Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Spirit of the Year of Jubilee

You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven years seven times, so that the days of the seven weeks of years amount to forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the ram's horn of acclamation; in the seven th month on the tenth day, on the Day of Atonement, you shall have a ram's horn sounded throughout the land, the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you, so that each of you may return to his landholding and each of you may return to his kin group. The fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee for you; you shall not sow [the field], and you shall not reap its self-sown grain, and you shall not pick its unpruned vines. Because it is a Jubilee, it shall be holy for you; from the field you may eat its produce. In this Year of Jubilee each of you shall return to his landholding.
Leviticus 25
God gave this law to Moses on Sinai. Because it is part of a complex of laws governing how the people of Israel were to live in the land Yahweh was to give them, it ought not to be understood, strictly speaking, outside of those laws. But we can take from it pointers for our own life's governance. And, we can understand this gift of Jubilee as a foregiving of a greater gift.

I think you could understand Jubilee as the culmination of all of the laws of living in the land that the Lord gave. This way of living, with honor and the fear of the Lord, supports the possibility of Jubilee; if the way of living in the fear of the Lord erodes, Jubilee crumbles.

We today live our lives as though there is no tomorrow. Yet see how the Lord instituted a year of rest for the land as well as, every fifty years, a year of rest for those who work the land. Or, work IN the land.

A point emphasized over and again is the prohibition against cheating one's neighbor. John Kleinig, in his commentary on this book, writes: "This, however, was a matter of morality, something that could not be enforced by any human court, an obligation that was motivated by the fear of God."

The land belongs to the Lord, and the landholders are stewards. This is pointed out by the concept of Jubilee itself, as well as the economy laid out by the Lord for the buying and selling of land: the price was gauged by the time since the last Jubilee. What was purchased was the right to use the land for a period of time. One became, as Kleinig points out, a "usufructuary". In the spirit of Leviticus, I hereby give you permission to whip that word out in polite company, but only over the next seven years, and only in some sort of reasonable context. No anacalouthons, people!

Ahem. Where was I?

The idea that the land belongs to God--it is "his royal estate" (Kleinig)--means that we who dwell and work in the land are his royal servants. The concept of Christian vocation plays very easily into this understanding. It reinforces that difficult concept that whatever falls into our hands is a matter of stewardship, the very opposite of covetousness.

Kleinig calls this chapter of Leviticus a "theology of the land". He points out that this was not new in history, but that occasionally kings would proclaim a "misarum", a kind of amnesty, involving the cancelling of debts; the freeing of slaves, etc. The sort of thing Pilate did in small form by the releasing of a prisoner--Barabbas--at the culmination of Holy Week each year. So, the law is indeed written on man's heart.


One of the great values of John Kleinig's commentary on the ancient--some would say irrelevant--book of Leviticus is his including in each chapter an essay pointing out how we find Christ in the book. He refers to Is. 61, wherein "the Suffering Servant of the Lord declares that he was sent by God to proclaim an extraordinary Jubilee." As opposed to your garden variety Jubilee, when the debts between people were forgiven, "in this year of Jubilee, God himself would free his people from their debt to him and avenge their enemies." Note that in Luke's gospel, Jesus himself referred to his own ministry in light of the Isaiah passage (Luke 4:17-19).

Kleinig ends his essay with the words to the hymn:

Oh, for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer's praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of his grace!

He breaks the pow'r of canceled sin;
He sets the pris'ner free.
His blood can make the foulest clean;
His blood avails for me.

Quotes taken from the Concordia Commentary on Leviticus, published by CPH

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