A “Year of Jubilee”: a good starting point?

Photo above by Kai Pilger, via Pexels

Article by Peter Koeppel, member of Trinity Memorial Church in Binghamton and the diocesan Stewardship Resources team. 

The great custom of a “Year of Jubilee” is for most of us deeply rooted in the Old Testament – during such a year, most property is to be redeemed by their prior owner, people indentured are to be relieved of their debt, and enslaved persons are to be set free.

In Leviticus, the “Year of Jubilee” is timed at regular intervals – depending on your reading, either the 49th (seven times seven) or the 50th year (following seven times seven) are designated as the “Year of Jubilee”.

Another ancient source, which likely predates Leviticus, the Code of Hammurabi, one of the older known written bodies of law, contains, among others, this paragraph:

  1. If any one owe a debt for a loan, and a storm prostrates the grain, or the harvest fail, or the grain does not grow for lack of water; in that year he need not give his creditor any grain, he washes his debt-tablet in water and pays no rent for this year.

The notion of debt-forgiveness, in the face of a natural disaster, was a necessary relief valve to maintain the societal order of the day.  In this predominantly, though no longer exclusively, agrarian society, a typical farmer would live about 11 months of the year on savings and credit, and in the twelfth month, when the harvest came in, they would pay off their debt.

A natural disaster: a storm, lack of rain, or any other unspecified reason for a generalized crop failure would have resulted in the farmer and the farmer’s land passing into the possession of those who extended the credit. This, in turn, would have removed the farmer from an obligation to deliver a portion of the crop to the ruler; instead, the person having extended the credit was now entitled to receive the bounty of the earth. This would have resulted not only in a profound shift of power from the ruler to the person(s) having extended the credit, but in so shifting allegiance and power, it would have destabilized a vital mechanism for survival of the people: the ruler’s ability to store grain and distribute it throughout the realm as needed.

Thus, the rule that in a year of crop failure, the farmer should be relieved of his debt (washing his debt-tablet in water results in literal erasure of the debt) was both politically prudent, and an acknowledgment that unfortunate incidents happen.

In modern language, we would describe Hammurabi’s Jubilee as reining in the emerging financial sector, and maintain an system of governance which was effective at keeping the people from starvation.

By the time the Jubilee makes its appearance in Leviticus 25, it has become a bit more sophisticated (I encourage you to read the details in your Bible), and its justification is now a spiritual one – the land and the Israelites are God’s own, they cannot be owned by a worldly or financial power, and through the liberation of the  Jubilee Year, what is the Lord’s is returned to the Lord. Are we allowed to observe that the people of Leviticus saw that human endeavor would always lead away from God, and that a recurring way to correct that was required?

Turning to the times we are currently experiencing: is there reason to think that the spot in which we find ourselves deserves the relief of a “Year of Jubilee”? If we pause for a moment to absorb how many lives have been totally uprooted by COVID-19 already, could the pain be lessened, and perhaps clean slates from which to start anew be granted, akin to what happens in a Jubilee year? With the loss of a job comes the loss of a paycheck, likely health insurance, and often social status and network; losing a breadwinner is all of these, and so much worse yet.

Now, compare the help which has been rendered, with what the ancients would have required. Do you see a gap, and is that gap justifiable for us, as Christians? Looking at it from the perspective of Leviticus 25: how far from God can we stray, before we have to just undo what has accumulated under “business as usual?” Dare we not just pray that business as usual take a turn towards a more Godly view of life, but demand from our leaders that they move our society in such a direction? Given our current circumstances, would a Jubilee be a good starting point?

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