As I return to the Scriptures again and again, one thing continues to impress itself upon me. Jubilee. In the circles I grew up around, nobody ever talked about the Jubilee. Part of this could have been cultural. In the 80s and 90s, almost nobody talked much about the Old Testament save for the bits which clearly prophesied about Jesus and the stories themselves; David, Samson, Elijah, Jeremiah, Moses, Joshua, all of it disjointed and out of order (God help you if you asked whether Abraham or Moses came first).
But the more I study the Old Testament, and especially the law – those supposedly boring and dry bits of the Old Testament found in Leviticus and Numbers and Exodus 21-23, all of which is handled dutifully with nose pinched between thumb and forefinger, and which we all naturally assume was abusive and barbaric – the more I find that you can’t understand anything God is doing in the Bible without understanding the Jubilee.
I’ll give you an example.
The exodus event was the foundational event for Israel. Release and deliverance from slavery in Egypt becomes a formative experience for God’s people, an event that is picked up by later biblical authors and becomes one of the central typological pictures in the rest of the Bible. God’s stated intention to deliver Israel from her labor before the Egyptian whips (Ex. 2:23-25; 3:8; 6:6) becomes the basis for Israel’s law-code (Ex. 20:2). That is, the whole sum of the law is borne from remembering God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery. The love of God and neighbor which Jesus tells us is the sum of the law is summed up in Jubilee.
For this reason, special care was given to the poor, the widow, the fatherless, the oppressed, the slave, the foreigner and the laborer. We don’t have time in this post to get into the details of all the laws about these different classes of peoples, but suffice it for now to say that even at its harshest, the OT law is far kinder to these people than any of the surrounding nations at the time.
The Sabbath Day
In particular, the exodus becomes the core of the Sabbath observance.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Ex. 20:8-11).
We automatically think of this in individual, private terms concerning religious observance. And that aspect has much truth to it. But it ignores the other half of the passage, which is that it not just for you, but for your children, your bondservants (slaves), your animals and the stranger and non-citizen. When we ask why God made the Sabbath day, the answer is not primarily “So that we can go to church” or even “so we might worship God.” (Though, again, those things are vital.) Reading the text closely, we see that it is so the cycle of endless work might be broken so that the laborer, the slave, the creation, and the stranger and non-citizen might find rest and relief from their labor.
This reading becomes even clearer when we see for what purpose the Sabbath is declared at the end of the law, and elsewhere in the law.
Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed. (Ex. 23:12)
Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deut. 5:12-15)
The Sabbath Year
Following the Sabbath Day observance was the Sabbath year observance, which is presented as a year-long Sabbath Day. What is the purpose of this sabbath year? To allow the creation to rest, and for the poor and the animals to eat and find rest.
For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard. (Ex. 23:10-11).
Though it is too long to quote in its entirety here, Deut. 15:1-18 expands this summary of the Sabbath Year by announcing the remission of debt (Deut. 15:1-6). The express reason for this remission of debt is so that “there will be no poor among you,” (Deut. 15:4). God also commands Israel to give generously to any who have become poor (Deut. 15:7-11). Any Hebrew slave must be released, and not empty handed, but given a generous amount of supplies for his life of freedom (Deut. 15:12-18), because “you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today,” (Deut. 15:15).
The Year of Jubilee
Finally, the Jubilee year is presented to us as an even-larger picture of the weekly Sabbath rest, and a super-sized Sabbath-year release. It takes place every fifty years, or the seventh seven year cycle, or a week of years, falling on the Sabbath day of that week of years.
The purpose of the Jubilee is the same as that of the Sabbath rest and Sabbath year:
in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap what grows of itself in your harvest, or gather the grapes of your undressed vine. It shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired worker and the sojourner who lives with you, and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food. (Lev. 25:4-7).
Once again, the purpose of the Jubilee is to provide rest and release for the creation and the laborers, that they might find comfort and freedom. It includes the restoration of property (Lev. 25:23-34), generosity to the poor (Lev. 25:35-46), and the slaves set free (Lev. 25:47-54). Though some have claimed the Jubilee does not include the cancellation of debts, it is clearly an increase and intensification of the Sabbath day and Sabbath year releases, and therefore includes all their requirements, which includes the remission of debt (Deut. 15:1-6).
All of this is communal and economic in nature, and the attempts to spiritualize or hand-wave those implications away is nothing more than special pleading.
Jesus and Jubilee
When Jesus begins his earthly ministry, He does so by announcing the “year of Yahweh’s favor,” (Luke 4:16-21), a passage that comes from Isaiah 61, which declares the coming eschatological Jubilee when the Kingdom is finally established. Jesus says that Isaiah 61’s promise is fulfilled at His coming, in the time of His hearer’s (Luke 4:21). The eschatological Jubilee had arrived in the first century. The Kingdom is characterized as the fulfillment of Jubilee, and not a metaphorical or spiritual Jubilee, but an actual, eternal Jubilee that began in the first century and will continue until the final coming of Christ. Christian life, the life of the Church, is to be characterized by Jubilee living. Every day is a Jubilee day, every year a Jubilee year, in the Kingdom and among the Church. Driving this point home a bit further, we recall that the Jubilee year was announced by the blowing of the trumpets after the High Priest offered atonement for Israel on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 25:9-10); Jesus’ death on the cross was, of course, the fulfillment of the shadows of the OT day of atonement, the reality to which it pointed. Jesus’ death and resurrection ushers us into this eschatological Jubilee, His death breaking the bonds not only of death, but of oppression and slavery and abuse forever.
When the Spirit finally moves upon the apostles and creates the Church in Acts 2, a significant gift which He brings is this Jubilee living to the first church in Jerusalem:
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:32-37).
This is Jubilee living, and it soon spread as the apostles carried the gospel out into the other cities and towns and the Spirit constituted the Church in those places. Paul even tells us,
We want you to know, brothers,[a] about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints— and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. … For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.'” (2 Cor. 8:1-5, 12-15).
The Heart of the Law
In Jesus’ climactic confrontation with the Pharisees, He tells them this:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matt. 23:23-24)
We tend to think of the Pharisees as legal sticklers, demanding precise observance of the OT law. Nothing is further from the truth. The Pharisees had invented their own observances which they did in replacement of the requirements of the actual OT law. They used these invented observances to get around having to obey the law, all the while pretending to be righteous and faithful and holy people.
Jesus’ point: you can’t pay homage to the law or observe part of it (the ritual purity and worship parts) while ignoring the point of the law (justice, mercy, and faithfulness). The Pharisees were good at the purity laws; they were so concerned with purity they had added to God’s own requirements for religious purity and made the law a yoke for the people, using their legalistic obligations as a way to cheat and oppress the people of God.
I believe Jesus is talking about the Jubilee here. The Pharisees nitpicked about religious purity and holiness, but neglected the weighty matters of the law, the heart of the law, which Jesus has said is to love God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love one’s neighbor (Matt. 22:34-40). All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments (Matt. 22:40).
As we have seen, in the Jubilee, the core of the law is revealed. The law’s care for the slave and the poor and the oppressed comes because Israel was the slave, the poor and the oppressed in Egypt, and God’s concern is that they not turn into the sort of people they cried out against for deliverance. The purpose of the Sabbath was to love God in worship, and love one’s neighbor by caring for the poor, the oppressed, the slave, and the broken, by declaring them free, sending them out, giving generously to them, and allowing the laborer and the creation to find rest from their labors.
Insofar as we resist the truth of the Jubilee as the heart of the law and its implications for how we live today, how can we claim to be any different than the Pharisees?