30 July, Saturday of Week 17

Lev 25:1ff. Land can never be sold or mortgaged beyond the next Jubilee year, when property  reverts to its original owners and crops are free to all.

Matt 14:1ff. In the context of Herod’s confusion of Jesus with John the Baptist, Matthew tells the story of John’s martyrdom.

The secular roots of redemption

Leviticus 25 summarizes the sociological setting of ancient Israel. It states the secular context regulating land and family relationships, and roots these rights and obligations in Israel’s relationship to God. Another passage from this chapter, not cited today, gives the theological basis. Through Moses on Mount Sinai, God says: The land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is mine, and you are immigrants who have become my tenants. Therefore, in every part of the country that you occupy, you must permit the land to be redeemed (Lev 25:23-24).

The religious implications of this are intriguing when we note that in Hebrew the term for “redeem” is go’el. At an early time this term signified the blood-bond and its rights and obligations. Later in Second Isaiah, author of Isaiah 40-55, this secular term is applied to God, who is called our Redeemer on account of his living bond with us. Combining these observations on the origin of the Jubilee Year, we find bonds closer than flesh and blood uniting all Israelites because of their union with God. If anyone violates the go’el relationship, God has been injured and is obliged to come to the rescue of his family member in trouble. We read according to Num 35:16-29 one of the duties of the go’el is to kill the murderer of one’s own kin.

From this we can appreciate the burning indignation of the prophets when an Israelite preyed on another Israelite, forced the sale of family inheritance, overlooked the needs of orphans and widows and turned might into right to impose their own desires. If even priests and temple officials supported such social injustices, then prophets like Jeremiah spoke out in the name of God, the people’s ultimate go’el.

These secular roots of redemption deserve our attention. Theology must return to its biblical origins, which is God’s siding with the poor and defenceless. John the Baptist defended the rights of ordinary people and spoke up in the name of common decency. He died in this cause, protesting at Herod’s elaborate wealth, sensuality, envy, and human respect. His life was whisked away by a dancing girl, put on display by her dissipated step-father. Matthew even records Herod’s confusion between the Baptist and Jesus, whom he tought was John, raised from the dead. In a sense both Jesus and John the Baptist preached for the goals of the Jubilee Year and died in defense of the faithful life-bond between Israel and God.

First Reading: Leviticus 25:1, 8-17

The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. The you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month – on the day of atonement – you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. 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.

In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property. When you make a sale to your neighbour or buy from your neighbour, you shall not cheat one another. When you buy from your neighbour, you shall pay only for the number of years since the jubilee; the seller shall charge you only for the remaining crop years. If the years are more, you shall increase the price, and if the years are fewer, you shall diminish the price; for it is a certain number of harvests that are being sold to you. You shall not cheat one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.

Gospel: Matthew 14:1-12

At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus; and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been telling him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet.

But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.

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