A jubilee is a party, isn’t it? Queen Elizabeth II has celebrated silver, gold, and diamond jubilees in the course of her reign. People across Britain had parties celebrating. We talk about being jubilant when good things happen. And yet, when I read about Israel’s Jubilee in the Bible in Leviticus 25 – it strikes me as a funny way to celebrate, by today’s standards.
Jubilee remains as radical and counter cultural as it did when the Israelites received the original rules from God, but Jesus called us to be counter cultural and to stand up to injustice. And poverty is a major injustice the modern world faces.
Tracing it back
We first see the idea of Jubilee in the book of Leviticus. It expands the Old Testament law of the Sabbath day, in which the people of God would do no work of any kind on the seventh day and keep it as a holy day for God. The Israelites were also called to have a sabbath year. After six years of harvesting the fields they were to leave the fields to rest and recover for a year. Then after seven sabbath years there was to be a year of Jubilee. After a period of 49 years the Israelites were told to; return property to its original owner, forgive all debts, free all slaves and leave the land to recover from 49 years of harvest.
It meant that the people and land of Israel were able to reset. The land would be able to recover, meaning the following year it was once again able to produce a bountiful harvest, and continue to do so until the next sabbath year. Meaning that the Israelites would be able to grow, sell and eat their harvest. But most importantly the poor in the community are given a second chance.
Maybe a man had been unable to pay his debts and sold himself into slavery. He would now be a free man and able to live his life again.
Maybe a family had to sell their house and land to pay their debts. They now have their old property back and can start to rebuild their lives.
Maybe a man is on the brink of selling himself or his property. When Jubilee comes and wipes his debt away he can live well, knowing that he is safe from debt and his debtor.
God is a loving God, and God knows his people. He can foresee that Jubilee is going to be a short term solution. So he makes the year of Jubilee a recurring idea. This is to take place every 50 years. He knows that poverty isn’t just an issue that was facing the Israelites in the Old Testament, but one that will face his people throughout all time. Jubilee shows us that God cares about his people, and that poverty is not something he wants in his world. By bringing the idea of Jubilee into the modern day, we may be able to actively root out the causes of poverty.
At times it can be tricky to work out how to do this well, though. Tearfund have recently published a collection of essays by theologians and activists from all over the world that explore this question. It takes a look at what Jubilee says about how we treat our home; identifies how churches can respond better to poverty; and looks at what Jubilee tells us about the importance of rest in our busy western world.