The following is an adapted manuscript of from my September 3, 2016 sermon at the Walla Walla University Church.
This past summer at the Walla Walla University Church, we have been exploring the book of Leviticus, asking the question, “what might we have to learn about living as a community through this ancient and sometimes seemingly irrelevant book?” This week is our final in the series. We turn our gaze to Jubilee.
I want to begin this morning with a 30,000ft. overview just so we’re all on the same page together. Many of us will be familiar with the word itself, we use it in English to refer to freedom. But as many of us might guess, Jubilee is originally from the Hebrew language. Literally, it comes from the Hebrew term for ‘ram’, “yobel”. This connection derives from the blowing of a ram’s horn, the shofar, at the very beginning of each jubilee year.
Leviticus 25 outlines in some detail how posts-exodus Israelite people were to “give your very land a Sabbath” every seven years. But then, at the end of the seventh cycle of these seven year Sabbaths, a larger scale celebration was to occur on the 50th year beginning on the day of atonement, Jubilee. Verse 10 reads, “Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.” According to the Levitical record, any land that had been sold would be returned to the original family or tribe of origin. According to the Biblical account, when God rescued the children of Israel from Egypt, each family and tribe was given land in Canaan as inheritance. Numerous times through Leviticus 25, we read God reiterating that “the land is mine” and that it should be Israel’s inheritance for generations – not passing hands and helping a few accumulate wealth – but remain as a sign of His salvation. In addition, any (Israelite in this case) person who had sold him or herself into indentured servitude or slavery would also be freed on the blowing of the jubilee trumpet.
Again, we read more than once in Leviticus 25 the reasons for this arrangement: “you are mine,” God is saying, “and you will never be anyone’s slaves again. Everything you have is really mind and I decide who receives and benefits from it. I don’t want you taking advantage of one another for your own benefit. Live as a community.”
The whole idea with the year of jubilee was to ensure that the Exodus inheritance would last through generations. Instead of hard times threatening to wipe out what God had given, his goal was to set a system where it was more likely to weather the ups and downs of an agrarian way of life. Furthermore, the year of jubilee was also to soften the consequences of individuals mistakes, failures, or bad luck. If one patriarch/matriarch is lazy or foolish, the year of jubilee purports, he or she ought to experience consequences, but those consequences should not be generational or eternal. One’s great-grandchildren ought not be required to pay for a bad job of planting. Finally, Jubilee is about looking out for one another in community, rather than seeing our fellow countrymen as pathways to riches. Multiple times in Leviticus 25, we read God instructing the people not to take advantage of each other. Someone else’s misfortune or stupidity should not be seen an opportunity for me to make myself wealthy.
So when God writes the year of jubilee into the legal code of Leviticus for the people of Israel, he’s indicating that the practice of tangible grace should be a part of the DNA of their culture. He’s indicating that mercy ought to be woven into the structure of society. That unmerited favor should be the rule for interpersonal interactions rather than the exception.
And it is in this sense that jubilee isn’t a strictly Levitical or Old Testament concept at all. Instead, it is part and parcel with the grand themes of the scriptures as a whole. When we read stories about how the guilty are given second chances (Matthew, Zaccheus, Israel, etc.) we are reading about jubilee. When we read stories about outsiders who are welcomed into community (Ruth, Saul, etc.) we are reading stories of jubilee. When we read about those who might otherwise be considered unworthy (King David, Jonah, etc.) becoming heirs, we are reading about jubilee. When the shamed and unclean become God’s representatives (Rahab, Hosea, Mary, etc.) we are witnessing jubilee in action.
When Jesus announces that “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”, he is announcing the dawning of the permanent jubilee. When he rises from the dead, he is inaugurating it. Indeed, in the Desire of Ages Ellen White writes, “In every jubilee trumpet, Jesus’ name was sounded.” Jubilee is a metaphor for the story of the gospel. It points to the restorative work of Jesus in our world.
And so my sermon today is about jubilee; but not an isolated and irrelevant economic policy from the third book of the Bible, but rather as a foundational ethic that informs all of life for those who follow Jesus.
Jubilee is what grace looks like in flesh and blood.
But here’s the thing, and this is really the heart of what I want to get at this morning, Jubilee isn’t free. It costs something to create. Without some sort of expenditure, it has zero chance of getting off the ground. If we imagine that we can effortlessly drift into jubilee, we truly are in fairy-dust land.
Over the past few months, my wife and I have been implementing Dave Ramsay’s financial planning strategies in an effort to create for ourselves a little more secure financial footing. If you haven’t heard of him, Dave Ramsay is an evangelical financial adviser who has built a company around helping folks get out of debt, better invest what they have, and to build wealth with an aim to be more generous in the world. While I don’t agree with him on every subject or philosophical impulse, I think his work in general is beautiful life-giving.
