O Key of David and Sceptre of the House of Israel; you open and none can shut, you shut and none can open; come, and free the captive from prison.
THE cry for freedom echoes throughout the great Advent “O” antiphons because it is basic to our hope and to God’s purpose for his creation. Freedom is what new beginnings are all about. In the fourth antiphon, the cry for freedom is based on an oracle of Isaiah of Babylon: “I the Lord have called you with righteous purpose . . . to open eyes that are blind, to bring captives out of prison, out of the dungeon where they lie in darkness” (Isaiah 42.6-7).
It is impossible to know how “bringing the captives out of prison” was understood by the author of the antiphons — most likely in the spiritual sense of being set free from sin and evil, which fits with the antiphon’s earlier petitions. While that is a perfectly understandable reading — linked as it is with opening eyes that are blind — this was not Isaiah’s meaning. The reference to freeing captives reaches back to the Exodus, to the experience of Israel as slaves in Egypt: an experience which shapes the whole understanding of God in the scriptures. The captives of whom he speaks are all who are oppressed and in bondage through the actions of others, in particular those bound by the bonds of debt, a bondage that has much in common with slavery.
In this final petition of the antiphon, hope faces in a new direction as it picks up the hope of a new beginning that comes with the release from debt. To those in the bondage of debt, as to all the enslaved, the image of the open door speaks powerfully, and it was their hope, in particular, that what Jesus said was fulfilled in his own person, in words (as we have seen) that clearly link poverty with imprisonment: “[The Lord] has sent me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners . . . ” (Luke 4.18).
IN ANCIENT Israel, as today and throughout history, debt is chiefly a problem of poverty, especially among those looking after families on low incomes and in insecure housing (Lea, Webley, and Walker, “Psychological factors in consumer debt: money management, economic socialisation, and credit use”, Journal of Economic Psychology 16, 1995). Debt creates a bond akin to slavery: “The rich lord it over the poor; the borrower becomes the lender’s slave” (Proverbs 22.7). Debt becomes a prison, and, like all imprisonment, it is dehumanising.
The Law of Moses recognised the imprisoning effect of debt, and made provision for the release from debt, a very practical example of God’s new beginning and of his special concern for the poor. Charging interest on loans was prohibited, as was the complete harvesting of a field or vineyard, so that something was left for the poor to glean (Leviticus 19.9-10). Every seven years, debts had to be remitted and slaves released, and this was not to be done grudgingly (Deuteronomy 15.1-3, 9-10).
These laws were crowned by the Jubilee that was to be proclaimed every 50th year when, in addition to the release of slaves and the remission of debts, land that had been sold was to be returned to its ancestral owners (Leviticus 25.10). The effect of the Jubilee was to re-set the economy every 50 years; this was the Lord’s new beginning, and on an epic scale! The whole thrust of these provisions was to avoid ingrained poverty and the social problems that come in its wake: “There will never be any poor among you if only you obey the Lord your God. . . ” (Deuteronomy 15.4-5).
This is an astonishing example of how Israel was socially far in advance of other nations, showing “an independence of thought, which is not content to surrender economic development to the section of the nation with capital resources for its own private profit” (Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, Vol. 1).
FREE the captive from prison! This is indeed a hope rooted in the actual conditions of life, and which takes seriously the biblical view that it is the condition of the poor, not the general level of prosperity, that determines the justice of an economic system. The extent to which these laws were enforced is uncertain — it is clear from the protest of Jeremiah and other prophets that there were those who ignored their obligations (e.g. Jeremiah 34.14).
But whether or not the laws were properly enforced is not really the point from the perspective of hope; the point is that they show God’s intention for the way we should live together, and a society that does not provide equal justice for the poor misses the mark. From a biblical perspective, such a society is disordered, a society in which structural sin is enthroned — though this glaring example of structural sin is not generally perceived.
THIS is a hard truth for the modern world, built as it is upon a culture of debt, albeit attractively packaged, from the slogan used for the old Access credit card — “Take the waiting out of wanting” — to invitations to run up debts described in banker newspeak as “extending your credit”. Compared with the biblical perspective, this is nothing less than a cultural earthquake. Debt has become not merely acceptable, but essential to the working of the modern economy, and the way in which the imprisoning effect of this economic imperative is ignored is nothing less than wicked.
The level of personal indebtedness has now reached unsustainable levels, as we saw only too clearly in the sub-prime-mortgage scandal. From a Christian perspective, it is outrageous that today the rich, far from accepting a duty of generosity towards the poor, benefit from a net transfer of resources from the poor in the form of interest payments — the precise opposite of the biblical principle. The extent to which we are off-target is shown in the proliferation of schemes to ensure not only the preservation, but the enhancement, of the fortunes of the ultra-rich, as the leaked financial documents known as the “Paradise Papers” disclosed in 2017.
WHILE the Jubilee principle of resetting the economy every 50 years would not work today (if it ever did), some kind of basic readjustment is needed. If Jesus is the key to the cry and hope for freedom becoming a reality, then in this Age of Anger we have to learn to connect and take steps to realise in modern society the sense of corporate solidarity which the Bible sets before us, and which is re-emerging in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Hope will be fulfilled, and resentment lessened, when we recognise the true extent of structural sin as much as personal sin; that rights of personhood are more important than rights of property; and that giving people life, freedom, and security is a greater priority than preserving private wealth and privilege. In a phrase, we need to learn the truth that we are all in it together.
This is an edited extract from Light in the Darkness: Exploring the path of Christian hope by Peter Sills, published by Sacristy Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.50).