The season of Easter begins at sunset on the eve of Easter and ends on Pentecost. The 50 days of Easter are born out of thousands of years of Hebrew religious imagery, metaphor, and numeric symbolism.
For the Ancient Jews, these days represented the 49 days from Passover to Shavuot; Hellenistic Jews gave this day the name Pentecost (“50th day”). Shavuot/Pentecost commemorates the TORAH (Law) given by YAHWEH through Moses to the Hebrew people on Mount Sinai. Every year on the holiday of Pentecost, Jews renew their acceptance of TORAH as God’s special gift of life to them.
After those earliest Christians split from Synagogue Judaism, they adopted The Great Fifty Days as the time Jesus appeared to his followers and encouraged them to continue the work of forgiving, healing, feeding, and caring for those who were least, last and lost. Much later, the church adopted Pentecost as the time the Holy Spirit came and empowered the disciples to keep Jesus’ cause to build the kingdom of God.
“Fifty” also has a special significance in Jewish history according to TORAH (Leviticus 25: 8–12)… The Year of Jubilee came every 49 years – on the 50th year. When the trumpet sounded on the 50th year, liberty would be proclaimed throughout the land and then all of the property that had been taken by others for unpaid debts would have to be returned to the original tribes. On that year the land would be holy to God and the nation Israel and everyone could “eat the produce of the field.” What a celebration that must have been! Everyone that had been indebted was then released from that debt and able to start over again by having their land returned to them.
The writer of Matthew includes another metaphor for Jubilee – the forgiveness found in God’s Kingdom. From within Jesus, himself, and through his mission we experience the Jubilee of God. We are released from debtor’s prison of sinfulness and our fortunes are restored and we can start again. As the anticipation of God’s Kingdom became more broadly understood, there were some who believed that God might be working up to a Jubilee of Jubilees ushered in by God’s Messiah. If the ancient Hebrew Jubilee was to be celebrated after 7 x 7 (49 years); the Jubilee of Jubilees would go further, coming after 70 x 7 (490 years). Seventy times seven. Does that sound familiar?
“Then Peter came to Him and said, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.’” (Matthew 18:21-23)
Peter’s eyes must have gotten very, very big, because, this isn’t just any random number. It’s a number associated with the end of exile, the number of God’s apocalyptic intervention to bring his Kingdom to earth. It’s the number of the Jubilee of Jubilees! And, since the core of Jesus’ ministry was “forgiveness,” he invites Peter and you and I to become the Jubilee as well.
If forgiveness is what defines you – then, you are the Jubilee. That’s what I think Jesus is saying to Peter when Peter asks about the limits of forgiveness. Jesus is inviting Peter, and all of us, to forgive as we have been forgiven. To become people of mercy and grace…
To proclaim, in our own lives, the year of the Lord’s favor so that we might become the Jubilee.
Blessings to all as we practice forgiveness and reconciliation celebrating the Great Fifty Days of Easter.
-The Rev. Barry Foster is pastor of Unity Moravian Church in Lewisville, North Carolina. This article was first published in the May 2017 church newsletter.