Social Justice and the Poor (3)

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This is the third part in an occasional series on social justice and the poor. Today we’ll be looking at the year of jubilee from Leviticus 25 (for a full sermon on the text go here).

The year of jubilee, which may have never taken place, was supposed to occur in Israel every fifty years. The celebration had two components to it: a return to the original land allotments, and freedom from servitude.

The first component dealt with land. Leviticus 25 looked forward to the time when Israel would inherit the promised land and receive tribal inheritances from God (cf. Joshua 13ff.). Over time, some people would inevitably be forced to sell some of their land. Whether due to death, locusts, bad weather, thieves, poor management, or laziness–no matter what precipitated selling off their land–during the year of jubilee everyone would get their original allotment back. The poor would get relief; the rich would lose some of the land they had purchased.

Prior to the jubilee, you could get your land back by paying the redemption price. This price of sale and the price of redemption were both calculated based on how many years left until the next jubilee. So in essence you could never really sell or purchase land, only loan or rent it. The original owner had the right to buy back the land at any time. So the sentence at the end of the last paragraph is not exactly accurate. The rich would not lose their land as much as the lease would run out on the land they were renting from their poorer neighbors.

There were other miscellaneous laws concerning walled cities, un-walled villages, and Levitical properties, but the basic principle for jubilee was pretty straightforward: (1) Land could be sold/leased for a price based on the number of years until the jubilee. (2) Land could be purchased back at any time according to the same principle. (3) After 50 years all land titles went back to their original holders.

The second component in the jubilee dealt with people. There’s a progression going on here. If you are in financial trouble, you can sell/lease some land to your nearest relative. If that’s not an option, you can sell/lease some land to a non-relative. If that doesn’t work, or you run out of land altogether, then you go to the next step: get a interest-free loan (i.e. a loan of subsistence not a loan of capital), which would be forgiven every seven years.

If a loan didn’t fix things, you cold sell yourself to another Israelite. Worst case scenario, you could sell yourself to a stranger or sojourner living among you. In both cases, you could be redeemed, by a family member or by yourself, at any time. The purchase price was calculated based on the number of years until the jubilee. If there were more years until the jubilee, you had to pay more for your freedom. If there were fewer years, you paid less. And if you were still a slave at the jubilee–an Israelite slave that is, not a foreign slave–you would automatically be released.

Not So Fast
I’ve simplified things quite a bit, but this is the general outline for the jubilee provisions. Knowing that the year of jubilee provided for the release of slaves and the re-allocation of property, many Christians equate the year of jubilee with forced contemporary redistribution programs. Now, one might try to make a case for why forced redistribution today makes sense on a economic level or why government-sponsored redistribution is a prudent way to help the poor, but advocating such an approach based on Leviticus 25 runs into a lot of problems.

1. We are not an ancient, agrarian society. Most of us don’t deal with land and farming. None of us deals with slaves or indentured servants or walled cities. More to the point, land is not our chief source of capital. Some of the richest people in the country may live in a penthouse in Manhattan and own very little land, while a farmer in South Dakota might have thousands of acres and a very modest livelihood. So freeing slaves and returning land to its original owners just isn’t the world most of us live in.

2. Most importantly, our property was not assigned directly by God. This is the real bugaboo for trying to apply the year of jubilee directly. What is “year one” for landholders? Last year? 1776? 1492? The year of jubilee only makes complete sense when it is seen in the context of the Holy Land. Palestine was God’s gift to Israel. He wanted his people to have it. He wanted the original tribes and clans to keep their original inheritance. True, the year of jubilee was about helping the poor, but it was also about the perpetuity of the original land allotments. The whole thing only made sense because God had assigned specific properties to specific tribes (and not in equal amounts either). The ownership of the land had been defined by God himself. That’s why it could not truly be sold, but only leased.

3. Our economy is not based on a fixed piece of land. Consequently, the pie of wealth is not fixed either. In Israel (like almost all of the ancient world) if someone got rich, it was probably because someone else had gotten poorer. The rich got rich because the poor got poor. Or, at the very least, the poor getting poor enabled the rich to get richer. If you squandered your money or lost it, you would have no choice but to sell your land or yourself. Bad break for you, good break for someone else. Prosperity was for the most part a zero-sum game.

