Saturday, November 10, 2018
“A Biblical Vision of Economic Justice”
This weekend at Christ United Methodist Church in Lincoln, we continue with the second in a four-week proclamation series focusing on social justice for those who have been marginalized by society. Running again and again, like a red thread throughout the scriptures, is the claim that God calls his people to be instruments of social justice for the powerless and marginalized. The Hebrew scriptures focus on three principal marginalized groups: the stranger (aka immigrants), the orphan and the widow. Of course, this was the ancient Israelite context, but we live in our modern context; so, who are our marginalized groups, today? I think, by no coincidence, many are the same as they were in ancient times, but I would also add groups, such as Veterans, the elderly, LGBT persons, and racial minorities.
This week, I want to explore the Biblical vision of economic justice, as developed in the Hebrew Scriptures—or Old Testament. (Next week, in the third proclamation in the series, I will explore the Biblical vision of economic justice, as developed in the New Testament.)
My scriptural text for this week comes from Leviticus 25. The vision of economic justice developed in this passage is grounded on the notion of sabbath. In the Genesis 1 Creation story, God is busily engaged in the work of creation for six days, but on the seventh day, God “rested from all the work that he had done. So, God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” (Genesis 2:2-3) This scripture establishes the recurring pattern of work and rest “as woven into the very fabric of the universe.”
Based upon this scripture, Jewish law established the seventh day—the sabbath—as a day of rest for all persons and their animals. It became codified as one of the Ten Commandments:
“Remember the sabbath day, and 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; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.” (Exodus 20:8-10)
Clearly here, the seventh day is set aside as a sabbath—a day of rest—for the Jewish man and his household. In Leviticus, God takes this provision for a household sabbath and expands it as a framework for social justice. There are three foci for this expansion in Leviticus 25: (1) a sabbath rest for the land and nature; (2) the redemption of property in the year of jubilee; and (3) freedom and release for slaves in the year of jubilee. In my proclamation, I will focus on the first two of these three foci.
The first focus is a sabbath rest for the land and nature:
Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. 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 25:3-7
Every seventh year, the land—and, the rest of nature—is to be given a rest. The land is to lie fallow. During this year of rest, the land and the ecosystem which it supports is given an opportunity to rest and renew itself. During the year, the landowner is prohibited from making an exclusive claim on anything that happens to grow and bear fruit on its own. Instead, this fruit is available to anyone who wishes to harvest and eat it; the landowner, his slaves and laborers, sojourners in the country, livestock, or wild animals are all equally free to eat any fruit that happens to grow.
Later in the chapter, God promises to provide an abundant enough harvest in the sixth year, so that the owner and his household will have sufficient food during the seventh year of fallow and rest. God promises that the harvest in the sixth year will be so abundant that there will be food left over for even the eighth and ninth years, if needed. (Leviticus 25:20-22)
The second focus is on redemption of the land in the year of Jubilee. The year of Jubilee occurred once every 50 years. It represented a “sabbath of sabbaths.” That is, seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, or 49 years. The name “jubilee” comes from the word for “ram,” because the advent of the year of Jubilee was announced by blowing on a trumpet or ram’s horn. “Then you shall have the trumpet [or ram’s horn] sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet [or, ram’s horn] sounded throughout all your land.” (Leviticus 25:9) The year of Jubilee led to a radical re-calibrating of the economy by requiring the return of property to its original owners:
“In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property. When you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not cheat one another. When you buy from your neighbor, you shall pay only for the number of years since the jubilee; the seller shall charge you only for the remaining crop years. If the years are more, you shall increase the price, and if the years are fewer, you shall diminish the price; for it is a certain number of harvests that are being sold to you. You shall not cheat one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.” ~ Leviticus 25:13-17
In the year of Jubilee, all land and possessions are returned back to their original owners. Leases and sales of land are terminated because everything is returned to its original owners. Thus, the value of property should be calculated, based upon how imminent the next year of Jubilee will be. If Jubilee is in the distant future, then the prices should be raised because there are many years of harvest before the land must revert back to its original owners. However, if the Jubilee is imminent, then prices should be lowered because there are few years of harvest before the next Jubilee. In essence, the purchase of land is essentially the sale of a certain number of harvests on the land, until it is returned to its traditional owners.
Obviously, this periodic re-distribution of property back to its original owners has the effect of re-calibrating and equalizing the economy. Those who have accumulated excess wealth and affluence have it taken from them, while those who have become poor have their lands returned to them so that they may begin again on more equal financial footing. Poverty and economic marginalization become temporary, instead of permanent and generational.
From God’s perspective, the theological rationale for both the sabbath year and the Jubilee year are grounded in the fact that God actually owns the land and ecosystems. As God says:
“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land.” ~ (Leviticus 25: 23-24)
Since the land and all of Creation ultimately belongs to God, human persons are not the owners but, rather, the stewards or caretakers. We care for the land by observing the rhythm of six years of production, followed by a seventh year of rest. Further, since the land ultimately belongs to God, then humans cannot own it permanently. Instead, the true owner—that is, God—requires that all land be returned to its original families once every 50 years.
As far as we know, the Israelites very seldomly—if ever—observed a sabbatical rest year for the ecosystem or a Jubilee year in which the economy was re-calibrated. Despite the Israelites' failure to implement God’s economy, this passage is still important for informing our understanding of how God calls us to work for social justice. The Jubilee plan reminds us that God makes a preferential option for the poor and marginalized in any society. In any economic system, there is a tendency to overlook and forget about those who have become poor and marginalized. That is, the poor and marginalized can become invisible to those with financial possessions. However, the power of the Jubilee plan is that it periodically re-calibrates the economy and makes visible those who are powerless.
This Sunday, November 11th, is Veteran’s Day—a day we set aside to remember and honor those who have served and made sacrifices for our country. We usually honor our veterans with flowers and parades and special recognition at public events, such as ball games. But, do these forms of recognition really honor our veterans, if we don’t support them with real programs that will enhance their lives and help them flourish, after their time of service has ended? Rather than having a parade, wouldn’t it be better to work to improve our veterans’ access to quality mental healthcare, especially for those who suffer from PTSD? Rather than having a special moment of recognition for veterans at ballgames, wouldn’t it be better to work with unemployed veterans, helping them to find a job or develop new work skills that would make them more employable?
If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 11th, as we celebrate Veterans Day and reflect on the implications of the Biblical vision for economic justice. Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning.
Come, join us. Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.
 “Origins of Shabbat,” ReformJudaism.org, accessed at https://reformjudaism.org/jewish-holidays/shabbat/origins-shabbat, 10 November 2018.
 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Commentary on Leviticus in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 1, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.