In the Shadow of Jubliee

In the Shadow of Jubliee

Entering God’s economy of grace.

This essay originally appeared on January 2, 2022 in Comment magazine, a publication of Cardus.”

In his landmark exploration of grace in dialogue with ancient perspectives on gift giving, John Barclay argues that God’s grace is given freely and without regard to the worth of the recipient. Grace is an unconditioned gift. But this does not make the gift of grace unconditional, given without expectation of returnInstead, God’s gracious gift transforms those who receive it, generating “new modes of obedience to God” within a community created by their mutual dependence on him.

I suspect this may strike some readers of the New Testament as a strange way of thinking. But a similar dynamic stands at the heart of the Torah. For here, in the first pages of Holy Scripture, we discover a society and economy based on gifts given by God, received by humans, and reciprocated through a transformed way of life. Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in Leviticus.

In Leviticus, of course, the grace that overshadows all others is the gift of Yahweh’s own presence. The book of Exodus begins by telling the story of God’s liberation of his people from service to Pharaoh for service to God. It ends with the story of those liberated people constructing a “holy place” so that Yahweh might make his dwelling among them. When they complete this tabernacle, God’s glorious presence fills it so fully that even Moses is unable to enter.

Yet from the very first verse of Leviticus, Yahweh speaks to Moses from the tabernacle, announcing his intention to continue to dwell with the people. He begins by teaching them how they should “come near” to him in worship. Twenty-five chapters later, Leviticus reiterates that the people’s reception of the gift of Yahweh’s presence is the great goal of their life together. “If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully,” Yahweh declares, then “I will place my dwelling in your midst, and I shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:3, 11–12 NRSV).

A Vision for Economic Life

Within this overall vision, Leviticus 25 invites the people into a way of economic life that flows out of God’s gracious presence among them. We can see this in at least three ways.

First, as the Creator and divine King, Yahweh owns the land in its entirety. But unlike that other, would-be god Pharaoh, Yahweh generously gives every family a plot in his promised land. Such family farms would give every household in Israel a socioeconomic place to stand and portion to steward.

The land, of course, still belongs to God. No title transfer here. But because Yahweh chooses to give inalienable access to the promised land to each Israelite household, his imperial, absolute ownership paradoxically creates a decentralized economy that increases the economic power each family exercises in their participation in the life of the community.

But the gift of land could be lost. So Yahweh gives land alongside another gift—the Year of Jubilee:

And you will make holy the fiftieth year, and you will declare liberty to all the inhabitants of the land. It will be a Jubilee for you. Each of you will return to his plot, and each to his family will return. (Leviticus 25:10)

This Jubilee protects and perpetuates Yahweh’s gifts, ensuring that if they are lost, whether through misfortune, mismanagement, or theft, every fifty years at least, divine grace definitively renews and reshapes the economy. Each household receives afresh the creational gift that provides the literal ground for all of economic life, especially in an agrarian economy like Israel’s.

Second, human life, including human labour, is likewise grounded in God’s proprietary grace and protected by his jubilary gift. It is not only the land that belongs to Yahweh; it is also the lives of the people themselves. “The Israelites,” Yahweh declares, “are my slaves, whom I brought out of Egypt.” But just as Yahweh’s absolute ownership of the land spills over into his gracious provision of inalienable access to every Israelite household, so also Yahweh’s purchase of the people from slavery in Egypt spills over into the functional end of Israelite slavery in their economy: because they are Yahweh’s slaves, “they shall not be sold as slaves are sold.” Even when Israelites becomes so economically desperate that they must indenture themselves to another, they shall not be made to work as slaves. Instead, they must be treated as hired labourers until the Year of Jubilee. Then they, like the land itself, shall go free.

Third, the gifts of life and land are bound together by the gift of Sabbath—not only a day of rest out of every seven but also the entire cycle of festival weeks and sabbatical years, all of which culminate in the Year of Jubilee itself. In each case, Yahweh’s sabbatical grace sanctifies the people’s labours by interrupting them, punctuating their work lives with seasons of joy-filled feasts and generous rest for all.

