Jesus begins his public ministry by going to synagogue and reading from the prophet Isaiah.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” he declared (Luke 4:18-19).
One phrase never seemed to fit: releasing prisoners.
Why is unleashing convicted murderers, rapists, thieves, embezzlers and so on back into society good news – literally “gospel” – to anyone except the criminals themselves?
Criminals being included along with the poor, the oppressed and the blind seem out of place.
Why can’t we just visit them in prison like Jesus says in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25?
Why do we have to let them go if they have not served their time and received help in choosing a better path for their future?
Jesus’ ministry was about justice, but this would seem to be a failure to execute justice – letting perpetrators of evil off without consequences.
The only time the release of a prisoner is good news is when that person has served their time and chosen a better path, or when they have been imprisoned unjustly – and therein lies the answer.
The key phrase in Jesus’ statement is “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This phrase refers to the Jubilee year when debts were canceled, land taken as payment on defaulted loans was returned to the original owners, and those forced into slavery because they were unable to pay their debts were released back to their families (see Leviticus 25).
The purpose of the Jubilee was not to liberate people in debt because they lived beyond their means.
It was an issue of justice, a recognition in an agrarian society that not all land is equal – some is more fertile, some more rocky, some gets more rain, some is more arid.
Following bad harvests, people would have to go into debt in order to have seed to plant in the spring. A string of bad years could result in losing the farm or even slavery.
Even if everyone acted justly, there would be inequalities that needed to be addressed.
People don’t always act justly, however, and the rich often exploited their leverage over the poor to exact more from them.
Lenders charged exorbitant interest rates that the poor had no choice but to accept, all but guaranteeing the accumulation of massive debt and the eventual foreclosure of the farm and often the enslavement of the debtor and his family.
An example is found in 2 Kings 4 where a widow is unable to pay the debts of her deceased husband.
Creditors planned to take her two children and sell them into slavery until she sought relief from Elisha.
At some point, debtors prisons were established, a particularly oppressive punishment in that the prisoner could not work to pay his debt.
If his extended family was poor, then no one could redeem him. Thus, a small debt could result in a life sentence.
The Bible consistently condemns the practice of getting rich off the poor, exploiting their lack of options for personal gain, but this is a consistent problem throughout human history.
Today’s predatory lending practices – particularly, but not limited to, the payday loan industry – essentially enslave people in poverty.
These loans keep people perpetually indebted, even after the amount of interest they have paid far exceeds the original loan.
There are also increasing reports and articles about poor people having fees and interest added onto small fines when they are unable to pay the initial amount.
Some are then sent to jail for failure to pay their fines, even though the amount they have paid over time has far exceeded the original fine.
Jesus proclaims good news of a coming Jubilee year to these prisoners and their families.
He announces that the kingdom of God would be a kingdom of justice, where the poor were recognized as family to be cared for and not strangers to be exploited, disparaged and derided.
This is why so many of Jesus’ parables have an economic theme, and at least three of them involve debt and debtors (Matthew 18:23-35, Luke 7:40-43 and Luke 16:1-8).
For this reason, we should probably use “debts” rather than “trespasses” when saying the Lord’s Prayer.
The gospel isn’t only about the forgiveness of sins; it’s as much about the elimination of injustice, about regarding all people as the children of God and taking care of the least of these.
The announcement that this kind of kingdom has arrived is truly good news.
Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland. A longer version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @EubanksLarry.
Pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland.