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The Jubilee Year:
Economic Rights and Justice in the Bible

Lev. 25:8-17, 39-43; Luke 4:16-21

by Rev. Letirio Panjiatan

Rev. Letirio PanjiatanRev. Letirio Panjiatan is a full-time pastor in a local church in North Sumatra, Indonesia

The Bible has far more to say about God’s will for economic life than most of us realize. And those teaching are presented as “spiritual” issues, not just “material” concerns. We know of course that God liberated the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land, so that they might be God’s people and live according to God’s commandments. Leviticus 25 tells us how they were to order their social-economic-spiritual life, and it offers fundamental challenges for us today.

Before going into details of this chapter, we should briefly consider its background and context. This material was probably put together when the remaining tribes of Israel were returning from exile (6th century B.C.), but its roots to go back to the founding of their nation (13th century B.C.) and its reflects the concerns of the prophets during the monarchy (11th to 6th centuries B.C.). The chapter summarizes God’s commandments regarding the Sabbath Year (every 7 years) and the jubilee year (every 50 years). Much of the focus is on ownership of the land, which was the primary source of economic life, social life and even family and personal life.

It is easy to see that mandates for the Sabbath year and the jubilee year are addressed to one of the most burning problems of ancient Israel, of Jesus’ day and even for our own generation. The land, like other resources for economic life, tends to fall into the hands of a few who become rich, and the majorities become poor. In ancient times most the people live off the land. When their crops failed, they went into debt: and if they were unable to pay back their debt (often with very high interest), they lost their land. Than they become sharecroppers, day laborers or even slaves. They might eventually be forced into bagging, prostitution, and other “unclean” work, as their families faced severed undernourishment and disease and finally death.

The teaching about the Sabbath year and jubilee year (compare Deuteronomy 15:1-18) are a direct and revolutionary (though non-violent) response to that social and economic problem, which at times became the central issue in Israel’s life and a central concern of Israel’s God.

It is important to note how directly these mandates are related to Israel’s faith. The jubilee was to be proclaimed on the Day of Atonement, the most sacred day of the year. On that day and only on that day the high priest entered the Holy of Holies to offer sacrifices for the cleansing of the temple, the priesthood and the people; and a goat was sent to the desert of symbolize the expulsion of their sin. The fulfillment of the jubilee mandates themselves are based on the fundamental beliefs of Israel.

The jubilee and Sabbath year mandates are not arbitrary or isolated teaching. They express the fundamental logic of God’s intervention in human and cosmic history. The God of exodus, who delivered the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt into a “land flowing with milk and honey”, had every right to expect them to resist and reverse the very human but sinful tendencies towards wealth and poverty, domination and alienation. God’s justice, which is based on God’s saving grace, demands fullness of life for all the people.

This concern was expressed repeatedly by The Old Testament prophets. In Isaiah 61:1-2a (compare Isaiah 58:6) we find a direct reference to the jubilee year as “the year of the Lord’s favor”, that passage was in turn used by Jesus to explain the central concern of his ministry (Luke 4:16-31). Several of the prophets were so vehement about God’s demand for justice that they called into question into very worship of Israel and foretold the destruction of the temple. In the same way Jesus confronted the religious establishment of His time, which was linked with the wealthy landholders, the temple state and the Roman Empire.

In fulfillment of the jubilee mandates Jesus brought good news to the poor as the breaking in of God’s reign, as the release of those in prison (most of whom were there because of debts), as recovery of sight to the blind and healing of all kind of diseases, as liberation of the oppressed. He taught that God’s reign would comfort those who mourn, give land back to the meek and fill the hungry with justice. Not only did He heal the sick, but the broke the taboos that marginalized people, above all the unclean, the sinners, woman, and children, and He gave them first priority in God’s reign. To do this He had to challenge the guardians of the social, economic, political and religious system. First the scribes and the Pharisees, later the Herodians and Sadducees, finally the high priests.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray for the coming of God’s reign, to forgive debts, to serve one another with humility and to be ready to give their life as He was bound to do.

Having considered these important biblical teaching, we must ask ourselves how faithful we are to God’s commandments as they are expressed in terms of the jubilee and Sabbath year. How can we bring good news to the poor, release to prisoners, sight to the blind, liberation to the oppressed? We must bring this mandates down to our daily lives in concrete ways, remembering that Jesus, through small acts of healing and caring and even by disobeying legalistic regulation, was breaking down the walls of oppression and bringing in God’s reign.

At the same time we must relate the central mandates of Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15:1-18 to the central crisis of our time. And we must pray for the coming of God’s reign in terms of the biblical in response to the struggle of all God’s people of fullness of life.

Suggestion for Discussion

  1. What does it mean to give “rest to the land” (Lev.25:5)? Can this be applied today to an ecosystem about to collapse, leading to planetary death?

  2. In your community how does the increasing concentration in fewer hands of the resources necessary to participate in economy, society, and life as a whole affect the people? What are some creative ways of reallocation available resources for the life and well-being of all God’s people and all of creation?

  3. What does it mean today to free the salves? Could this call for liberation be applied to peasants and workers at all levels that are subject without appeal to the “invisible hands” of the market and thus permanently exposed to the threat of layoff, which can mean economic death?

  4. The debts which many poor countries owe to foreign banks, governments, and financial institutions are now being used to enforce their submission to outside economic power, who are requiring them to dismantle social welfare system to the point of bringing about what some call ungovernability, and others refer to as social explosion. How do these “jubilee” texts speak to this situation?