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Our Missional God 13

posted by xscot mcknight

If the exodus is the primal act of redemption, the Jubilee of Leviticus 25 is the primal act of restoration. So Chris Wright in The Mission of God. One text that has played a big role in anabaptist thinking, and very little in most Western theology, is the Jubilee.
Why has this text been ignored? It shaped Isaiah 61 and Jesus in Luke 4:18-19, and seems behind Acts 2 and 4’s famous descriptions of the earliest Christians in Jerusalem. What we can we learn from it? Why not exploit this great economic theory for modern local church ministries? What could we do as a result?
See text below.
Socialists love it, but they often misuse it. Capitalists avoid it, but they too misuse it. Wright’s got some good stuff here.
The social angle of Jubilee is the kinship system of ancient Israel: the extended family. The economic angle of Jubilee is Israel’s system of land tenure: there was at the beginning an equitable distribution of land and Israelite families had an inalienable right to that land. But things didn’t always go well. The theological angle of Jubilee is that it was God’s land for God’s people.
The fundamental themes of Jubilee then are liberty — from debt and bondage to debt — and return — humans returned to their land and the family to the land. So, this is not about “re-distribution” of land but of a principle of restoring folks to the land they already own.
The purpose was to preserve the socioeconomic fabric of multiple-household land tenure that protected the small family. The law was shaped to protect the economic viability of families.
On the issue of whether or not Jubilees ever occurred: Wright thinks they did. Silence doesn’t prove much in the ancient world. The social world implicit in Jubilee was so disrupted by improper ownership etc that it was increasingly difficult to practice.
So what is the value of Jubilee for today?
1. Economic: there should be a broad equitable distribution of resources. It critiques not only excessive personal ownership but also excessive collectivism.
2. Social: the importance of the viability of the family.
3. Theological: Jubilee involves God’s sovereignty and providence, God’s redemption and atonement, and God’s justice and promise for the future.
The Jubilee gained life as a metaphor:
1. Isaiah 61
2. Jesus in Luke 4:18-19
3. The early church
I can’t summarize it all; the post is getting too long. Wright explores the centrality of the cross — which he sees (admirably) holistically and not just personally. And he questions the use of the “priority” of evangelism over social justice and prefers the “ultimacy” of evangelism within the holistic work of God. (This theme has been seen before.)
The Year of Jubilee
8 ? ?Count off seven sabbaths of years?seven times seven years?so that the seven sabbaths of years amount to a period of forty-nine years. 9 Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. 10 Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each one of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan. 11 The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. 12 For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.
13 ? ?In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to his own property.
14 ? ?If you sell land to one of your countrymen or buy any from him, do not take advantage of each other. 15 You are to buy from your countryman on the basis of the number of years since the Jubilee. And he is to sell to you on the basis of the number of years left for harvesting crops. 16 When the years are many, you are to increase the price, and when the years are few, you are to decrease the price, because what he is really selling you is the number of crops. 17 Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the Lord your God.
18 ? ?Follow my decrees and be careful to obey my laws, and you will live safely in the land. 19 Then the land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live there in safety. 20 You may ask, ?What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?? 21 I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years. 22 While you plant during the eighth year, you will eat from the old crop and will continue to eat from it until the harvest of the ninth year comes in.
23 ? ?The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. 24 Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.
25 ? ?If one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells some of his property, his nearest relative is to come and redeem what his countryman has sold. 26 If, however, a man has no one to redeem it for him but he himself prospers and acquires sufficient means to redeem it, 27 he is to determine the value for the years since he sold it and refund the balance to the man to whom he sold it; he can then go back to his own property. 28 But if he does not acquire the means to repay him, what he sold will remain in the possession of the buyer until the Year of Jubilee. It will be returned in the Jubilee, and he can then go back to his property.
29 ? ?If a man sells a house in a walled city, he retains the right of redemption a full year after its sale. During that time he may redeem it. 30 If it is not redeemed before a full year has passed, the house in the walled city shall belong permanently to the buyer and his descendants. It is not to be returned in the Jubilee. 31 But houses in villages without walls around them are to be considered as open country. They can be redeemed, and they are to be returned in the Jubilee.
32 ? ?The Levites always have the right to redeem their houses in the Levitical towns, which they possess. 33 So the property of the Levites is redeemable?that is, a house sold in any town they hold?and is to be returned in the Jubilee, because the houses in the towns of the Levites are their property among the Israelites. 34 But the pastureland belonging to their towns must not be sold; it is their permanent possession.
35 ? ?If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. 36 Do not take interest of any kind [fn1] from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you. 37 You must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit. 38 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.
39 ? ?If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. 40 He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you; he is to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. 41 Then he and his children are to be released, and he will go back to his own clan and to the property of his forefathers. 42 Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. 43 Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.
44 ? ?Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. 46 You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.
47 ? ?If an alien or a temporary resident among you becomes rich and one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells himself to the alien living among you or to a member of the alien?s clan, 48 he retains the right of redemption after he has sold himself. One of his relatives may redeem him: 49 An uncle or a cousin or any blood relative in his clan may redeem him. Or if he prospers, he may redeem himself. 50 He and his buyer are to count the time from the year he sold himself up to the Year of Jubilee. The price for his release is to be based on the rate paid to a hired man for that number of years. 51 If many years remain, he must pay for his redemption a larger share of the price paid for him. 52 If only a few years remain until the Year of Jubilee, he is to compute that and pay for his redemption accordingly. 53 He is to be treated as a man hired from year to year; you must see to it that his owner does not rule over him ruthlessly.
54 ? ?Even if he is not redeemed in any of these ways, he and his children are to be released in the Year of Jubilee, 55 for the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.