In addition to having published several books on his system, Ramsay also hosts a daily syndicated radio program that has a pretty large following. Although he’s evangelical, the show is aired on all sorts of stations because his tone rather than evangelistic, is practical (and truly solid in its advice). One feature of the show is what he calls “the debt free scream.” If you’re familiar with the program you’ve no doubt heard listeners call in and describe how they had been $50,000, $60,000, $100,000 in debt but after several years of intense frugality, careful spending, and simplicity, it is all paid off.
Each and every time, it’s a beautiful moment to behold. Folks who had been weighed down by their past decisions, indiscretions, or even good intentions tainted by bad luck, celebrate the tangible sense of freedom they not have. Sometimes, Ramsay even plays an audio clip from Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” in the background as his call-in guests scream, “WE’RE DEBT FREE!!!”
Now – please don’t get me wrong. This is a beautiful thing. Dave Ramsay’s work is life giving, and an embodiment of responsible stewardship. Paying off debt is good. Financial freedom is good. Generosity is good. Full stop.
In American culture however, it is easy to get confused on what the debt free scream represents. American culture is very much a meritocracy: we earn what we have. To say it another way, everything we have, we believe we have earned. The wisdom goes: those who don’t have or don’t experience the good life, are in those positions because of their own choices. They don’t have because they haven’t earned. Each person must and ultimately will take responsibility for his or her own choices and life circumstances. This is utterly unavoidable. The best of the best are where they are at because they deserve it; they worked to get there.
Of course there is a kernel of truth to meritocracy. Personal responsibility is essential to healthy living and culture. And yet this thinking happily overlooks other factors that influence a person’s situation: geography, economy, luck, grace, serendipity, family of origin, etc. Through the lens of the meritocracy culture, it’s easy to feel the freedom and joy in Ramsey’s call-in debt free screamers, and then to go on to declare that experience “Jubilee”.
Again, while the deb-free scream is undoubtable beautiful, important, life-changing, and good, it is most certainly NOT jubilee.
The debt free scream says, “I was in debt. I made poor decisions. I dug myself into a hole. And I dug myself out!”
This is not jubilee.
By contrast, over the summer, comedian John Oliver made headlines by buying up some $15m of medical debt from collection agencies. He subsequently forgave all those who owed him money, writing off the balances in full. While some criticized the act as a publicity stunt or not all that seemed to be, it without-a-doubt was generous (and likely was done satirically to illustrate a problem with the American medical system). Regardless, the act in contrast to Dave Ramsey’s “debt free scream” embodies jubilee quite closely.
In the case of John Oliver’s debt forgiveness, the narrative went, “I was in debt. I had bad luck. I made poor decisions that contributed to poor health. I dug myself into a financial hole. But someone else came along and paid my debt for me.”
In Jubilee, the expense is always paid by someone other than the debtor, than the one in trouble, than the outsider, or the one down on his/her luck.
Four thousand years ago when the Israelites inhabited Canaan and the shofar was blown at the beginning of the year of jubilee, someone was on the financial hook for that land that was returned. Someone had to pay for the slaves that were freed. And it certainly wasn’t the debtors or poverty stricken.
When wrongs are forgiven, justice is not ultimately served. Instead, the wronged chooses to bear the cost of the evil – to release the debt owed to him/her. When a person willfully surrenders rights owed by law in order to give grace, it’s that person who pays the cost. In jubilee, the one who made bad decisions or was addicted or didn’t plan ahead is never the one who has to pay.
Here’s the reality. To live in a society or culture where jubilee is the way of the land, it costs something. It costs something to those of means, to those in power, to those who have their act together.
-When Orlando hospitals refuse to bill LGBT+ people killed and hurt in the night club attack, they are creating jubilee. And it costs real money to the bottom line.
-When a lawyer takes on pro-bono work, such as those serving through “the Innocence Project” or even as public defenders, representing someone wrongfully convicted, injured, or taken advantage of, when a lawyer does this he creates jubilee. And it costs him time, stress, money, energy.
-When a nurse or physician refrains from “giving a piece of her mind” to the patient that’s demeaning, insulting, and unappreciative, she’s creating jubilee. And it costs her: ego, her rights, a sense of justice, and energy.
-When a Teacher dedicates himself to eliminating bias in assessment, covering names for exams, offering fresh start to his students daily, refusing to hold students’ pasts against them, he creates jubilee. And it costs him: time, consciousness, hobbies, other income streams.
-When a business owner offers services “at cost” for people in need, reduces the bills of those who are unable to pay, or raises wages of her employees, she creates very tangible jubilee in the world. And without a doubt, it costs her real money, real wealth, a bigger house, a bigger ego, a bigger company.
