This week’s Promise Passage* (Leviticus 25) transports us to some radical land reform efforts of early agrarian revolutionaries who had conquered the inhabitants of their Land of Promise and were creating faith-based social justice policies out of the ashes of the scorched earth. We don’t tend to travel through Leviticus very much, even though it is the site of the second greatest commandment, to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Other than that, most folks have overlooked its ethical mandates to avoid shrimp, not wear clothes made of blended material, and not plant two kinds of seed in the same field. Others go to it to cherry-pick a proof-text against homosexuality (while ignoring other sexual mandates of the Torah – how many widows are experiencing the intimacy of levirate relations with their brother-in-laws these days?).
But here in this passage we find an incredibly lofty and ambitious effort at avoiding the spiritually dangerous tendency of concentrated wealth and concentrated poverty (aka the rich get richer and the poor get poorer). People in every generation of Promised Landowners were allowed to be as industrious as they wanted to be, to negotiate for property, to create wealth. But they didn’t do it to provide an inheritance. There was no intergenerational transfer of wealth. Possession was not permanent. Every generation had to essentially start from scratch, with the same set of bootstraps to pull themselves up by. Every 50 years was a year of Jubilee when all the land went back to the original owners, to the families who had suffered ill fortune or who had not been clever or hard-working enough or healthy enough to keep their land. Whatever the cause of their land-loss and their impoverishment, the children would not suffer. All the children would get the same opportunity to make it in life, starting from the level playing field, of which they would be owners and stewards of a small piece. It was a very Jeffersonian idea. Our famous founding father wrote that small land-owners are the most precious part of the State and he advocated for every citizen to be steward of a small plot of earth. I suspect he would have written the year of Jubilee law into the Constitution if he could have gotten away with it.
I’m not sure how the concept of Jubilee actually worked in the lives of the ancient Hebrews, and I’m less clear how the concept morphed from this radical ethic of agrarian reform to a Sunday morning feel-good Southern Gospel showcase. I remember waking up early every Sunday morning to the sound of the Florida Boys and the Happy Goodmans and the Dixie Echoes singing Jubilee, jubilee, you’re invited to this happy jubilee. Praise the Lord I’ve been invited to a meeting in the air, when the saints of all the ages in their glory will be there. Jubilee, jubilee, you’re invited to this happy jubilee! I’m as happy as the next person to imagine this great gettin’ up morning when we’re caught up in the air to step on the clouds and meet Jesus. But the biblical notion of Jubilee is not about pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by; it’s about a here and now matter, what to do about the inevitable divide between haves and have-nots. It’s a call for the regularly scheduled re-distribution of wealth. It’s a call to forgive debts. It’s a call not to charge interest when loaning to the poor. It’s a call not to make a profit when selling food to the poor. It’s a call to treat the poor and the foreigners in your midst with the same compassion. In essence, it’s giving us some clues as to how we can follow the second greatest commandment in our economic practices. If you’re like I am, and want some foot-stamping music to listen to while you ponder how to have the freedom and the courage to follow such a crazy ethic in this Dixieland of the free and home of the braves, where wealth and poverty are equally concentrated in ways the early Hebrews couldn’t have imagined, just click on the lyrical link above and enjoy sister Vestal (with beehive in full array) and company inviting you to the happy Jubilee. Listening to it makes me wonder what echoes of Dixie there might be reverberating around this Passage.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.