The Wacky Jubilee

Last Sunday the sermon at church covered a little known bit of Jewish law called the Sabbath Year and the Year of Jubilee. I had heard about the latter in 1999 with Jubilee 2000 and the Drop the Debt Campaign (this perhaps marked the beginning of Bono’s most public crusader years), and produced perhaps my favorite quote from Bono which nicely summarizes the concepts:

“I’m learning more and more about Jubilee—the biblical concept that every seven days there’s a Sabbath and every seven years the land is to lie fallow and every seven times seven, i.e. in the 50th year, a year of grace, your debts were forgiven, slaves set free, etc. Quite punk rock for God. In fact, there are a lot of squeakies involved in Jubilee (Christians are hard to tolerate, I don’t know how Jesus does it … I’m one of them).”

What an incredible concept. Leviticus 25 details all the rules (interesting that nobody ever quotes that bit of Leviticus) and Wikipedia gives a vague overview

In our world of foreclosures, credit card debt and economic collapse, this sounds like a great idea. But it was supposed to happen regardless of the economy, not because of it. There were even rules about how it was supposed to work—the value of land was determined by how many years until the next Jubilee.

It was basically a once in a lifetime chance to start over.

And yet it’s not clear if it actually happened. The sermon last week pointed out that the Bible never describes this Jubilee Year actually being observed. Wikipedia says it hasn’t been observed for many centuries and suggests the practice stopped after the Babylonian captivity. If such a powerful notion were consistently followed, it seems like there’d be ample evidence. Bible scholars and historians could offer more insight and explanation, but at the least it seems likely that the Year of Jubilee was not consistently followed. And it’s not surprising—it’s no easy rule. Imagine trying to implement such a rule today. Imagine taking an entire year off or having all your debts forgiven.

But what an idea of provision and rest and celebration. Blast the trumpets and throw a party! And it’s not just partying because the calendar says so—because it’s New Year’s Eve and the date changes or to remember something that happened on this date—it’s partying because of real change. We’re set free, we have our economic livelihood returned to us and people are able to make a fresh start. It likely wouldn’t be good news for the rich, but time and time again God celebrates the poor and this was a reminder that all things come from God.

How cool would it be to see such a party? Maybe it would come when you were only a child or maybe you’d have to wait your whole life for it. What a culture-shaking idea. I think it’s incredible that the Bible is full of examples of two extremes—of hard work and perseverance, and then this idea of grace and getting what you don’t deserve. It’s not about being lazy, it’s about reveling in God. It’s like when Martha wanted to get the kitchen work done and Mary just wanted to sit at the feet of Jesus. Or the expensive perfume that was poured on Jesus’ feet and heralded as an act of worship, yet Judas grumbled about how many poor could have been fed. Life is full of work, and it’s good. But there are also more important things. Sometimes we need to be reminded, whether we’re too busy making more than we need, or we’re working too hard to barely get by. This wacky idea of the Jubilee seems to address both extremes, the rich and the poor, and direct the focus back to God.

3 thoughts on “The Wacky Jubilee”

  1. Not a wacky idea at all, but yet another example of how brilliant the mitzvot were and are. Lots of deep wisdom from the 4th century BCE and applied to the 21st century CE.

    Nice post!

  2. Walter Brueggemann said that when he mentions the “year of the Lord’s favor” the “year of Jubilee” its one of the only things that people say, “yeah but we have no evidence that it was ever practiced.”

    “Who cares if that’s the case? There are tons of things we read in Scripture that we don’t practice?”


    “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
    to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

    Everyone wants to be on the receiving end of Jubilee, but no one wants to be on the giving end. Perhaps that’s why it was such a radical way of living. Perhaps that’s why God said, “you will be my people, separate and called out from the rest.”

    Perhaps that’s why Isaiah had to remind us that God’s ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts.

    The year of Jubilee — bring it!

  3. Orthodox Jews actually do paractice this to some extent. Obviously none of them own slaves, but they follow the farming practices.

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