Jubilee Previous - Next


Jubilee - the Biblical Vision

As the polarization of rich and poor accelerates in our country and our world, we are down the drawn to the vision of an alternative socio-economic-spiritual possibility based on the Sabbath and Jubilee mandates in the Hebrew Bible and chosen by Jesus as his primary vocation. Surprisingly, most of us have never even realized that teaching about the Sabbath day begins with the story about the manna in the wilderness (Ex.16), wich instructed the people of Israel, newly liberated from Egypt, to gather each day only the specific amount needed for every member of every family and so to create a soceonomic order in which all people would have enough and non would have more than enough.

By Ross Kinsler
Deuteronomy's version of the fourth Commandment (Deut. 5:12-15) underlines the fact that the purpose of the Sabbath Day is to remember the liberation from Egypt and the mandate to maintain that socio-economic alternative. In Deuteronomy 15 we find two fundamental mandates for that alternative socio-economic in terms of the Sabbath Year, when debts were to be cancelled and slaves were to be freed. Once again the foundation is God's act of liberation from Egypt. "Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts, and do so generously, or your neighbour might cry to the Lord against you as your predecessors cried out against their taskmakers in Egypt " (Deut. 15:1-11). Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt, so you shall set free any Hebrew slaves every seventh year" (Deut. 15:12-15). In Leviticus 25:1-7 we find the mandate to give rest to the land during the Sabbath Year, and then follows the mandate to celebrate a year of Jubilee every 50 years as a Super Sabbath. The new element here, in addition to cancelled debts and freed slaves, is the redistribution of the land to all the families of Israel. "You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family".(Lev. 25:10) Here too the foundation is liberation from Egypt (Lev. 25:38, 42, 55).

The word Jubilee apparently comes from the Hebrew word for the ram's horn that served as a trumpet. The Sabbath-Jubilee mandates were designed to resist and reserve the human propensity to accumulate wealth and create poverty. It is easy to see that ancient agrarian societies were polarized when peasant farmers lost their crops due to natural or human causes, went into debt in order to eat and replant, lost their land if their crops still fell short or interest on their debt was too exorbitant, and finally fell into slavery.

It was therefore essential for liberated Israel to create a new socio-economic-spiritual reality in which debts would be remitted, slaves released, and the land redistributed periodically. The possibility that these mandates were rarely if ever carried out in no way lessens their importance. Rather our challenge is to work out the Jubilee vision in terms relevant for our current local, national and global reality.

To bring good news to the poor" does not mean to provide a heavenly home after death. It means to change the basic socio-economic and spiritual realities of landless peasants and unemployed labourers in this world.

Because of its location at the beginnig of Jesus' ministry, the story of Jesus' appearance at the Nazareth synagogue, Luke 4:16-30, is especially important. The writer of this Gospel chose to explain the central content of Jesus' message concerning God's Reign, Luke 4:43, in terms of Isaiah 61:1-2a, which ends with the words,"to proclaim the year of the Lords favour." This is generally understood to be directed to the Year of Jubilee, though it could include the Sabbath Year as well, as is found in Leviticus 25. The whole text of Luke 4:18-19 expresses the central thrust of the Sabbath-Jubilee mandates."To bring good news to the poor" does not mean to provide a heavenly home after death. It means to change the basic socio-economic and spiritual realities of landless peasants and unemployed labourers in this world."To proclaim release to the captives" probably refers to debtors who were in prison with no means to repay their debts."Recovery of sight to the blind" had long been one of the eschatological expectations, and it may be understood to refer to the widespread need of the poor for healing of every kind."To let the oppressed go free " should be interpreted not only in terms of the specific Sabbath-Jubilee mandate to free the Israelite slaves, but also in the larger sense of developing a social reality within which the conditions leading to slavery through debts and loss of land would be resisted and reserved. Similarly, we may suggest that, "the acceptable year of the Lord" or"the year of the Lord's favor" that Jesus proclaimed as the coming of God's Reign was no longer strictly one year in seven or one year in fifty but a new age of liberty for all.

Of particular interest for our study is Jesus' use of two examples to illustrate God's intervention on behalf of those in need (Luke 4:25-27). The first is the provision of meal and oil for a widow in Sidon and her son through Elijah; the second is the healing of a Syrian man through Elisha. The first a woman, a widow, and a foreigner; the second a sick and impure foreigner. Prior to this the villagers of Nazareth expressed amazement in Jesus' words. After hearing these extraordinary examples, they were engaged and tried to kill him. So here we find the option of Jesus not only for the poor and oppressed but also for widows and orphans and aliens, a recurring theme of Deuteronomy closely related to the Sabbath mandates. And here too we find the violent reaction that this option provoked, probably as a precursor of the final rejection and crucifixion of Jesus.