-When a parent volunteers in the classroom of a school she’s already paying tuition or taxes for, cooks dinner at the shelter down the street, shows up to help with kids’ programming and clubs, she is creating jubilee. And it costs her a sense of entitlement, potentially other hobbies, a clean house, better dinners, free time for “self care.”
-When one spouse forgives the other, seeks to understand even at the cost of suffering pain, he or she creates jubilee. And it something great: this is never free, it’s always risky.
And so when we talk about, in this sermon series, following the spirit of Leviticus as we create community with one another; as we talk about creating cultures where jubilee is lived out in vibrant colors, we must acknowledge fully: it isn’t free. As individuals, we must pay for it in blood, sweat, tears, and checks.
This past summer, I’ve been reading a book on a short period of history for the Washington State penitentiary in Walla Walla. It is entitled “Unusual Punishment”. Written by Christopher Murray, the book was published just in March of 2016 and explores the tumultuous 1970s-80s in the facility.
To give a oversimplified summary, the book outlines how, in the late 60s and early 70s, the prison went through a change of leadership, philosophy, and organization. Due to many different forces in action at the time, the prison moved from a top-down, authoritarian, warden-driven system to a new one that sought to give inmates a greater sense of governance and control over their lives.
The wheels came off the wagon relatively quickly. And by all accounts I’ve been privy to (which include conversations with Christian volunteers who served in church services during those years), prison culture devolved into not a lot more than chaos.
Because of the changes, guards and staff were unsure of what the new boundaries were for inmate behavior. Soon, they threw up their hands; many quit altogether. Corruption was rampant. Many inmates and staff were injured or attacked. Murders ensued, weapons were everywhere, and drugs were commonplace. At least one bombing took place during the tumultuous 1970s in addition to fights, hostage situations, and all other sorts of mayhem. Believe it or not, there was actually a motorcycle shop within the walls of the prison and inmates were actually allowed to ride their ‘choppers’ through the yard. Perhaps even more astoundingly is the fact that there were several parts of the prison completely off limits to staff, places in which only inmates had keys.
In short, Christopher Murray paints a picture of that period in the prison’s history that indicates life was kind of a ‘free for all’ within the walls. Inmates were given great freedom and things more or less ran amok.
Now – before I move on from this, I should say that one of my favorite things as a pastor in the Walla Walla valley, is to participate in worship services out at the penitentiary. In my experience, the culture there does not resemble in any way what is described in the book “Unusual Punishment”. Over the decades since, many individuals have worked tirelessly to create a different culture out there and life is far more organized, calm, respectful, and, I think, safe.
But here’s the point. For some of us, when a pastor gets up front and starts talking about how we need to create a culture of jubilee – here and now – we start getting nervous. For some of us, when someone suggests that jubilee is actually a good way of organizing culture or even economics, we start squirming. In fact, for some of us, the picture that comes to mind when we think of establishing jubilee on a societal or political level is really the picture of the Walla Walla prison in the 1970s.
For some of us, jubilee sounds like a free for all where the rules are thrown out the window and the patients get the keys to the asylum. Where the irresponsible take advantage of the responsible; where laziness pays off in spades at the expense of the diligent. Some of us here this morning might be thinking, “I’ll tell you about what Jubilee costs…it costs law and order for one thing!”
To be honest with you, I identify with that reaction. It’s understandable. No one wants to feel as though what they have earned is being taken away. No one wants to empower bad behavior or gaming the system. Furthermore, I think the objection is understandable especially for those who have a lot to lose…for those who are in power at the moment. It’s a scary proposal on the surface.
But let me tell you something. A “Free for all” isn’t at all the vision we see of jubilee in Leviticus. Rather than chaotic system of injustice, jubilee is instead an ethic woven into the very fabric of culture. Jubilee wasn’t a surprise wildcard that was thrown down every 50 years to mix things up. It was to be a part of life. Something everyone counted on. Something that was to shape the values and assumptions of economics and culture.
For example, if you read Leviticus 25 carefully, you’ll read a rather extensive description of how things like land prices were to be determined based on the assumption that Jubilee was always coming. If land had to be sold due to hardship, pricing would reflect the jubilee cycle. Land 40 years from jubilee would be more valuable than land 2 years from jubilee. No buyer would be surprised. Instead, a buyer would be essentially renting the produce of the land for a given price for a given number of years. The structure of society held his ability to amass wealth in check. Likewise, the effective wages of workers were also set by the jubilee cycle. In very similar terms, the value of an indentured servant was determined by how far away the year of jubilee was at the time. The entire economy was built around the value of Jubilee as a way of life.
