A Reflection for Saturday of the Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time
Find today’s readings here.
In today’s first reading, God tells Moses how the people are to celebrate the Jubilee year, which is every 49 or 50 years (there is some dispute over the exact calculation). It’s a big deal. They will blow a ram’s horn, and then slaves and prisoners will be set free, debts will be forgiven and land will be returned to its original owners. The land itself gets to rest, and won’t be tilled or harvested. A jubilee!
It sounds, to be honest, awful, at least for the more established, responsible members of the community. It sounds incredibly harsh and disruptive. Definitely a benefit to some people (the slaves and prisoners and people in debt), but zero fun for others (those who had worked hard to build up wealth and property, and perhaps even to those who had kindly extended credit to lazy or irresponsible people with the reasonable expectation of breaking even some day). It’s called a jubilee, but I’m sitting here, closing in on my 49th year myself, thinking about how jubilant I would be to hear a ram’s horn blow and know that everything I had earned for myself would all go back to the way it was.
I can see in theory how a radical demand like this would restore things to something closer to their original state, and help the people see that everything we have is from God, and that we never really owned it. But ouch! Ouch. I’m sitting here at a tabletop I cut and painted myself, on a patio I built out of bricks I scavenged, near a garden I planted, behind a house we own, full of children I gave birth to and raised, and I can tell myself that, “Oh, yes, it’s all a gift.” But my Gollum heart doesn’t believe it. My heart believes it’s mine, mine, mine.
And isn’t it? Shouldn’t it be? I read that reading and I wonder why God has to be so strict. Why can’t he let us relax and enjoy good things? Why can’t we have a jubilee that’s more jubilant, with a party and food and dancing and presents?
If you’re wondering this, too, have I got a Gospel reading for you!
The Gospel for today, which follows that first reading about the Jubilee year, is about Herod, who believed in Jesus and seems to have even kind of liked John, but had John arrested anyway because he wanted to marry whomever he wanted; and Herodius, who is apparently in such an enjoyable party mood that she instantly cooks up the ghastly idea of roping her daughter into the scheme of asking for John’s head on a platter. And then there is the poor daughter, who is probably rich and well-dressed and charming, and she is rewarded by getting to dance in front of a crowd of her stepfather’s leering, drunken pals, and then rewarded again with a bloody, severed head.
This is the party this family put together, with all their wealth and privilege and freedom and power.
And that’s what happens when you get to design your own jubilee.
I hate to admit it, and I don’t like my conclusions at all, but this is the truth: When we’re left to our own devices, and we’re in charge of deciding how to make ourselves happy, we always end up with some kind of bloodbath. A head on a platter. A golden calf. A plague. A crucifixion. Original sin. This is what happens when we’re in charge and we follow our bliss. And that’s why we need God and his commandments, and his strict ideas, and his party-pooping ways.
God knows what we need far better than we do. He knows how his gifts to us ought to be used, and he knows how to keep us from squandering them. These sound like platitudes, but sometimes platitudes are true. He knows how to keep us from hurting ourselves and each other. He knows the demands of our Gollum hearts won’t make us happy, so every so often, he blows a horn and demands that we set ourselves free from our own grasping ways. He demands that we leap out of the gaudy little prisons we design for ourselves, and give everything we have back to God. It really is a jubilee, if we’re ready to receive it.