At this point we will turn back to Luke's long introduction and note additional material relevant to the Sabbath-Jubilee vision. As introductory, these passages were chosen by Luke because they reveal the nature and importance of Jesus' mission. One is Mary's song, the Magnificat at the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah, when Mary was pregnant with Jesus and Elizabeth with John. The following portion, Luke 1:51-53, exalts the Mighty One in terms that emulate the Jubilee:

He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the
thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful
from their thrones,
And lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.

Here, too, Luke reveals that Jesus has come to resist and reserve the human propensity to concentrate power and accumulate wealth in order to raise up the lowly and fill the hungry. This is the Jubilee option for the poor and the oppressed.

This theme is evident in the person and mission of John the Baptist, another important portion in Luke's introduction. He cites Isaiah 40:3-5 to explain the purpose of Jubilee to bring justice and equality:

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
"Prepare the way of the Lord,
Make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
And every mountain and hill shall be made low,
And the crooked shall be made straight,
And the rough ways made smooth,
And all flesh shall see the salvation of God."

Then Luke explains John's demand for "worthy of repentance" in very concrete terms:

Whoever has two coats must share
with anyone who has none,
and whoever has food must do likewise.

Following his baptism by John, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil for forty days. He ate nothing, and he was very hungry. The first temptation was to turn a stone into a loaf of bread. Jesus' reply was a reference to Deuteronomy 8:3, which reads " One does not live by bread alone ". This passage in Deuteronomy is a warning to the people of Israel to keep the covenant commandments, based on their deliverance from Egypt, as they enter the Promised Land. It refers specifically to the experience narrated in Exodus 16 which was the first test after liberation from Egypt, and it was the first reference to the Sabbath Day. In this passage we find a clear mandate for Sabbath economics, a socio-economic order in which all would have enough and none would have more than enough. This is what Jesus' first temptation was all about.

There are further examples of Jubilee in the parables of Luke, but space does not allow us to go into them here.

Those for whom Jesus' message is good news... these are the ones excluded by the system of religious and socioeconomic domination.

Sabbath-Jubilee Texts in Matthew

Matthew's account of Jesus' ministry, after his long introduction, begins with a general summary including Jesus proclamation, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." (Matthew 4:12-17) Then follows the calling of the first disciples and another summary paragraph about Jesus' teaching and preaching"the good news of the kingdom and curing every sickness among the people". Then begins the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes. Here we find Matthew's, or rather Jesus', first exposition of the meaning of God's Kingdom or Reign. The first eight blessings are presented in the third person plural; the ninth is in the second person plural. The first and eighth, the poor in spirit and those who are persecuted for righteousness' or justice's sake, are the ones to whom God's Reign belongs. In fact they might be considered the generic ones who include the others, i.e. the meek, etc. In any case we find here a catalog of those for whom Jesus' message is good news, and these are the ones excluded by the system of religious and socio-economic domination.

Much has been written about the apparent "spiritualization" of the Beatitudes in Matthew as compared with Luke. But this may be a misreading of Matthew. The poor in spirit may in fact refer to the literally poor plus all who make their option to be in solidarity with the poor through their life-style, actions toward the poor, and struggles with them for a just and equitable socio-economic order. This is the apparent meaning of the fourth Beatitude concerning"those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," i.e. justice. In contrast with those who strive to accumulate wealth, the latter will be satiated in their struggle for justice. The meek are apparently those who have been pushed off the land; "they will inherit the earth," i.e. the land. Surely this is a direct reference to the Jubilee mandate that all Israelites should return to their properties and families at the Super-Sabbath Year. The message of Jesus is a call to Sabbath economics, to social transformation, to Jubilee spirituality, to liberty for the oppressed and marginalized.

