Every day, we face real-world economics issues such as poverty, systemic inequity in housing or farm loans, education or health care. Yet piecing together a Biblical teaching concerning such economic issues is a difficult task for a variety of reasons.
First, we tend to focus on what the Bible says about the spiritual side of our existence. Second, we have to wrestle with apparent contradictions. For example, how are we supposed to resolve the seeming contradiction in the teaching of selling all to give to the poor (Luke 18:22) with you always have the poor around (Mark 14:7) or the one who does not work should starve (2 Thess 3:10)? Third, another difficulty arises when we try to factor in the Old Testament. Its teachings are certainly for our benefit, but so much of the content speaks to the physical aspects of Israel’s history. The Law is, after all, a founding document providing a framework for a physical nation — a constitution, if you will. So, it might seem even harder to develop concrete action steps from the Old Testament than the New Testament.
What I’d like to do in this article is to look at a specific Old Testament institution and see if there are any principles that might speak to our 21st century Western Church context. I suggest that the Old Testament practice of Jubilee might inform the present to a degree. I say principle and not directive because the transition between Old Testament practice and New Testament appropriation needs to pass through the filter of the shift between God’s dealing with a physical nation and His calling out of a spiritual nation (see 1 Peter 2:9). God is not expecting any nation today to observe a year of Jubilee.
What Is Jubilee?
The purpose of the Jubilee as I see it was to ensure that every Israelite in the land would have opportunity to enjoy a “piece of the pie.” At the end of seven Sabbath years the land holdings were to revert to the family who lost the land during that 49-year period (Leviticus 25:8-10). Of course, family here is probably to be understood as the extended family with a patriarchal head. The legislation probably presupposes that there would not be several defaults within a 70-year period, with society then less mobile than it is today.
That being said, the Jubilee would probably have ensured that each generation would have the opportunity to be free-holding land “owners.” If the patriarch lost the “title” due to poor choices or bad harvests, the next generation would probably regain possession. That generation had the use of the land unencumbered by grand-dad’s debt. This practice would provide a way for each person to enjoy the use of the land while not under servitude. No one household could gobble up all the land and impoverish other family members. The grounding of this system was the theological concept that Yahweh was the owner of the land and all its inhabitants were his servants. Everyone was to enjoy His provision. One group was not to aggrandize itself at the expense of others. This would have provided opportunity for thriving but not for systemic wealth or poverty. It seems this would be a fair national economic policy.
Evidence suggests that Jubilee was never consistently carried out in Israel. If the Sabbatical Year was not honored for so long a period (2 Chronicles 36:21), it is doubtful that the year of release was consistently practiced. The preaching of Amos and other prophets suggests this. Israel did not follow this economic structure. It was like all the other nations.
So what can the practice of Jubilee say to us? Those who suggest that the Church should work toward an economic system that levels all wealth by destroying the privileged (e.g., Marxist, liberation and some liberal Protestant theologians) fail to make the hermeneutical transition between the Old Testament’s emphasis on the physical nation to the New Testament’s emphasis on a spiritual people. No nation today is equivalent to Israel of old, nor should it be. If the point of the economic structure of Israel was to ensure that each person had the opportunity to enjoy the bounty of the land, it must have been a good idea. Logically it makes sense that all having hope of a share is better than some despairing without hope irrespective of ability. The principle that citizens of a country should have an equal opportunity at a share of a country’s bounty seems sound. Of course, one’s success depends on gifting and not a little on good fortune. But one’s lack of ability or “breaks” should not automatically imperil one’s children.
Jubilee and Education
In the United States, the feature that comes closest to giving each person a “chance” would be our educational system. If each student had the same facilities, same quality of teachers, same per student spending, there would be more equity in society. Education is empowering. It allows children to advance economically. When a nation tolerates inequity in education, it hobbles a new generation and increasingly perpetuates an underclass. This incubates a type of hopelessness that Jubilee sought to avoid in Israel. Precious human capital is lost to the detriment of the community. That girl in government housing might become the scientist who finds a cure for your grandson’s cancer. That immigrant boy might become the judge that sets a standard of judicial fairness for your church long after you are gone.
However, we know that such a prescription will not work in a fallen world. It did not work in Israel. It won’t scale in society now. Today racial prejudice, selfishness, greed and other impulses bring discord, and that is Satan’s fertile field.
What can the Christian do by way of application of this Old Testament institution?
- Speak up when you hear someone making disparaging remarks concerning the abilities of a certain race or group, reminding others about pervasive historical and present day systemic discrimination.
- Take an interest in the education of your children and the children in your church, especially those in the church who are struggling or come from minority backgrounds.
- Teach Sunday School. After all, Sunday School started in order to teach poor children to read. This is a way to come to know the children, and it could give you an opportunity to help with tutoring any who are struggling.
- Gift private Christian schools to keep the cost of tuition down or establish scholarships.
- Support an overseas mission school run by people you know and trust.
- In your public schools or after-school programs, see if there is a volunteer tutoring or mentoring program.
One cannot do everything in every area of life, but it seems that each believer should have some part in helping the children in our churches (and in our community; see Gal 6:10) to be all God has designed them to be. Because we cannot do everything is no excuse for doing nothing.
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 My interest in this and some of the observations to follow I received when reading an excellent paper on the OT Jubilee Year written by my good friend and former student Jeff Brockelsby.
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