Receiving such gifts, however, requires the people to depend on and trust the gift giver. Working on small, rain-dependent farms in an environment where the rains may have failed as often as three years out of every ten, the Israelites’ economic life was inevitably vulnerable. In such a context, Yahweh’s demand that they forgo regular work for an entire year out of every seven, and two years in a row every fifty years, would seem to increase their economic vulnerability exponentially. Small wonder that Yahweh has to promise them explicitly that he will provide such an abundance in the years prior to the sabbath that they will be able eat well even when the Sabbath year brings a temporary pause to business as usual.

Or consider how practicing the Jubilee itself would foster a disposition of vulnerable trust in Yahweh among the people. The Jubilee Year is declared in the seventh month of the year on the Day of Atonement. The Day of Atonement vividly reminds every member of the community that the primary gift of God’s presence depends on his gracious provision of forgiveness for the community’s sins and purification for their uncleanness. At the same time, because the fiftieth year includes a year long break from organized agricultural work, the community finds itself amid a two-year season in which they must depend on Yahweh’s generosity for their daily bread.

What this means, moreover, is that a family who returns to their land amid the joy of the Jubilee recovers its primary economic “asset” smack dab in the middle of a two-year period in which they cannot work it or invest in it through organized agriculture. Then, just five days later, the community celebrates the seven-day Festival of Booths. As the festival celebrated at the culmination of the harvest, this would have been the most joyful feast of the year. In the Jubilee Year, however, it is not their economic labour that puts the food on the festal table, but Yahweh’s own provision through the bounty of the land at rest.

If all of that were not enough to habituate the people into the posture of humble dependence and trust necessary to receive God’s economy of grace, the Festival of Booths also requires everyone to live in “booths” or “tents” for the entire week of the feast. Why? To remind their hearts, bodies, and minds that their economic life has its origins in Yahweh’s liberating them from Egypt and providing them with miraculous manna when they lived in “tents” for forty years in the wilderness. The entire experience would have served as a gloriously embodied, ritual reminder that their lives begin and end in dependence on Yahweh’s great grace.

Leviticus, then, invites the people to receive not only the gift of God’s presence but also the gift of an economic way of being built on grace. God knows they don’t deserve it! But as Paul knew so well, our God has long been in the habit of giving unconditioned gifts, graces lavished freely without regard to the merit of those who receive them.

Dangerous Gifts

But God’s gifts in Leviticus, like God’s grace in the New Testament according to Barclay, are not unconditional in the sense that they expect no response from the recipients. No, God’s gifts intend to transform us, to break us open and rearrange our lives and spill over into new ways of being with God and neighbour.

Indeed, for Leviticus, the gift of God’s presence becomes deadly if received by a community unwilling to be transformed by that gift. Aaron’s own sons tragically discover this truth too late. When they “come near” to Yahweh with offerings out of line with his instructions, they are consumed by fire “from before the Lord.” God’s presence among his people is a dangerous grace.

Leviticus associates this dangerous grace of Yahweh’s presence with his holiness, his fiery otherness, his overwhelming purity and goodness that both draws the people in and threatens to overwhelm them. The central question the book addresses, then, is, in Ellen Davis’s words, “how Israel might organize itself as a community capable of hosting in its midst the radical holiness of God.”

The startling answer is that the community must allow the gracious gift of God’s holy presence to make the community itself holy.

For I am Yahweh your God, and you will make yourselves holy [hithqaddishtem], and you will be holy [vihyithem qedoshim], because am holy [qadosh]. (Leviticus 11:44)

Israel will only be capable of hosting the gracious presence of God in their midst if they allow every aspect of their lives to be transformed by God’s grace, conforming their life to his, allowing themselves to be made holy by Yahweh’s holiness.

This explains why Leviticus describes the gifts of life, land, and Sabbath as graces that carry with them an ongoing obligation. The people of God, in other words, do not only receive land, life, and Sabbath from Yahweh. They are required to give land, life, and Sabbath to others, to participate in what Barclay calls the “circulation of grace” in the community.

