Leviticus 25 is the main text establishing the Jubilee Year. Most likely it comes out of the time of "the second exodus," when the people of Israel returned from exile and had to reestablish a socio-economic order in keeping with God's will under the leadership of the ruling priesthood.
The Jubilee Year was the culmination of the Sabbath traditions, occurring in the 50th year, based on the formula seven times seven. Jubilee was announced with trumpets on the Day of Expiation, Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. The striking new mandate, which presupposes debt forgiveness and includes liberation from slavery, enabled all Israelite families to return to their original land.
"You shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family." (Leviticus 25:10)
This complements the earlier mandates by enabling all the people to recover the basic means of life and dignity, to live in freedom, to overcome the mechanisms of wealth accumulation for some and impoverishment for many.
Land was the primary means of economic survival, social security, cultural identity and human realization within the extended family, clan, tribe and nation. It was not merchandise to be bought and sold, except under extreme conditions that could be rectified through family redemption rights and through the Jubilee: "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants." (Leviticus 25:23).
The key Jubilee text of the New Testament is Luke 4:16-21, in which Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry, reads from Isaiah 61:1-2a, declaring that his mission is "to bring good news to the poor . . . to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19)
The Isaiah passage does not mention the 50th year or the 7th year, nor does it explicitly include all four Sabbath-Jubilee mandates: rest for the land, cancellation of debts, freedom for slaves and redistribution of the land. On the other hand, what did Jesus mean by "good news to the poor" and "liberation for the oppressed" if he did not have in mind precisely the Sabbath-Jubilee vision, which we find in so many other gospel texts that speak of economic solidarity, debt forgiveness, and abundant life for all God's people, especially the poor, sick, disabled, and marginalized? (Matthew 2:1-12, 5:3-10, 6:9-13, 6:19-34, 25:31-46, Mark 4:3-9, 6:30-44, 8:1-10, 10:17-34, Luke 1:46-55, 3:10-14, 5:27-32, 7:36-50, 12:12-21, 14:7-24, 16:19-31, 19:1-10)
The theological-spiritual foundation for all the Sabbath-Jubilee mandates is, of course, the exodus, liberation from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 16:6, 16:32, 20:1, Deuteronomy 5:15, 15:15, Leviticus 25:38, 42, 55). In ancient times and today the raison d'etre of God's people must be to live in freedom, to practice justice, to struggle for freedom and fulness of life for all.
To truly "sound the trumpets and proclaim Jubilee" in our time, we must face the two great threats to life that all humankind must resolve if our descendants and the biosphere are to survive. A first step is an awareness of the current global economic order, which is concentrating wealth and increasing poverty as never before in human history. This is what the biblical Jubilee was concerned about from the time of the ancient legal codes and the prophets to Jesus and the early church. The second step involves a response to the destruction of the biosphere, something that has only become a problem during the last 200 years of industrialization and must be resolved in the next 100 years.
As people of faith, our task is to reconnect with the Sabbath Day, the Sabbath Year, and the Jubilee Year. All three speak of rest for the land and those who work the land, for work animals and even for the wild beasts. Concern for our environment cannot be divorced from our economic concerns, for it is the omnipresent drive for profit that continues to propel us all toward the precipice of ecological collapse. The ecological and economic changes necessary for the continuation of life on this planet beyond the twenty-first century will ultimately require a powerful spiritual vision such as the biblical Jubilee.
Ross and Gloria Kinsler, theological educators for 25 years in Central America, have authored The Biblical Jubilee and the Struggle for Life: An Invitation to Personal, Ecclesial, and Social Transformation (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999).