Lent Devotions: A fresh start for the downtrodden

Design by Doug Puller/Bread for the World.

Editor’s note: This Lent season, Bread Blog is running a series of devotionals written by staff, alumni, and friends of the San Francisco Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).           

By Rev. Dr. Jim McDonald  

Leviticus 25:8-28

The Book of Leviticus calls for a year of Jubilee every 50 years. People who have lost their land or liberty because of heavy debts are to be freed from this burden. They get their land and their livelihood back. Everyone gets a fresh start.

Jubilee is a recognition that societies, even those that operate with a religious foundation, become distorted and unjust over time. The concept of Jubilee recognizes that, despite our best efforts, our social and economic relationships become unfair and slanted over time. The Biblical principle of Jubilee provides a corrective, a fresh start. It is a reminder that we are one human family, each precious, all interdependent. When enacted, Jubilee frees us from the destructive effects of political domination and economic injustice, and restores to all a sense of dignity and humanity.          

But here’s the problem: In ancient times, the Year of Jubilee seems never to have been observed. As positive a concept as it was, spiritually speaking, there seemed always to be a reason to pass it by. Those in power thought it foolish to loosen their grip, even for a year. Freeing slaves and returning land to the landless seemed only to encourage social and political chaos. It seemed to be a disincentive to those who had worked hard for what they owned.

Those who lent money were worried that by canceling debts they might be setting a dangerous precedent — encouraging what the financial community calls “moral hazard,” the sense that you are rewarding and encouraging bad behavior on the part of borrowers. “I paid my debts,” they said. “So should everyone else.”

So, the more people [in power] thought about the concept of Jubilee, the more absurd and counterproductive it seemed. Societies work best, the people in power said, when they are based on hard work, meeting obligations, taking responsibility for our actions, respecting law, and fulfilling contracts. In espousing those values, people in power did not recognize the distortion of relationships produced by power imbalances, privilege, prejudice, greed, and downright meanness and cruelty. They didn’t recognize that life is not fair, or that compassion and mercy are not default virtues in most human beings.

In Luke 4, Jesus begins his public ministry with a proclamation. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” In this inaugural address, Jesus sets forth the vision and program for his life and ministry. Biblical scholarship has helped us understand that “proclaiming good news to the poor, release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, and the acceptable year of the Lord” were all references to the year of Jubilee.

Luke wants to show that the concept of Jubilee is the very essence of Jesus’ ministry. Not an aspect, not a tangent, but the main point. The notion of the need to restore “right relationships” among people and with the earth is at the center of what Jesus not only taught, but lived and died to bring about.

Proclaiming Jubilee is what Jesus did for us. Forgiveness of sin, of debts, of trespasses. The reconciliation of a broken world. The gift of a new kind of life, eternal life. That’s Jubilee. And Jubilee is what Jesus expects us to proclaim, in turn, as his disciples. That’s our turn toward freedom.

Rev. Dr. Jim McDonald is the president and professor of faith and public life at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

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