Thus the gift of inalienable access to the family farm offered to the people in Leviticus 25 includes the requirement that the people proactively participate in the circulation of God’s gifts to others. The Year of Jubilee begins by speaking to the reader in a way that subtly places them in the position of someone who has lost their land—in the Year of Jubilee, “each of you shall return to your plot.” This places rhetorical priority on the peoples’ experience of receiving land.

But of course, if some in the community had lost land between Jubilee Years, others in the community had gained it. The Year of Jubilee requires these households to participate in God’s gracious gift-giving toward their neighbours. If your neighbour does not find a way to recover their land that you have acquired, the law makes clear that the land must “go out in the Jubilee.” Release of acquired lands becomes a human act of participation in God’s economic grace.

Likewise, the community’s reception of God’s gracious gift of life and labour requires them to participate in acts of grace to one another that conform to God’s jubilary gifts. Because the people have been freed from slavery in Egypt, Yahweh gives them limits and constraints on debt service; but this gift, of course, obviously requires that the whole community participate in extending this grace to one another. Such participation in God’s economic grace includes the obligation to extend interest-free loans to a struggling neighbour to prevent them from facing debt servitude, treating those whose economic lives completely collapse as hired hands rather than slaves and, of course, joyfully releasing them from service and restoring them to their land in the Year of Jubilee.

But it is the gift of Sabbath that puts the circulation of economic grace on display most clearly. For the people of God do not only receive rest from God. They also give rest to others. This includes the land itself, which the people enable to celebrate a Sabbath by refraining from organized harvesting and planting every seventh year. The household both receives rest from God and gives rest to the land.

But not only the land. The household’s embrace of God’s sabbatical rest requires them to simultaneously give rest to those who depend on them for their economic well-being, and to make God’s gifts through the land at rest available to them.

You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath—you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound laborers who live with you; for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food. (Leviticus 25:6–7 NRSV)

Every person in the community, from the household patriarch to the newly arrived refugee worker, both rests and receives the gift of God’s provision through the resting land. Even the wild creatures of the world, those who contribute nothing obvious to human economy, receive gifts from Yahweh, gifts that come through the sabbatical practice of households caught up in God’s jubilary economy of grace.

Yahweh invites Israel to embrace an economy of gift. But it’s important to recognize that this does not imply the elimination of “normal” economic life. Leviticus’s gift economy does not put an end to all buying and selling, planning and organized harvesting, investment in house or field or livestock. Indeed, Leviticus 25 makes clear that they will “buy” and “sell” the right to use land between Jubilee years; that there will be planting and sowing, performed by the household, hired workers, and indebted neighbours; that homes will be built, bought, and sold in cities. God’s economy of grace does not turn every market into a Christmas-morning exchange of presents.

What Leviticus does do, though, is place all of economic life within the broader story and practice of God’s gracious gift of land, life, and Sabbath, and the community’s gracious participation in the circulation of those gifts in response. God’s gracious gift giving is both the frame of their economic life and the engine that drives their economic activity. Grace hems their economy in “behind and before,” laying God’s gracious gift giving hand on them in the midst of all their economic endeavours.

God’s gift of land, life, and Sabbath is the economic equivalent of the “big bang”; the entire universe of their buying, selling, investing, sharing, and spending spins out of this original explosion of grace. But because the Jubilee is also fixed in time, always both Israel’s past and their future, God’s gifts are also the horizon toward which their entire economy is always heading. As a result, every economic action is practiced, to adapt a phrase from Ben Witherington, “in the shadow of the coming Jubilee.”

Clear and Present Jubilee

What does this gift economy mean for us today?