And without a doubt, yet again, jubilee has a cost. In this sense, living by jubilee as a cultural norm means that there’s a collective price we all agree to pay, together. If we choose to live by jubilee as a way of life: we collectively say: “We choose to limit our amassment of wealth, our pursuit of riches, even our access to every legal/moral right, so that basic levels of dignity and safety are preserved for ALL people, regardless of their choices. We would rather have safety for all than a meritocracy for some.”
The Adventist pioneer and visionary Ellen White writes well about jubilee in a paragraph in her book Education (p44):
“Were the principles of God’s laws regarding the distribution of property carried out in the world today, how different would be the condition of the people! An observance of these principles would prevent the terrible evils that in all ages have resulted from the oppression of the poor by the rich and the hatred of the rich by the poor.
While it might hinder the amassing of great wealth, it would tend to prevent the ignorance and degradation of tens of thousands whose ill-paid servitude is required for the building up of these colossal fortunes. It would aid in bringing a peaceful solution of problems that now threaten to fill the world with anarchy and bloodshed.
Choosing to announce jubilee for some of us might have implications for how we vote. When that school bond for someone else’s kids, in someone else’s school comes around, what does it look like for us to collectively lean into Jubilee? When laws are proposed that limit and marginalize people of other faith traditions, what does it look like to advocate for jubilee? When policies are put into place by churches or other organizations that subjugate women, demean the poor, abuse or judge the young, shame those deemed weird or strange, what does it look like to announce Jubilee as a body? How will we make our voice heard?
And the money question really is: when those moments come – will we be willing to pay the cost to make jubilee a reality?
Now, one more bit before we close. Without a doubt, jubilee costs something, it’s never free. But the truth is that living outside jubilee also costs something. It’s not a zero sum game. To imagine that the culture of meritocracy or “every man for himself” is free is to live in a world of delusion. In contrast, non-jubilee costs us our dignity, often our morality, very often our Christian witness, and without a doubt our joy.
Dallas Willard, speaking more broadly of Christian discipleship at large (which certainly encompasses the spirit and practice of Jubilee) writes about the cost of “Non-Discipleship” as he reflected on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous work “the cost of discipleship”:
“Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring (John 10:10). The cross-shaped yoke of Christ is after all an instrument of liberation and power to those who live in it with him and learn the meekness and lowliness of heart that brings rest to the soul. . . . The correct perspective is to see following Christ not only as the necessity it is, but as the fulfillment of the highest human possibilities and as life on the highest plane.”
-Dallas Willard in The Great Omission
With jubilee, the question is not about whether or not we want to pay the cost to make it happen. It’s which cost will we choose to pay? The one for jubilee? Or the one for meritocracy? Because it is without question that we will pay one or the other.
I’ll close with this.
The other night I was home taking care of my boys. My wife was still finishing her shift up at the hospital and on those evenings, it’s my job to get the offspring fed, cleaned, read-to, prayed-over, and in bed. Some nights go better than others.
On the particular night I’m thinking of, I was stressed. All kinds of things at work were left undone when I got home. The house was a mess. The kids were acting crazy: screaming, throwing food on the floor, refusing to eat, asking a million questions, being loud (read: behaving like absolutely normal 2 and 5 year olds!).
All of a sudden, after several warnings and amping up emotions, I lost it and screamed at them both in full man volume.
They then got quiet.
I could see fear in their eyes. I felt ashamed.
We finished dinner in silence and they went off to play. I cleaned the kitchen up and loaded the dishwasher. The house was tense.
A couple hours later, I found myself in the living room in our large leather recliner. Sitting. Thinking. Trying to decompress.
Then it happened.
Both boys came to me, one at a time, independently. Each carried with them a book and a stuffed animal. They climbed up on my lap. Rested their heads on my chest. They wanted to be with me. Even still. They wanted me to read with them and snuggle and be present.
Sooner or later, we will all find ourselves on our knees. In need of grace. In need of jubilee.
If you’ve never received the gift, you probably resist jubilee too. But when you know the feeling of being set free. Of being in debt – and having that paid off completely. IT IS INFECTIOUS.
Jubilee has to start somewhere.
May you be one who is willing to pay the cost.
I closed this Sabbath sermon with a prayer written by Walter Brueggeman from his book “Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth”, entitled “We are all in Hock”. I have shared it here as well:
Christ is risen!
You have come into a world of debt where we are all in hock.
We pray daily that You forgive our debts.
We boldly qualify our prayer by the condition of how we treat our neighbors.
So we pray for the cancellation of our debts
and the debts of the poor, of the weak,of the imprisoned,of the abused.
Your Easter jubilee has broken our old patterns of debt and credit,
and made us all richbeyond our acknowledgment.
You are the one who was rich and became Friday poor,
We are among those who have been made rich ... along with our neighbors.
For Your Sunday wealth that isour new beginning,we give you deep and exuberant thanks.