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ChrisB

posted August 29, 2008 at 8:15 am


The theological angle of Jubilee is that it was God?s land for God?s people.
Which, to me, makes it hard to generalize this for today. When we make it about “broad equitable distribution of resources” are we reading our philosphy into it? Theologically, I’m not sure we can say the Jubilee applies to people not under that covenant.



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Scot McKnight

posted August 29, 2008 at 8:18 am


ChrisB,
Wright knows this problem, but he offers a very good rationale for what God did there to be what God wants for society, and not just for the Land and Israelites. Doesn’t the connection with Jesus in Luke 4 and the early churches in Acts 2 reveal that it is more than Land of Israel legislation?



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ChrisB

posted August 29, 2008 at 9:19 am


“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord?s favor.”
Can’t say I see “broad equitable distribution of resources” there.
I think the Acts passage is more about radical generosity than “distribution.”



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m slater

posted August 29, 2008 at 9:35 am


I dont know Chris, the way that plays out with people selling land and donating the proceeds to the needs of the group seems to fit the Jubilee if indeed the early believers saw themselves as the faithful remnant of Israel in light of Messiah’s coming.
This Jubilee theme is not just an OT theme, or a idea tossed around a couple times in the NT, it actually comes up quite often. Claiborns ‘Jesus for President’ has a couple interesting chapters on Jubilee in the NT and makes a good case for seeing the theme in many parts of Jesus’ ministry and the early church.
Scot, Thanks for going through this book, it has really peaked my interest.



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Michael W. Kruse

posted August 29, 2008 at 10:02 am


I think one of the implicit issues here is stewardship. Genesis 1 has God giving humanity the mission of exercising dominion over the earth. In economic historical terms, the means of economic production have been land, labor, and capital. In the OT agrarian society, land and labor were the primary inputs. What the Jubilee does is ensure that no one is permanently separated from the role of steward.
I see this stewardship principle as more central than a ?broad equitable distribution of resources.” I don’t know of anywhere in the OT that this is identified as the motivation for any of God’s actions.
One could imagine an especially successful Jewish rancher producing great wealth through developing a large inventory of livestock or higher quality of livestock. That would lead to inequity. Personal property and property within the city were not subject to the Jubilee. Had Israel continued Jubilee as it morphed into a more merchant based economy, successful merchants would have seen no impact on their wealth.
I’m suspicious that finding equity (as opposed to stewardship) as the theme here is reflective of 20th Century Christian socialism (ala Niebhur, Barth, etc.) and liberation theology being read back on to the passage.



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Scot McKnight

posted August 29, 2008 at 10:10 am


Michael,
The land was distributed at the outset of taking over the Land. That is the distribution of which he speaks. Using the word “stewardship” though is a good one — as “tenants”?
Why then the restoration to the property after 50 years? There’s more than stewardship there; there’s a sense of original ownership that keeps in check monopolization. No?



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Michael W. Kruse

posted August 29, 2008 at 12:41 pm


Scot
“as ?tenants??
Exactly. All the land and labor belongs to God. The people were stewards of the land both in the corporate sense and the individual sense.
“Why then the restoration to the property after 50 years?”
Ron Sider says that he believes in capitalism. He believes in it so much that he believes everyone should own some. :) Amen
Land and labor are productive assets. If you were deprived of these, then you were deprived of participating with God as a steward. But due to varying degrees of productive stewardship, it is conceivable that some people, over time, would amass fortunes (i.e. bigger and more opulent dwellings, larger herds, city estates, precious metals, etc.)
What I’m leaning against (and this may seem like hair splitting) is the idea that every fifty years all the wealth of the nation was placed in a pot so it could be redistributed. All to often the passage is used this way. Instead, I think it was about ensuring that even careless stewards and their progeny would not be perpetually blocked from being restored as stewards.
I agree that Jubilee placed a check on monopolization but ensuring that everyone has a minimal level of capital is not the same as everyone having an equal amount of wealth.
I’m not disagreeing that there was a broad equitable distribution of agricultural land but because of how I here the Jubilee used so often the phrase “?broad equitable distribution of resources” give me pause.



