Lesson of the Manna
Let's first turn to Exodus 16, the story of the manna in the wilderness, which is the first teaching about the Sabbath Day. The striking lesson of this familiar story is that God had to reiterate over and over again that all were to gather enough and only enough to eat, so that there would be enough for all. Having just been liberated from slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel had to learn how to live in freedom. They were called to develop a lifestyle and a socio-economic order in which all would have enough. The Sabbath Day was not so much about rest and religion.
It was about remembering that they were liberated slaves, liberated to live in freedom. They were not to allow some to accumulate and others to become poor.
We find echoes of this basic lesson in important New Testament passages. Note, for example, the phrase, "Give us this day our daily bread," in the Lord's prayer. Surely this means what it says, i.e., to ask for enough, no more, and to ask for all of us to have enough, not just me and my family. In fact, some have suggested that we have no right to pray this prayer if we are not committed to and working for enough bread for all God's people!
Look at the Pentecost experience. Among the "signs and wonders" we find that the new believers "were together," "had all things in common," and "day by day . . . they broke bread from house to house and ate their food with glad and generous hearts." (Acts 2:42-47) Another echo of the manna story.
Finally, one of the Apostle Paul's mission strategies was to gather offerings from the European and Asian congregations for the poor in Jerusalem. He based this challenge on "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich." (2 Corinthians 8:9) And he cited the lesson of the manna, just ahead in this same passage. "As it is written, the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little." (2 Corinthians 8:15, Exodus 16:18)
Option for the Poor
The key passage concerning debt relief is found in Deuteronomy 15, which states in verse 4 God's intention that "There will be no one in need among you." Verses 1-11 deal with the remission of debts in the Sabbath Year, and verses 12-18 with the freeing of slaves in the Sabbath year. Both mandates are based on the exodus.
"Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today." (Deuteronomy 15:15) Clearly it would be a glaring contradiction for a liberated people, people of the liberating God Yahweh, to practice slavery!
In ancient times the principal mechanisms of poverty and oppression were debts, inevitable whenever crops failed, and slavery, the result of one's inability to repay debts. The Sabbath Year mandates were designed to intervene and offer a new beginning for the poor and oppressed, which is precisely what the poor and oppressed need today.
Don't we have to remember this mandate, too, when we pray the Lord's Prayer and say "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors"? (Matthew 6:12) This does not mean merely to cancel loans every seventh year. As many Third World peoples and disadvantaged peoples in the U.S. have pointed out so poignantly, our depts to them and their ancestors are astronomically far beyond anything they may owe us under current debt arrangements.
The first Christians evidently eliminated each others' debts, as they shared all their possessions, and "there was not a needy person among them." (Acts 4:34, cp Deuteronomy 15:4) Sabbath economics requires a personal lifestyle and a socio-economic order that will prevent and overcome poverty.
Liberation of the Oppressed
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).