It’s a fraught question, of course. After all, contemporary faith communities find themselves neither in a theocratic political community that recognizes Yahweh as king nor, at least in the West, in the kind of subsistence agrarian economy that characterized ancient Near Eastern Palestine. On the other hand, Leviticus’s status as sacred Scripture, as well as the fact that later biblical writers and our Lord himself drew inspiration from the Jubilee, suggests this text’s vision of economic life still speaks a word to us today. What might it look like for us to hear Scripture’s jubilary vision as an invitation into God’s economy of gift? Let me make three initial suggestions.

First, Yahweh’s jubilary economy of grace ought to confront the Western church with our anti-Jubilee history and practice. We must confess that, instead of being the God-given means by which our neighbours receive God’s gifts of life and land, we have stolen life and land instead.

Such anti-jubilary theft is on display in the church’s complicity in the colonialist theft of indigenous lands and violent taking of indigenous lives. Our anti-jubilary practice is on display in the horrific theft of black labour in the slave trade, the failure to provide black households with the promised forty acres at the end of the Civil War, and the constant disenfranchisement of black households ever since.

For decades, black households were largely shut out of FHA-backed mortgages and GI Bill benefits[1], America’s largest wealth-building initiatives. Race-based predatory lending and redlining have continued to plague the American housing market to this day. Largely as a result of these anti-jubilary failures, 135 years after slavery ended, black Americans had gained just 0.5 percent more of the total wealth of the US than they held at the end of the Civil War. Today, black families hold one-tenth the net worth of white households.

North American Christians have refused to participate in God’s jubilary economy of grace. We stand instead under Isaiah’s indictment: the plunder of the poor is in our houses. Our participation in God’s Jubilee must begin, as it did for Israel, on the Day of Atonement, a day marked by confession and fasting. We can only enter God’s joyful economy of gift through the doorway of repentance for our sins and the sins of our community.

And we can only participate in God’s joyful Jubilee if we go on to participate in the repair of those anti-jubilee thefts. Just as receiving the gift of Jubilee would often require a household to return lands to a family that lost them in the previous generation, God’s jubilary economy invites us to consider what it might mean to repair in the present the economic sins committed originally by our ancestors in the past.

Second, the Jubilee vision of God’s gift economy challenges some Christian conceptions of “stewardship,” and offers us instead a practiced embrace of vulnerable dependency on God and generosity toward our neighbours.

Like the Jubilee, all Christian accounts of stewardship rightly emphasize the idea that God “owns it all.” But especially if God’s ownership gets paired with a strong faith in meritocratic capitalism, this can easily give the impression that the economic resources God owns have been put into my care because of my wise management of his gifts. Such “stewardship” can then lead to a kind of rigorous pursuit of “impact maximizing.” Wealthy Christians should be generous to the poor, of course. But they must be careful, because as “stewards,” they can’t afford to give too freely or surrender economic decision-making power too thoroughly to those who have failed to perform in the capitalist marketplace. The very fact of their poverty suggests they may fail to exercise equally effective stewardship over God’s possessions.

In stark contrast to this co-opted account of stewardship, consider the wild profligacy of the God of Jubilee! God not only gives every household a plot in his promised land, but he also refuses to let them permanently lose their plots through failed “stewardship.” The renewed gift of freedom from debt bondage and the generous provision of Sabbath rhythms do not come only to those who deserve them, nor do they offer greater gifts for those who “prove themselves” through their economic performance. The world of the Jubilee is charged with the gratuity of God.

Indeed, if an Israelite family lost their land through their own foolish mismanagement, another Israelite family may well have acquired it through their own hard work and thrift. Yet at the Jubilee Year, God’s generosity nevertheless returns the land to the family that lost it. The hardworking Israelite family is given no space for calculation over whether their neighbours will be “good stewards” over the land they are releasing to them. Yahweh is profligate with his economic gifts, and his people must mimic that profligacy to others if they are to receive the gifts themselves.

This does not mean that there’s no such thing as foolish or harmful attempts at pursuing a generous economy, of course. The fact that the Jubilee only comes every fifty years creates built-in incentives for everyone to pursue wise, faithful care over the plot God has entrusted to them. One difference between the Jubilee’s economy of grace and the kind of “helping that hurts” today is the way that the Jubilee makes good work possible and powerful, whereas we often ignore the importance of good work in our attempts at economic generosity.