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Scot McKnight

posted August 29, 2008 at 12:50 pm


Michael, I agree. It was not perpetual redistribution but perpetual promise that each would have a place.



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T

posted August 29, 2008 at 1:38 pm


Michael,
So what would you see as a modern equivelent to land that’s achievable? I lean towards education through universal scholarships through highschool (and less for later schooling) and some version of the bankruptcy code and related programs. Other possibilities?
ChrisB, is it possible to have radical generosity without also having distribution (if distribution means actual sharing)?



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Michael W. Kruse

posted August 29, 2008 at 4:07 pm


T #9
In developed nations, I think land has been receding in importance for a long time. I suspect we are seeing the decline in (not disappearance of) the importance of capital. Human capital is rising in importance. By human capital I’m referring to cognitive skills, physical health, spiritual health, social networks and personal skills to persevere through adversity, knowledge of how the societal “game” works, as well as marketable skills.
I think the education piece is important but I think we have to begin even earlier. Children growing up in middle and upper class homes, by the time they are five years old have on average heard words of praise about five times more often than words of criticism. Children growing up in poverty have almost exactly the opposite experience. By the time a child reaches about 13, they have developed a sense of God that becomes very hard to change thereafter.
Yet most pastors and congregational leaders view ministry to children as ancillary to the real ministry of preaching to the parents. Rather than fulfilling our baptismal vows to help parents raise their children in the nurture of the Lord (which we Presbyterians declare at infant baptism) and provide age appropriate discipleship, we entertain and distract children so we can do the real ministry of reaching their parents.
I think scholarships and such can help by moving kids who have already developed some good human capital into a little better place than they might have achieve on their (like a college education.) But money alone can’t undo significant lacks of human capital development.
I think the mounting challenge is going to be the ?redistribution? of human capital. More accurately how do we lessen the number of people who mature without sufficient human capital. While government may have been a tool for redistributing wealth in recent decades, that isn?t going to get at the human capital problem going into the future. The primary institutions are going to have to be the families supported by other institutions. The church is uniquely positioned to be able to give leadership in this task.



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Brandon Rhodes

posted August 29, 2008 at 5:17 pm


#7, others — On the nuances of equity and redistribution every 50 years:
Perhaps we can talk about a redistribution not of the fruit of creation, but of the fruitfulness (land) of creation. Most economic redistribution and/or restoration agendas talk about the fruits of creation. The Jubilee was concerned with restoring the enduring (hopefully sustainable) source of those fruits, the land itself. It’s an important distinction that has huge impacts on how we understand economics, land use, environmental protection, and ownership in general.
To use another metaphor, John Perkins and Shane Claiborne talk about how, “Yeah we can teach a man to fish, but what good is it if he don’t got access to the pond? We gotta ask who owns the pond, and who built a fence around it, and who the hell is polluting it?” The Jubilee, to me, captures this logic quite splendidly: it pulls down the fence around the pond of creation’s fruitfulness, and lets the fishers fish once more.



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Tony Stiff

posted August 29, 2008 at 5:51 pm


“If the exodus is the primal act of redemption, the Jubilee of Leviticus 25 is the primal act of restoration.”
I really like that use of the Old Testament narrative. Something that is lost in more systematical theological approaches. There are catalytic metaphors and dramatic climaxes in the narrative of the Old Testament that remain very potent for the shaping of our imaginations of God’s kingdom works.
I wish someone early in my life would have told me there were things like Exodus, Jubilee, and Exile that were as important as Creation, Fall, and Promise. Chris Wright continues to deliever. Thanks for the post summary Scot.



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RJS

posted August 29, 2008 at 6:07 pm


This book is going to have to go on the to be read list.
Good stuff.



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T

posted August 29, 2008 at 7:36 pm


Michael,
I like your thoughts, which, of course, raise additional questions! Government obviously cannot do very much with how positively or negatively someone parents (nor could the Israelites, I imagine, and even the church is limited here, though I agree we miss many opportunities). But obviously the Jubilee and the slave/”if one of your countrymen becomes poor” commands seem to be laws that are geared to lessen the depths of poverty to which a society will allow a given member to sink (and thereby prevent some of the bitterness that can infect everyone in the family, if any, which you allude to in your statistics.) And there are other “safety-net” laws in Israel’s code toward that end. So, first, do you see this “safety-net” goal at work in Israel’s laws as well, and, if so, isn’t that something that a modern government can pursue as well for similar reasons to the benefit of parents and children? If so, any particular “hows” you prefer?



