sample Lessons Available for Free Online Bible Study for New Baptist Covenant
‘Nazareth Manifesto’ DVD Explores Jesus’ Message in Luke 4
Gospel Jubilee (Luke 4:19): Bible Commentary for the New Baptist Covenant