Column: Pope invites us to take seriously the ‘sabbatical year’

in the beginning
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

A few years ago, I took a sabbatical. That was a period of time when I was released from my normal duties as a priest in the archdiocese in order to study and travel.

For example, I went to Mexico to study Spanish. I also went to Spain to make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella.

The sabbatical gets its name from the practice described in the Bible, where the Hebrew people were to observe a year of rest. This would occur every seven years, just as the Sabbath day occurs every seven days, hence the name sabbatical (Dt 15: 1-11).

During the sabbatical year, people were called upon to forgive the debts of others or at least not demand payment then. Even the fields would lie fallow, to give them a rest. It was to be a year of mercy.

An elaboration of the sabbatical year took the form of the jubilee, which would occur every 50 years, “seven weeks of years,” seven times seven the sabbatical year plus one (Lv 25:8-17).

In Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. It is a passage which describes the sabbatical year, “a year acceptable to the Lord.”

After reading the passage, Jesus announces: “Today, this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, Jesus’ ministry is to bring about the wonderful things described in the passage. Jesus will bring the world a time of mercy. Today is the moment for that to happen.

By proclaiming this current year as a jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis wishes to continue the work of Jesus among us. He wishes us to take seriously the goals that Jesus outlines in the Gospel: to bring glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives.

Some historians question whether the sabbatical year described in the Bible was ever in reality implemented. They maintain that it was an ideal, but never actually lived out. It was just a nice idea. After all, agriculture in ancient times was not all that successful. To go a whole year without planting crops could lead to famine.

Similarly, the words of Jesus too often end up as pious platitudes, rather than directives for our lives that we actually carry out. That is why Pope Francis has proclaimed this jubilee Year of Mercy. He wants us to continue the mission of Jesus Christ laid out in the Gospel, to make this year “a year acceptable to the Lord.”

Today is the moment for that to happen.

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