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A Jubilee From Good Intentions

I must admit that growing up in the evangelical Christian world I, like many, assumed that free market capitalism was at least somewhat incongruent with the worldview of a faithful believer. I assumed, mostly out of a combination of ignorance and well-orchestrated indoctrination, that “capitalism = greed” and “big-government liberalism = compassion.”

The political and cultural left seemed to talk much more (and much louder) about helping the poor, meanwhile castigating the right for being callous and indifferent (and in some cases, unbiblical) for its support of free enterprise. Fragmented excerpts of verses—such as “turn the other cheek” and “it is harder for a rich man to enter heaven…”—were tossed out as seemingly impenetrable attacks on the market economy. These appeared to be unscalable walls that guarded the kindhearted, good-intentioned collectivism of liberals and progressives.

And even as I grew in my understanding of both economics and theology, even as I began to discover that the Christian left was making incorrect economic claims based largely upon poor biblical exegesis, one of the most difficult-to-answer challenges I constantly ran up against was the Old Testament concept of “jubilee.”

The idea of a “year of jubilee” is found in Leviticus, and this section of scripture, in short, pertains to God’s command that every seven years indentured servants be released from their duties and every 50 years land that had been sold be returned to the family of the original owner. We’re talking property rights, land deals, paying off debt, and the economic system of an agrarian culture here.

The leftist thinking on this matter seems to go something like this: God had the jubilee system in place because he didn’t want the Israelites amassing too much wealth and power. Capitalism leads to the amassing of wealth and power. Therefore, capitalism is the problem in our society, and we will support whatever is the opposite of that.

Not surprisingly, I have a few thoughts on what I’ve come to learn and understand about this important passage of Old Testament scripture, and its relation to modern organization of societies and economies. I recommend you read all 55 verses of Leviticus 25, but I am going to focus on the final 20 in this chapter.

35“If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you. 36 Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. 37 You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit. 38 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God.

One of the first keys to properly understanding the concept of “jubilee” is the recognition that the context in which it is decreed was among the chosen people of Yahweh, living in the consecrated “promise land.” It was for a specific people at a specific time. That doesn’t take away from its importance, and it doesn’t mean contemporary Christians cannot glean important insights and wisdom from the account of the practice of jubilee. All that it means is that this legal/cultural/economic command was not meant for all peoples at all times. To suggest otherwise is, at best, disingenuous.

In these specific verses, God is instructing the people to be mindful of, and helpful to, those who fall on tough economic times. The Hebrew people took great pride in the way they treated visitors and travelers from distant lands, and so Yahweh is essentially saying, “Don’t treat your own kinsmen any different than you would a sojourner who you’ve never even met.” I know from my own life that sometimes it can be easier to be generous with those we don’t know–the emotional “reward” can seem to be greater. God wants Israel to know that they ought to start by loving and looking after those closest to them. In Catholicism, this concept is known as subsidiarity.

39 “If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: 40he shall be with you as a hired servant and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. 41 Then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own clan and return to the possession of his fathers. 42For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. 43 You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God.

Three consistent themes throughout this section dealing with jubilee are: personal relationships, accountability, and mercy. At no point are those involved told to hand control of the situation over to a government bureaucrat or municipality. At no point are those who owe something told that they do not have to work or sacrifice in order to be restored. And when someone is released from their debt, it is a spiritual, public act meant to symbolize the mercy and grace of our God and King.

47“If a stranger or sojourner with you becomes rich, and your brother beside him becomes poor and sells himself to the stranger or sojourner with you or to a member of the stranger’s clan, 48then after he is sold he may be redeemed. One of his brothers may redeem him, 49or his uncle or his cousin may redeem him, or a close relative from his clan may redeem him. Or if he grows rich he may redeem himself.

Again, the focus with the jubilee is always on the personal, primarily inter-familial, relationships between the parties involved. This is family member helping family member. This is neighbor helping neighbor. The people involved know each other. It is a community that does not need politicians to be organized. It is a community that both holds one another accountable, but also exercises mercy and compassion.

The onus is on the one in debt to perform their expected duties and make sure restitution is paid. If they don’t have the money, they can indenture themselves or get financial help from a family member. The one who is owed is supposed to treat their debtor fairly. Dignity is t he key word. It is supposed to be an uplifting, character-building exchange.

Jubilee is entirely compatible with God’s mandate in Genesis (and throughout the entire Bible) that man is to work. It is grounded in the idea that families and local communities (i.e. the local church) look after their own, hold their own accountable, but also show kindness and mercy as God has shown all His children kindness and mercy. But like I said at the start today, this jubilee business is a favorite weapon of those who oppose free market enterprise. It is important to grapple with this yourself and do more investigation on your own time.

To close I will simply ask you this: What is it about the concepts relating to jubilee I’ve touched upon that sounds anything vaguely familiar to the current entitlement-happy, welfare state promoted by liberal, progressives, almost all Democrats, and the Jim Wallis “social justice” crowd? How does arbitrarily throwing money at proven-to-be-disastrous ideas (in an entirely impersonal manner, no less) prove how much more compassionate the left is?

What is it about the Old Testament jubilee model that leads modern “post-evangelicals” to champion the generational poverty and dependency that is unavoidably created when a government pays able-bodied, created-in-God’s-image souls not to work?

This doesn’t prove I’m right, but it’s fairly conclusive evidence that their hearts have outpaced their heads.