But the Jubilee reminds us that our quest for an economic way of life that works for all is always framed and driven by God’s prior grace. Such grace leads to a posture of open-handed surrender of economic power and agency. Because the kind of power and agency represented by a plot in the promised land—received from God and exercised under his lordship in response to that gift—is ultimately everyone’s birthright. Our stewardship of the resources in our hands must lead to a sacrificial, risky sharing of stewardship resources with others.

Third, bolstered by a commitment to repentance and driven by a desire for gratuitous participation in Yahweh’s gift economy, God’s people could imagine our way toward declaring a Jubilee today. We could find ways to acknowledge the entirety of own economic lives as dependent on and energized by God’s gracious gift giving. And we could look for ways to participate in God’s gracious gift giving by helping our neighbours gain access to the modern-day equivalents of Leviticus’s family farms.

In a knowledge economy, this certainly includes helping our neighbours gain the kind of education that can serve as a fertile field for contemporary economic life. It also includes using our influence and resources to offer “vines and fig trees” in our economy in other ways. In our book, Practicing the King’s Economy, Robby Holt, Brian Fikkert, and I offer numerous suggestions for doing precisely this. Companies can offer employees economic ownership in their business, and social ownership through shared decision making. They can embrace generous, creative compensation as a way to allow God’s gift economy to shape their workplace. They can creatively imagine what it might mean to welcome refugees, people with disabilities, those with criminal records, and others into their workforce.

We can find ways to invest in minority-owned businesses and create companies that offer meaningful work to members of our society for whom meaningful work is often in very short supply. We can wade into the often exploitative world of housing, investing in communities where those often barred from homeownership can thrive through investing in their home and neighbourhood.

And we can—and must—do this together! The Jubilee beautifully combines the individual and the corporate. “In this Year of Jubilee, you shall return, every one of you, to your property” (Leviticus 25:13 NRSV). The Jubilee only works if individual households joyfully participate in a community-wide practice. So also churches should become the place where the people of God learn to bring their economic lives together, for shared projects, collective discernment, and mutual correction, in pursuit of God’s economy of grace. Such gathering will lead not only to better individual practice but also to corporate acts of generous justice and mercy. We will see denominations and congregations bending their real-estate and financial holdings toward jubilary inclusion rather than simply profit maximization and institutional risk-management. We will see churches investing in their neighbourhoods and neighbours along the lines promoted by John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association. We will become, Lord willing, a community in which the world glimpses the Jubilee of Jesus.

And then, when pluralistic democracies invite Christians to participate in governing through our right to assembly, freedom to vote, and ability to participate in political office, we can allow God’s jubilary vision and our communal experience of jubilary community to drive us to pursue a society that echoes the divine economy, in which, as the prophet Micah says, “all sit under their own vines and their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.”

The complex efforts behind these all-too-brief and far-from-comprehensive first ideas are immense. We may wonder where on earth we would find the energy and commitment for such an economic transformation. The answer Leviticus suggests is simple: the energy and commitment come from the Triune God. All of economic life flows out of the original and ongoing gift-giving of our Lord. We owe our lives to God’s jubilary grace, and the only way to receive that gift is to be transformed by it, entering into the endless circulation of divine gift. “For from him and through him and to him are all things.”

[1] FHA-backed mortgages are insured by the Federal Housing Administration. Such mortgages were designed to make home buying more accessible, and contributed to a dramatic expansion in home ownership. The GI Bill provided various benefits to military veterans after World War II, including access to small-business loans, educational grants, and low-interest mortgages.

1 Comment

  1. Ali McMinn

    Thanks, Michael, for some valuable insights into the concept of Jubilee. Although being familiar with practice of Jubilee in biblical times, I had not pondered the application of it in our current setting. This certainly offers a biblical pattern and avenue for redress in countries such as New Zealand and Australia, where land acquisition (often through confiscation) has had regrettably negative outcomes.


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