From the official beginning of the people of Israel the Sabbath has always had special significance. The fourth of the ten commandments was the command to keep the Sabbath day as holy. The Israelites were to do no work on the Sabbath but were to instead spend it relaxing and enjoying the blessings of God and celebrating relationship with Him. Besides the weekly observance God also instituted a yearly observance. Every seventh year was to be a Sabbath year. The Sabbath year was a year of rest for the land. They were to do no plowing or sowing during the seventh year, instead they could only eat what grew on it’s own. This stipulation provided a chance for not only an extended period of rest for both the people and the land, but it also reminded the Israelites that they were dependent upon God for everything, even the very food that they ate. God was good and God would provide.
God even went one step further when he decided to honor the Sabbath of Sabbath years. After seven weeks of seven years, during the forty-ninth year on the day of Atonement, the priests were to blow the rams horns and they would initiate the Year of Jubilee. Every fiftieth year was to be hallowed and would serve as a celebration of liberty throughout the land for all of the inhabitants. During the year of Jubilee no work was to be done at all, the land would produce on it’s own. But even more than that, everyone would return to and reclaim their original family property. All debts would be erased. All slaves would be released. It was a time of complete economic redistribution. It was a time to allow everyone to return to an equal playing field economically. It was a way to prevent the rich from getting richer and the poor from getting poorer. It was a time to start over, a time to get a second chance. It was a way of protecting the downcast, the downtrodden, the one who because of a few bad breaks ended up losing everything. At the same time it was a reminder to the rich that their security is not in their riches or in their own ability to gain riches but is in Yahweh God. God is the one who provides for them, God is the one who sustains them. It was also a reminder to the rich that they have a responsibility to use their riches to help others. It was a reminder that their land and their possessions don’t belong to themselves but to God and they should use them appropriately. The Year of Jubilee was a time to celebrate, a time to start over, a time to remember and praise and honor the God who had given them all that they had.
With the Year of Jubilee God was setting up a standard for how God’s people should act economically. Just as being apart of God’s people, God’s Kingdom, affected how one responded spiritually, it also affected how one responded economically and physically. Built into the very law of God were stipulations for taking care of the poor, the weak, the abused. Built into the very law of God were stipulations to remind us that land and money, and the power gained from possessing them, are not what was most important and are not to be used to oppress others. And to keep individuals from using their money or land to gain power over others every fifty years God reset everyone’s economic lives by releasing all debts and allowing everyone to return to their original family land. It was a Jubilee because it was a time of redemption, of salvation, of grace. It was a Jubilee because it was a chance to take economics (money and land and power) and the influence gained by those who posses them and rework the playing field.
While the Year of Jubilee stipulations were centered around economics they were also based on spiritual redemption. The Year of Jubilee did not start until the Day of Atonement. It was only on the Day of Atonement, after atonement had been made for the tabernacle and the community, after the sins had been sent out of the camp on the back of the scapegoat, after the High Priest had gone into the Holy of Hollies to restore relationship with God, only after insuring the community was in good standing with God were the rams horns blown and the Year of Jubilee initiated. Only after individuals were in a right relationship with God, only after sin had been atoned for, could the Israelites think about respecting each other economically. Yes the year of Jubilee had economic consequences but it was based on a right standing with God. When Israel found themselves in a right standing with God they were then asked to freely give up their excess so that all could be taken care of. And they were to do this with joy and in celebration because this was how God’s people acted.
There is no written historical information that I am aware of that the year of Jubilee was ever kept, that the commands were ever followed, but that doesn’t keep the Jubilee from being relevant in scripture. The Year of Jubilee, and the truth contained in the year of Jubilee come up time and time again in scripture. One such instance is in Isaiah 61. Isaiah is speaking about this great day in the future, when God’s glory will be revealed and his Kingdom set up and he says that at the time it will be “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:2). The Year of the Lord’s favor is a reference to the year of Jubilee. When God’s Kingdom is established, when God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven then one of the characteristics of that time will be the Year of Jubilee. It will be a constant time of Jubilee.
It’s interesting that Isaiah 61 is the passage Jesus uses when he is inaugurating his ministry in Nazareth in Luke 4 and he is asked to read in the synagogue. He opens the scroll to Isaiah 61 and reads, “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.” And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21) As Jesus inaugurates his ministry he uses this text to describe it, he points to the year of Jubilee and he says, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled.” Jesus was inaugurating the year of Jubilee. It was a time of celebration, it was a time of relief, it was a time of salvation, and it had both spiritual and economic consequences. And while Israel may have never celebrated the Jubilee, it would be one of the defining characteristics of God’s Kingdom. Yes Jesus came to help his people become right with God spiritually. Yes, Jesus came to become the perfect sacrifice for sin. But, Jesus also came to inaugurate the Kingdom and to show the world a better way to live. And one of those better ways to live is to practice Jubilee.
How all of this gets worked out I don’t know. I don’ think it means that we all need to sell our homes and go back to our ancestral lands and all have the exact same amount of money in our bank accounts. However, it does mean that in the Kingdom of God the rich don’t get richer and the poor don’t get poorer. As members of the Kingdom of God we must concern ourselves with the poor and strive to find a way to help end poverty. And not just the poverty in the United States, but the poverty around the world. As members of the Kingdom we must be concerned with the two billion people in the world who live on less than two dollars a day. Now how that all exactly gets worked out I don’t know, and this is not the place or the forum to decide. But part of Jesus’s ministry, part of the notion of God’s will being done on earth as it is in Heaven, is the idea that the Year of Jubilee has come. It’s time to celebrate, it’s time to rejoice, and as Christians, we must find a way to live this out for Jesus said concerning the Year of the Lord’s favor, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”