But in a modern economy, wealth can be created. This isn’t to say the rich never exploit the poor. That happens too. But in a capitalist economy, the rich can get richer while the poor also get richer. This is, in fact, what has happened in virtually every country over the last two centuries. Almost across the board, people live longer and have more, even if too many people are still not anywhere close to what people in the industrialized world enjoy.

4. Our nation is not under the Mosaic covenant. We aren’t promised miraculous harvests in the sixth year. The blessings and curses for the covenant people in Leviticus 26 don’t make sense in our context, and aren’t directly for America.

5. Most of us are not Jews. If you read the jubilee laws carefully you’ll notice that they distinguish sharply between Israelites and foreigners. The year of jubilee was good news for the Israelite, but didn’t do anything to help the non-Israelite. In fact, if a stranger lived among the Israelites and acquired land, he would lose it all at the jubilee and have no land in Israel to return to. If a foreigner was made a slave, he wasn’t released. But if he had a Hebrew slave, he had to release him and his family. So if we want make the year of jubilee our model for justice, how would we apply this distinction? Between legal citizens and non-legal residents? Between people from our country and people from outside our country? Between Christians and non-Christians?

I’m not saying the year of jubilee was unjust, only that it’s aim was something other than “social justice” in the way people often use the phrase today. The year of jubilee was about keeping the Israelites free and in the specific land allotments God gave them. Certainly, Jubilee was about the alleviation of poverty too and God’s care for his people. But if you weren’t part of God’s people, it didn’t do much to help you.

Now What?
I mention the five points above to caution us from applying the year of jubilee in a feel-good way that doesn’t do justice to the text. But none of this is to say that jubilee has no ramifications for how we look at wealth and poverty. There are several applications.

1. We should find ways to give opportunities for the poor to succeed. Of course, we should not be ruthless to the poor. We should not take advantage of the weak. But more than that, we should look for ways to give them fresh opportunities to succeed.

The great thing about these jubilee laws is that they didn’t just give a lump sum of cash to poor people (though that can be called for in some situations). Jubilee did something better. It gave the poor opportunities. It gave them access to capital (i.e., land). It granted them new freedoms. It was intelligent assistance. Not everyone should be given a hand out, but everyone needs the opportunities that make self-sufficiency possible. The year of jubilee didn’t do for people what they needed to do themselves. But what it did do was give the poor another opportunity, by God’s grace, to make something of themselves.

2. The Bible supports the existence of private property. The land in Israel was not owned by the state, but by individuals, families, clans, and tribes. In fact, the property rights were guaranteed in perpetuity by God himself. The permanence of the landholding served as an encouragement to cultivation, development, and initiative. This was their land and they had the right to earn a living by it. There are few factors more crucial to economic prosperity than the right of personal property and a strong rule of law to protect this right.

3. The Bible relativizes private property. The right to own property was not absolute, but derivative. The true owner of all land was God (v. 23). “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof.” Jubilee reminded the people they weren’t going to get the big prize in this life.

Big deal, the Israelites had to give back newly acquired land every fifty years. We have to give everything back every 70 or 80 years. Private property is not what we ought to be living for.

4. Our God is the God of second chances. A text like this might be used to support modern bankruptcy laws and prisoner rehabilitation. It would certainly support the existence of a social safety net–by the state some might argue, but certainly by the family and the covenant community. Jubilee saw to it that everyone got a chance at a fresh start once in their lifetime. We should work to provide the same chance for the poor and disadvantaged in our day.

In the New Testament, this theme gets transposed to a spiritual key, teaching us that we should be willing to forgive and release others from their spiritual debts against us.

5. Jesus is Jubilee. When Jesus read from the Isaiah scroll in Luke 4:16-21, his simple message was, in effect, “I am jubilee.” “I am good news for the poor because I can meet their needs,” Jesus was saying, “and good news for the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. I am good news for the captives in chains because I can them free, and good news for those in spiritual bondage because I can be their deliverer. I am good news for the physically blind because I can restore their sight, and good news for the spiritually blind because I will open their eyes to the glory of God. I am good news for the oppressed because I hear their cries for justice, and good news for the spiritually oppressed because I will conquer sin, self, and Satan.”

The Old Testament can teach us, by way of application, about poverty and justice. But we must not forget that the point is always Jesus (Luke 24:44).

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