As my first priestly mentor used to say, for Christians there are two centers of Scripture, two centers of the life of a Christian. The first is obvious—the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. But the second is perhaps less obvious—the Exodus of Israel from bondage in Egypt.
These two events are deeply connected for Christians. The first parish I served had two prominent windows (in otherwise plain walls) that faced each other across the altar. One window depicted the empty tomb–Resurrection. The other window depicted the Red Sea–Exodus.
The deep connection between these two centers of the Christian faith is experienced throughout the life of the Church, but especially and most powerfully in Holy Week and Easter.
In most languages the word for Easter is some variation of pesach: Passover, the central story of Exodus. The way the Church calculates the date of Easter (though with variations between the Churches of the East and West) is based on the date of Passover. On Maundy Thursday, Christians always read about Passover from Exodus. A reading from Exodus is also one of the required readings for the Great Vigil of Easter. Even the Exultet, that great song from The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer that is sung to bless the Paschal Candle, seems to be a response to the question traditionally posed by the youngest person present at a Jewish Passover Seder: “How is this night different from any other night?” The Exultet answers, in part, with:
“This is the night, when you brought our fathers, the children of Israel,
out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the Red Sea on dry land.
“This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin,
and are restored to grace and holiness of life.
“This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious
from the grave.”
Even the Sacrament of Baptism, which is closely associated with the Great Vigil of Easter, and which makes us Christians who we are as the Church, is a kind of movement through the waters of the Red Sea, making us members of Jesus’ newly constituted Israel. My same priestly mentor who talked about the two centers of Resurrection and Exodus used to ask people preparing for baptism to pray about from what it is they are being liberated in their baptism. And, again turning to the Book of Common Prayer, the Church prays over the water:
“We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.”
So Exodus is very close to the center of the lives of Christians.
Near the end of Genesis, Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, is sold into slavery in Egypt where he earns his freedom and rises to power in that empire by interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams. Those dreams are about famine. Hunger. Scarcity. So Pharaoh constructs an economy based on these dreams and his fear of scarcity. This economy of scarcity is symbolized by storehouses, which ultimately become the very thing Joseph’s descendants, the Israelites, long after his death, are forced to build as slaves.
When the Israelites groan in bondage, God hears their cry and sends a deliverer to rescue them. This is what the Exodus story is about. But God doesn’t just free the Israelites from Egypt. God frees them for a special vocation. God frees them to be a people who will live, and so reveal to the rest of the world, another way, another economy, a radical alternative to an empire’s enslaving economy of scarcity–an alternative called Jubilee.
God leads the Israelites through the desert and trains them during that pilgrimage to trust God, rather than the contents of storehouses, by giving them each day their daily bread (manna, the bread from heaven), and instructing them to gather no more than what they need for that day. When some of them inevitably disobey that commandment, the stored manna rots and becomes infested with maggots.
For their life in the Promised Land, God gives the Israelites a law that assumes a generous God and treats the storehouse mentality as sin, commanding them (among other things):
- To rest one day in seven and not worry that their competitors might get ahead during that day of rest;
- To not harvest the edges of the fields so that those who, for whatever reason, have no wealth, could harvest food for themselves;
- To forgive debts every seven years (and, to be clear that this was about trusting God’s generosity, not to be stingy about lending during year six);
- To free slaves and redistribute wealth (land) every seven times seven years, and to let the land rest.
Jubilee is Scripture’s answer to an economy of scarcity. God liberated the Israelites from Egypt in order to reveal this alternative way of life, through the Israelites, to all the peoples of the world. Exodus is for Jubilee.
It was this Jubilee (also known as the Year of the Lord’s Favor) that Jesus announces at the beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:18-21) as coming true in him and for all time, and the Jubilee was the point of all of his teaching and miracles.
It is this Exodus/Jubilee story that inspired author Peter Block to work with Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann (from whom he had heard the story) to start an Economics of Compassion Initiative to begin to imagine what it would look like to practice Jubilee in Cincinnati, Ohio.
It is also this Exodus/Jubilee story which has inspired Cincinnati’s Christ Church Cathedral to begin the Jubilee Initiative, a low interest lending fund, designed to create wealth in communities which have historically been left out of today’s economy, by lending money on terms closely aligned to the Jubilee ethos to minority entrepreneurs, and finding other ways to use its financial and other great resources to imagine what God’s Jubilee economy might look like here and now, to give that vision flesh and bones.
Putting these principles to practice is a way for Christians to return to the center of their faith, to recall this fundamental story, to be re-energized about the way Christ has taken liberation from slavery in Egypt and created Jubilee in our midst, and to anticipate with joyful expectation how God will continue to do so.
Bishop Thomas Breidenthal has invited all members of Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio to read the book of Exodus together in the coming year. You may learn more at adsobigread.org.