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Michael W. Kruse

posted August 29, 2008 at 9:54 pm


T #14
??do you see this ?safety-net? goal at work in Israel?s laws as well ??
Unquestionably. There were scheduled offerings that were to provide for the poor. There were the laws about leaving the edge of the fields for the poor to glean. There is an unmistakable communal aspect to providing for the poor. But I would emphasize that a key implication of the Jubilee and other codes was not a perpetual subsidization of people in generational poverty. It was restoration of the poor to a stewardship status.
The overwhelming majority of people at the bottom of the economic ladder have clothes to wear, roofs over their head, and food on the table. Those that are doing without are largely those with mental problems or addictions. Most of the poor have cell phones, entertainment devices, and other amenities that were uncommon to the middle class a couple of generations ago.
I?m not suggesting that it is 100% perfect or optimal by any stretch but basic material want has ceased to be the core issue relating to inequality. The problem evidencing itself now is that people lack the human capital to leverage the material resources they have at their disposal.
The health care problem with the poor is not primarily about health insurance. A great many of the uninsured poor are eligible for government insurance but won?t sign up for it. Many who have it won?t use it because of inaccessible facilities and intimidation from having to deal with yet another group of professionals they don?t understand.
If you?ve worked with Habitat for Humanity, you know that people are not just given a house. They go through an educational program about home maintenance and are placed in community with others from whom they can learn.
I know of some folks who work with disadvantaged youth who each year bring in actual corporate job recruiters from local corporations to do mock interviewers with the kids. The interviewers then coach them on their presentation skills.
These kinds of things are all things middle class folks pick up in the course of maturing that we all take for granted.
In terms of material assistance, I think Earned Income Tax Credit is a very good tool. I like urban enterprise zones that encourage businesses to locate in depressed areas and take chances on low-skilled workers. Subsidized health care for the poor is something I support.
I?m not making an either/or argument for improving human capital versus material assistance. My main point is that simply redistributing money is becoming less and less effective as a means for actually reducing poverty and restoring people to self-sufficient lives. Our aim as Christians is not simply for people to have enough resources to consume. It is for them to become productive stewards of resources that God entrusts to them. Material assistance is always going to be a piece of the solution but investment in developing human capital is fast becoming the central deficiency.
I don?t have any silver bullet solution or three step program. One hundred years ago we were looking at material deprivation without a being able to see a clear path toward a solution. We do like we did then and start seeing what works.
I do think public policy that reverses the trend toward marriage as a private contract between any two (or more?) consenting adults for their personal satisfaction would be important to pursue (but that will open up another can of worms in this discussion.) :) Decline of two parent homes for raising biological children is a significant inhibitor of human capital formation.
What do you see as the issues/solutions?



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T

posted August 30, 2008 at 7:38 am


I think we’re on the same page pretty much across the board, including the OT and its “both/and” of safety net & restoration goals. And I agree that the US has done better on the safety net side than the restoration side. Good luck on that public policy re: marriage!
I don’t have any particular certainty either about what will be the most helpful toward greater economic restoration in our current situation, but I tend, on the government side of things, to think that lower-level education is the weakest link. I also tend to think that running public education in a socialist way is the ball and chain. Since education is basically the “human capital” business outside of parenting, we’d be much better off, I think, to release multiple upon multiple innovators into this effort by moving states from school owners and administrators to providers of higher-than-market universal scholarships. We’d get a lot more innovation, more dollars going to education rather than overhead, etc. But like you say, there’s no silver bullet, just improvements (though some could be big improvements!).



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Warren Hicks

posted September 1, 2008 at 2:50 pm


I have to concur with Michael Cruse contention that Stewardship..real holistic stewardship..is at the heart of Jubilee.
The thirst for justice is, it seems to me, one of the core expressions of God’s heart for the whole of creation. When we, by whatever means, seek God’s heart in whatever fashion, we continue to be participants in the ongoing creation.
To me it seems that the goal of Jubilee, enough for all and gratitude for enough, is how we continue to proclaim the Kingdom of God as being at hand. It would seem to me that gratitude and the active seeking that justice be ‘real’ is attending faithfully to God’s Mission in the world, particularly through Jesus’ ministry and his ongoing life in the world through the church as His Body.
Sounds like Chris Wright’s book needs to find itself into my already ginormous reading stack!!!



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Fred Harrell

posted September 1, 2008 at 11:15 pm


#10 – Michael… I think you are right on the money. Those abilities to see how the world “works” and the character to go along with it are huge, and the church’s great opportunity. I will show this post to my children’s ministry director tomorrow.



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