Summary: Jubilee provides a glimpse of God's plan for his people to thrive, and insight into his priorities. In the spirit of Jubilee, we have a heart for the poor, work for social justice (opportunity and responsibility), and live joyfully as the church in the kingdom of God
(Project a picture of the Liberty Bell, with the inscription, “Lev. XXV V.X Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.”)
The Liberty Bell is often connected with freedom from British rule, as the bell was rung for the first reading of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The bell was cast, however, in 1751, on the 50th anniversary of William Penn’s Charter of Privileges. Penn was a devout Christian of the Quaker tradition, and his reading of the Bible guided him to revolutionary ideas about liberty and justice for all.
Read Leviticus 25:8-12.
Jubilee was a celebration. The ram’s horn, or shofar, called the people to celebrate God’s covenant, and to reaffirm their commitment to living as his chosen people. Jubilee focused on liberty and justice for all: “Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim LIBERTY throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan.” Its meaning was revolutionary, as we shall see later in the chapter.
To understand Jubilee, we need to understand God’s vision for life in the Promised Land.
When the Israelites took possession of the land of Canaan, each family would receive an equal inheritance in the land. Since land ownership was key to economic prosperity, income inequality would be minimal. There would be no “1%” of the super-rich among God’s people.
Yet over time, inequality would inevitably set in. A husband might die, leaving a widow and six children. By God’s law, his brother should marry the widow and take care of the family—but what if there is no brother, or the brother refuses to provide for the family in need? The widow will have to sell the land, and her older children will become servants of a neighbor, so they can have something to live on.
What will happens to those children? They will have no hope of becoming landowners, and improving their situation. They will probably marry someone who is also in servitude, becoming almost like slaves. In 2-3 generations, there will be a permanent underclass in Israel. At the same time, the rich will become richer, with slaves to do their work for them.
God had a different vision for his chosen people in the Promised Land. The Promised Land was not just a place; it was where God’s people would thrive, living in freedom and peace. Yet inevitably, that vision would be degraded by circumstances: people might lose their land and freedom due to mismanagement, laziness, theft, drought, grasshoppers, or corrupt political leaders.
Jubilee was God’s “reset” for liberty and justice for all. It was intended to provide hope, and restore social justice in God’s land of promise.
Read Leviticus 25:13, 23-24, 35-43, 54-55.
In the year of Jubilee, which came every 50 years, all debts were cancelled, indentured servants were freed, and land was returned to the families that originally owned it. It would be a major disruption of the social order—a reset of the economic system, an escape from generational poverty, and a reminder of God’s vision of liberty and justice for all. It was truly revolutionary!
Would God’s people actually do it? There is no evidence that Jubilee was ever put into practice in Israel. The result was predictable, as can be seen throughout the world today; the poor became poorer, and the rich became richer. That is the way of the world; it was not God’s vision for his people in the land of promise.
Because Israel disobeyed, the fabric of society was weakened. There was a permanent underclass in Israel, while the rich became lazy and decadent. The poor were suffering, and the rich were diminished. (Wealthy people like Bill and Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett, have recognized the dangers of inherited wealth, and taken action to give much of their wealth away, partly for that reason.)
God’s judgment came upon his people for this. Several centuries later, the prophet Amos painted a disturbing picture of self-indulgence and oppression of the poor: “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, "Bring us some drinks!" The Sovereign Lord has sworn by his holiness: "The time will surely come when you will be taken away with hooks, the last of you with fishhooks.” (Amos 4:1-2) One of the reasons that God’s people were taken out of the land of promise, into captivity, was the inequality between rich and poor, and the misuse of power and wealth by the rich.