ShePonders: Jubilee


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“Jubilee was a concrete practice meant to recalibrate local economics and restore equity to the entire neighborhood.”

Few welcome living below the poverty line.  Most would celebrate word that the bank had forgiven their mortgage. Many yearn for another chance to regain some lost ground (a lost home, a lost business). In Biblical terms, we want some jubilee.

When Israel resettled Jerusalem after years of exile, God communicated a new vision for the city. Instead of the corruption and injustice of old, God instructed the settlers to maintain justice. Isaiah imagined a fresh construction site to build Jerusalem on a new foundation of justice, or equity, for all. The prophet addressed some critical matters, including economics. You can’t talk about the new city plan without shaping a new economic policy, or so says Isaiah.

The one anointed to bring word to the city planning commission, according to Isaiah 61, said it would be good news to the oppressed, brokenhearted, captives and prisoners. He proclaimed “the year of the Lord’s favor” in the new city. A good Jew knew exactly what this meant: jubilee. This is an economic policy from Leviticus 25. Every seventh year crops would rest to honor the Sabbath, but every fiftieth year there would be a blow-out celebration.  The horn would sound and a great economic reversal would be set into motion. If you’d lost your land in the up and down of the economy during the past fifty years, during the year of Jubilee, you’d get it back. If you fell into indentured service–you’d get your freedom back. If you had any outstanding debts–they were forgiven. Jubilee was a concrete practice meant to recalibrate local economics and restore equity to the entire neighborhood.

For those who were on the underside of the economy (remember the oppressed, brokenhearted, captives and prisoners) – this was great news!  They got another chance to re-enter the economic life of the city.

But jubilee did not feel like good news for everyone, for some it was just hard news. Imagine the ones who had to give back land, release slaves and cancel debts. They lost property, a labor force and monies owed to them. A sound argument could be made (given the rural feudal systems of the day) that most of those gains would have been by coercion, extortion and other means of corruption. Therefore the jubilee reversal speaks of deep societal restitution and a reset to a more just economic life for the city.

For some, jubilee sounds like good news. For others it is hard news. But today many people doubt that jubilee was ever enacted at all; they say it was pure fantasy. Is there any evidence that jubilee happened – ever?

What is evident to me is that Jesus reached for the Isaiah scroll and He read of captives set free and oppressed people liberated from a crooked economy.  And then Jesus said that jubilee happens–today.  (Luke 4)

Did jubilee ever happen? Jesus indicated that the question misses the point entirely. Whether anyone practiced jubilee hardly matters. The point is that now Jesus enacts jubilee–and invites us to do the same as disciples of His just Kingdom.

What are some possible lessons of jubilee economics?

  • God does not want a permanent poverty class.
  • God wants everyone to have equal access to the economy.
  • When we get caught in the undertow of the economy, God creates a way back in.
  • Just economic systems make for viable communities.

I believe that living into jubilee means forgiving real debts owed to us, because we can be that generous when we live by God’s abundance. I believe it means caring about the kind of economies we operate in and perpetuate–who benefits, who is left out, how can we help others regain their ground.

I believe jubilee has something to do with transformational neighborliness–how we embody true love for our neighbors and work to shape a better neighborhood where we are all safe, all free and all in.

I have seen a community living into jubilee economics – just last week! Up on the mountain of Matara my Batwa friends eagerly showed me their pigs.  Last season all 27 Batwa families bought pigs. They decided together that the first litter of pigs would stay in the community, but the second litter would be gifted to their neighbors. Each family agreed to this … meaning that soon 27 litters would be given away to help improve the economy of the entire mountain! No one mandated this gift; I don’t even think they were following a Biblical imperative on purpose. But they live into the jubilee spirit with their concrete generosity, care for neighbor and desire to see all the mountain villages thrive.

The Batwa families of Matara incarnate the jubilee spirit in how they have reshaped their economic practice for the sake of the neighborhood. These families were once landless, jobless and hopeless. Now they give their surplus food to their neighbors, create jobs for them; invite them to share banquet tables in time of celebration and yes, give them lots of pigs!  That is how jubilee happens in Matara, how it is woven into the fabric of who they are and the everyday economic decisions they make.

Our neighbors want some jubilee. How can we follow the words of Jesus and the ways of the Batwa families and make jubilee happen in our communities?

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Images by Tina Francis