The Beatitudes thus provide basic understanding for the following portions of the Sermon on the Mount, which in turn provide further insight into the Beatitudes. how are Jesus' followers to be salt and light? By "good works" that demonstrate God's Reign as defined above. (Matthew 5:13-16) How does Jesus fulfill the Law and the Prophets? By calling his followers to carry out the commandments of God's Rule, which is to practice justice exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees. (Matthew 5:17-20)
  Later Jesus speaks about treasures on earth and in heaven. This passage has so easily been read as a life insurance policy for eternity, but in the context of the Beatitudes and our understanding of Sabbath ethics and Jubilee spirituality it takes on a different meaning. It is a call to practice justice here in this life rather than to accumulate wealth in this life. (Matthew 6:19-21) At least this is the evident meaning of the following paragraphs about the eye as the light of the body and the tension between two possible masters. "If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is unhealthy, your body will be full of darkness." (Matthew 6:22-23) "No one can serve two masters... You cannot serve God and wealth (mammon)" (Matthew 6:22-24)

The following passage deals with the human tendency to worry about the future which becomes the rationale for hoarding and the accumulation of wealth. The birds of the air and the lilies of the field are examples of God's trusting creatures, who outshine Solomon's glory. Jesus' followers are to "strive first for the Kingdom of God and God's righteousness," "God's Reign and God's justice," and the basic needs of food and clothing will be taken care of on an daily basis. Once again we find echoes of Sabbath economics.
Social analysis has become essential for theology and ministry and for the critique of society and of the church itself. We turn back now to the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13, which some have called a Jubilee prayer. The first petition,"Your Kingdom come," reiterates Jesus' fundamental message. In the heritage of the Sabbath-Jubilee vision, we are reminded of that fatal chapter in Israel's history when the people demanded a king like the other nations, thus adopting the dangers of centralization, the concentration of power and wealth, and rejecting the ways of Yahweh, their true King, who required an alternative social possibility, the decentralization of power and wealth so that all God's people would have enough. The second petition, "Your will be done," reinforces the first, and the third "Give us this day our daily bread," makes explicit reference to Exodus 16, where God's people were to gather just the portion needed for one day at a time, except the sixth day of the week, in preparation for the Sabbath, at which time they were to remember Yahweh's deliverance from Egypt and rest from their daily toils. Then the fourth petition, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors," must also be based on the Sabbath-Jubilee principle of debt forgiveness, which is one of the fundamental ways to break the tendency toward wealth accumulation on the one hand and poverty-oppression-slavery on the other.

The final petition, "Do not bring us to the time of trial (temptation), but rescue us from the evil one (evil)," may also belong to the same pattern of Sabbath economics and Jubilee spirituality, for Deuteronomy and Leviticus are full of warnings of judgement for disobedience to these mandates.
  Since the 1960's Latin American Liberation Theology has made an enormous impact on the churches, cultures, and peoples of the region, and it has been a point of reference or challenge in many other regions. Its fundamental insight into the struggles of the Latin American peoples, into the Biblical message, and into the church's mission has been socio-economic. Social analysis has become essential for theology and ministry and for the critique of society and of the church itself. The depth and breadth of the task of reworking theology and ministry from this perspective is evident in the outpouring of formal publications and popular literature, primarily in Spanish and Portuguese, both Catholic and Protestant. But now we see that this is only the beginning. Since the 1980's Latin American women and men have been pressing for similar efforts in terms of gender, which is now increasingly recognized as equally important if not more important than socio-economic analysis. This development does not yet match the organizing and research and publishing of counterparts in North America and Europe, and it will certainly take different forms in Latin America, but the prospect of abundant fruit and challenge is already visible. Surrounding the 500th Anniversary of the European invasion of the New World, efforts to rethink and rewrite history and theology from the perspective of the indigenous and African peoples of Latin America have multlplied. And important work has begun from the perspective of children, differently abled people, seniors, and others. We believe that these efforts all correspond to the Sabbath-Jubilee vision of alternative socio-economic-spiritual possibilities in which all God's people enjoy fullness of life, where all are subjects and participate in the formation of that life, where all find dignity and pursue their dreams for themselves and for their children. The significance of these developments can be expressed in many ways. Women have put it this way. "We are not just interested in dividing up the cake more fairly. We want to change the whole recipe."

As the human frontiers multiply, the biblical, theological and pastoral possibilities and demands multiply as well. As we engage in and cross those frontiers, we deepen and broaden our own humanity. The recipe of our personal and collective humanity is becoming wonderfully diverse and being enriched far beyond anything we could have imagined, even as the suffering of humanity is ever more deeply disturbing. This is how we now see the message and ministry of Jesus in keeping with the Sabbath and Jubilee mandates.
  Ross Kinsler and his wife Gloria are mission workers based at the Latin American University in San José, Costa Rica. They have lived in Central America for 23 years, and they are currently working on a book titled "The Biblical Jubilee and the Struggle for Life."

This article was first published in The Catholic Agitator, Vol.28/No.2, March 1998. We republish it here with thanks. The Catholic Agitator is available from: 632 N Brittania St, Los Angeles, CA 90033, USA.

Previous - Next