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The Jubilee Challenge

A Jubilee is both an opportunity and a challenge – an opportunity to discover more deeply the scriptural meaning of jubilee but also a challenge to commit ourselves to social justice and raising our voices on behalf of the poor.

The Hebrew word for jubilee roughly means ‘ram’ because a trumpet made from a ram’s horn was used to announce the beginning of the ‘jubilee year’ in Leviticus 25:8-11. The announcement of the ‘jubilee year’ with a trumpet blast became strongly connected with the end times. We see this developed in Isaiah 27:13, Daniel and Zechariah 9:9-17. The history of the jubilee in the Bible is also related to the idea of the Sabbath and the Sabbatical year.

The jubilee itself is first described in Leviticus 25: 8-17. Every 7th year was a sabbath for the land when it was to lie fallow and rest from agriculture. The 7th in a cycle of 7 sabbatical years was 49 years, and the year following was the 50th year. Land and property which had been sold was returned to its original owner or their descendants, debts were cancelled, and slaves and prisoners were freed. A ram’s horn was blown on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) to announce the start of the year of jubilee.

It was a year of restoration and freedom, and a year of celebration. It represents the most radical system of continuing social reform in the Old Testament, because it blocked land and wealth from becoming the focus of a wealthy elite at the expense of the ordinary people. Poverty and debt-slavery, which might keep a Jewish person under bondage for ever, had to be avoided at all costs.

The theology of jubilee is also focused on justice, trust and memory. Yahweh is the creator of the universe and he freed Israel from slavery in Egypt and gave them the land freely, as described in Genesis and Exodus. The Israelites should keep remembering this and continue to liberate their own enslaved people. As Yahweh is also the owner of the land rather than the people, it was not their right to privatise and commodify it at the expense of the poor. They were to trust God to provide for their immediate needs and for the future of their families. The rich were to treat creditors fairly and to expect that they would still yield an adequate return. The jubilee or sabbath years provided a socio-economic solution to keep the family together even when faced with economic disaster. As the family was the central social unit, this could make the difference between life and death for thousands of people.

Isaiah 61:1-2 speaks of the jubilee as a rallying cry to liberate the people:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn…

Another aspect of the jubilee laws for restitution and care for the vulnerable is highlighted in the Book of Ruth. Ruth and Naomi have fled their homeland through widowhood and poverty and so become migrant workers, when they’re allowed to glean at the edges of the field owned by the wealthy Boaz. Gleaning was an ancient law that supported the marginalised from the surplus of the wealthy, unlike today’s support of the poor, which is mainly voluntary and through optional charity.

The Day of Atonement is the most solemn day of the year, in which the whole nation seeks and receives collective forgiveness for all its sins. On this day every Israelite is to become a free citizen living on his own land at the beginning of the new Jubilee cycle. When left unchecked this process led to serious social division between rich landowners exploiting and abusing large numbers of homeless day-workers – mentioned specifically in Ruth, Amos, Micah and Isaiah.

Now in the New Testament, early on in his ministry Jesus identifies himself with the prophecy of Isaiah 61, when he reads the same text in the synagogue of Nazareth in Luke 4:16-30. It becomes a central theme in Luke’s Gospel as Jesus becomes the one through whom God fulfils the jubilee in his life, death and resurrection. Although there are only a few references to the jubilee year itself in the Pentateuch (Leviticus 25 and Numbers 36:4) its principles and laws played a major role both among the Israelites and in the emerging Christian church in the New Testament. In several parables Jesus clearly demonstrates how the Spirit, as well as the Law, of the Jubilee code should work when he challenges abusive behaviour between masters and slaves working on their land (Matthew 21:33-44; 25:14-30, Mark 12:1-11 and Luke 19:12-27; 20:9-18). Jesus also describes how moneylending and debt have to be fairly negotiated and managed in Matthew 18:23-31 and Luke 7:41-43 and 16:1-9.
The economic angle reveals the two principles that we can apply today. God desires just distribution of the earth’s resources, and the land was assigned fairly among the people. So the jubilee was not focused on redistribution but restoration and redemption.
The jubilee principle challenges three things relevant for us today:
a) mass accumulation of land and wealth at the expense of the community;
b) all forms of monopolies and nationalisation that destroy a more equitable exercise of personal or family ownership;
c) creation of barriers to opportunities and resources for families to provide for themselves.

Sadly, the jubilee mandate for social justice was often ignored even when Jesus challenged the authorities and he himself modelled servant leadership, most notably when he washed his disciples’ feet before he died. So Paul takes this further and shows that while obeying the Law – the “letter” was good and gave life – it had no power to save the sinner from judgement at death. It is the Spirit that gives eternal life through Christ, who fulfilled the Law rather than abolished it in Romans 8:1-4. And then James, in his Letter, summarises this with his community vision of the relationship between faith and works. They go hand in hand, and faith is dead without works. So the Christian community cannot ignore anyone in need if our faith is real and is to grow.

The 2025 jubilee, with the theme of ‘Pilgrims of Hope’, will be a year of hope and trust for a world suffering the impacts of war, the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased threats to the climate. It is a time of conversion and emphasis on God’s mercy and forgiveness of sins. It is a time for pilgrims to seek special graces. The Jubilee of Hope will end on the feast of the Epiphany in 2026.

With our jubilee year, there are six themes in Scripture that we can explore today:
• Care for creation,
• Food poverty,
• Modern slavery,
• Managing debt,
• Forgiveness,
• Rest and worship.

This new Jubilee Year reminds us that our policies and practices can be challenged and reversed. We can conserve the planet’s resources more carefully, so that the distribution of goods can travel further and benefit more people. Our climate conditions alone have shown us a bleak future if we do not act now.

We can change iniquitous policies around land grabs, international tax and tariff structures. A living wage isn’t just a wage we can live off, it should be a wage with which we can save. The rise in Food Banks and charities propping up our governments speaks loudly of our neglect of these jubilee principles in our own times.

The rise in global human trafficking is one of the worst evils of our times, and we must continue to challenge it here at home and abroad.

With our current cost of living crisis, we are a very long way from reducing the gulf between the poor and the wealthy today, yet there are solutions to managing individual and international debt when the will is there, and if we put pressure on governments and not keep silent.

Forgiveness and reconciliation all start with us. When we forgive we are forgiven, says the Our Father.

When we make time for the Sabbath and help others to rest where we can, we do not lose sight of God in the busyness and commercialised world we live in. Let us make this Jubilee a time to see and act with new eyes.

BY: Fleur Dorrell.
Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.
National Co-ordinator of the ‘God who Speaks’

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