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For my last sermon in Leviticus, I turn to chapter 25 and a remarkable practice mandated by God called the Year of Jubilee. Every 50 years, a trumpet sounded (jubilee means blow the horn) to announce a wholesale overhaul of economic and social conditions. Jubilee signaled a new beginning, a time when all who had failed at life and work were given a do-over, and when all who had benefitted from others’ failures let go of their gains. Land reverted back to its original ownership, debts were forgiven, slaves set free the score set back to zero. As a year-long extension of the Sabbath, everyone took a year off to enjoy, stress-free, the fruits of their labor with thanksgiving. Of course in a predominantly agrarian society, the question undoubtedly arose as to how you would eat if you didn’t work your land for a year. God assured everybody by announcing “I will send you such a blessing in the year before that the land will yield enough for three years.” Even the earth needed a break. Jubilee represented Old Testament environmentalism at its best.
It represented Old Testament economic justice at its best too. Jubilee prevented the amassing of wealth into the hands of a privileged few. Every fifty years accounts were squared and equality was reestablished. Jubilee curtailed the human desire to accumulate more and more by yanking down social and corporate ladders. Greed got checked. The rich were kept humble and the poor were made hopeful. Everybody understood that we are but tenants on this earth and not owners. All things ultimately belong to God. People were not allowed to take advantage of each other in life or business because to do so was to take advantage of God.
This Levitical vision proves so captivating that a movement is currently afoot called Jubilee USA. Its purpose, supported by many churches, is to promote passage of House Resolution 2634, entitled the Jubilee Act. In the world’s most impoverished nations, the majority of the population do not have access to clean water, adequate housing or basic health care. These countries are paying debt service to wealthy nations and institutions at the expense of providing these basic services to their citizens. The United Nations Development Program estimates that 30,000 children die each day due to preventable diseases. Debt service payments take resources that impoverished countries could use to cure preventable diseases. The Jubilee Act mandates debt cancellation for these countries. Ironically, these nations have already paid back their debts time and again. The crisis set in once interest rates rose and compound interest made repayment impossible. It explains why the Hebrew word for interest is literally the verb “to bite.”
It may be that you’ve felt bitten yourself of late. Many assert that the United States itself is descending quickly into economic recession, in large part due to the subprime mortgage crisis. Mortgages packaged as investments grew riskier as expectations of return grew higher. Since real estate in America had always been a good bet, people figured the sky was the limit. But even the sky has its limits. The inevitable nationwide default on ever riskier housing loans crunched credit on Wall Street and on Main Street. The government has been forced to intervene with huge infusions of cash to keep the whole house of cards from crashing down—cash for which the government has had to go further into debt itself to pay.
The crises of Leviticus 25 read like the subprime mortgage mess. A farmer fails at farming, defaults on a loan and loses his land but not his obligation to his creditors. It reminds me of a time I stumbled on the credit card bills of a family member I had agreed to help through school. I thought she was counting her pennies and being a good steward of my generosity, but it turned out that she had run up extraneous debt to the tune of $30,000. Because I had chosen to financially expose myself for her sake, I ended up with the bill which meant refinancing my house to pay it. Had I been living by Leviticus back then, chapter 25 would have allowed me to enslave this family member until she worked off the debt. This may sound like sweet revenge, only Leviticus prohibits any harsh treatment of a person indebted to you. I would have had to restructure payments according to her ability, and if the year of Jubilee arrived before she fully paid me back, her entire debt would be forgiven. Which sounds unfair until you realize that the bank which held my mortgage would forgive my debt too. Of course that just sounds unrealistic.
So unrealistic in fact that there is no evidence that Jubilee was ever observed. Though commanded by God, it never happened. Maybe it was deemed too impractical. Or maybe it just took too much faith to do it. Or maybe those who’d made it to the top were too unwilling to let loose of their achievements. For whatever reason, Israel’s unwillingness to follow the law led to their downfall. Redeemed from their slavery in Egypt, delivered into a rich promised land, God’s people took advantage of his goodness. So much so that they lost their land and their freedom. If you’ve read the story, you know that the Babylonians ransacked Israel and drove its population into captivity. Nevertheless, because God has a thing for sinners, he announced through the prophet Isaiah another shot a Jubilee. Speaking of the Messiah to come, Isaiah said, “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.” This is the Jubilee language.
But again, if you’ve read the story you know that this Jubilee likewise went unfulfilled. True, by God’s grace, the Israelites were rescued from their captivity, but human nature being what it is, things quickly reverted back and the people found themselves in captivity again, this time to the Romans, with no hope on the horizon. But again, God has his thing for sinners. So he sent Jesus who walked into his local synagogue, dusted off the book of Isaiah and read those Jubilee promises again. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The congregation might have appreciated Jesus’ attempts to restore their hope had he not gone on and audaciously added, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Excuse me? In Luke chapter 4, Jesus announced that he, an unemployed carpenter from Nazareth, was the bringer of Jubilee. He was their Messiah. So offended was the congregation by what seemed like a mockery of their plight, that the Bible says “they got up, ran Jesus out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, and tried to throw him off the cliff.”
Jesus slipped away that time, but it was a temporary escape. Before long he’d be strung up on a cross; executed as a criminal and a blasphemer. However, the New Testament imports an image from Leviticus to show what really happened on the cross. Once a year in Leviticus, the Jewish high priest would take a goat and would symbolically transfer all the sins of the people onto it and would then chase this scapegoat out of town to die. Later Judaism would go so far as to throw this so-called scapegoat off a cliff to assure its demise. The apostle Paul writes of Jesus, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us.” Jesus is our scapegoat.
Because it is Easter, you know how the story turns out. Jesus rises from the dead and in doing so, he establishes justice and yanks down the ladders. He squares our accounts with God. He settles our debts. The poor are exalted and the weak lifted up. The last are first and the lost are found. Death proves the way to victory. Sinners get a do-over. A new start. “Jesus died for all,” Paul writes, “so that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. …If anyone is in Christ, you are a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” And not just for this life. But for eternity. Paul writes, “We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. The trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” “So blow the trumpet loud and long,” Leviticus sings, “proclaim freedom in the land for all its inhabitants, this will be your Jubilee!”