Jubilee is the greatest story in Scripture. Or at least, it’s the greatest description in Scripture, since Jubilee doesn’t appear to have ever been a reality.
Jubilee was the call on God’s people to restore all property to its original owners every fifty years. If people had lost or been forced to sell land over the course of the last five decades, it would be returned in the Year of Jubilee. Essentially, people were only leasing the land. Slaves were never really slaves but, rather, indentured servants whose contracts expired at Jubilee.
It’s a beautiful idea—an escape from the constant drive to accumulate and hoard. Jubilee provides a great picture of what justice could look like in our world.
But . . .
I’ve never really asked myself until recently why there is a need for Jubilee. Why would this command be included in God’s Word to God’s people? Why would this beautiful image be something people might strive for (even though we have never actually seemed to execute it successfully)?
It boils down to this paradox: Jubilee is needed because Jubilee isn’t practiced. People (the Israelites) weren’t taking care of each other. People in difficult circumstances or on the wrong side of bad decisions were being left to their own devices. There was no justice. So justice was demanded, and Jubilee was announced.
Jubilee provides a great picture of what justice could look like in our world.
But we really shouldn’t need a reset every fifty years—especially not the people of God. We should be a people of compassion and justice at all times. Frankly, there isn’t any reason why people should have to sell their land—or themselves—just to survive. Society should never have gotten to the point where the call to Jubilee was warranted. We should all be more gracious than that.
Jubilee is great, and we shouldn’t cease to marvel at its greatness, but we have to remember that it’s an accommodation to human society, not some lofty ideal we should aspire to fulfill. Yes, Jubilee would be better than what we’ve got now, but Jubilee is not the kingdom. It’s not the end goal. Jubilee is just a marker on the journey, a sign pointing toward eternity and the kingdom of God. It’s a correction to the collective sin of human society, and—despite our inability to imagine its reality—its very existence as an idea is an indictment of how we already live.
Jubilee is not the kingdom. It’s not the end goal. Jubilee is just a marker on the journey, a sign pointing toward eternity and the kingdom of God.
Go ahead and live in whatever consumeristic ways your heart desires, but every fifty years, you have to show a little grace. It’s like throwing God a bone. I’ve always viewed Jubilee as this amazing concept, but our faith and life should really have progressed well beyond Jubilee by this point. Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, brings us well past Jubilee: Give to those who ask without expecting anything in return, turn the other cheek, love your enemies (see Matthew 5–7). These are notions well beyond Jubilee; these are actions that would negate the need for Jubilee.
We so often seem to accommodate ourselves to failure. I try to eat just two cupcakes but end up mowing down half a dozen. Well, maybe just keep it to four next time, right?
Jesus doesn’t work this way, though. Instead, he actually raises the stakes: You can’t get this Jubilee thing to happen? Well, let’s just up the ante a bit so you know I’m serious.
We always complain out of our fear———specifically a fear of lack and a fear of suffering.
We always complain out of our fear—specifically a fear of lack and a fear of suffering. Some of these people deserve to lose what they have, Jesus; my giving them more will just enable their poor choices. Of course, then we start to sound like those people who tried to stone him when he proclaimed universal grace—release of the prisoner, freedom for the captive, sight for the blind. We’re perfectly happy to take that grace for ourselves, but we’re not sure there’s enough to go around.
This very attitude is why the Israelites needed—and we today still need—Jubilee. It only takes an instant for us to look away from suffering and into our own pockets (or pocketbooks) and become terrified that we won’t have enough. Jubilee was supposed to be a reminder that there’s enough for all. Jesus takes it a step further and shows that, even when there’s not enough, it’s still somehow enough.
Jesus takes it a step further and shows that, even when there’s not enough, it’s still somehow enough.
I’ve said for a while now that the greatest tragedy in history is that God’s people never practiced Jubilee. But I’m starting to wonder if, perhaps, the greatest tragedy in history is actually that we ever needed to be called to practice Jubilee in the first place.