In just a few short weeks, our church choir and other members of our congregation are heading to France on a choir tour. The songs they are going to sing are based on the idea of a Jubilee year, according to Leviticus 25. I was intrigued by this theme choice and so I decided I needed to do some research. What I learned made me decide that I needed to share it with you. I want to make sure we all understand just what a radical and important message our choir is about to deliver. So today we are going to look at Jubilee according to the Hebrew Bible and next Sunday we will look at how the idea of Jubilee lives in the parables of Jesus.
But first we need to understand Jubilee and to do that we need to start at the very beginning. In the first creation story in the Bible, which is found in Genesis 1, it says that God created the heavens and the earth, day and night, animals and humans and all of creation in six days. Then on the seventh day God rested. According to this creation story, God named the seventh day holy and told us that we should also rest on the seventh day of every week.
Then in Leviticus 25, we learn that when God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai he explained that the land also needed time to rest. So God declared that for six years people could work the land and prune their vineyards but in the seventh year they needed to let the land have a Sabbath. They could eat whatever the land yielded on its own, without their intervention.
To recap, so far we have the Sabbath day and the Sabbath year. Then God went on to explain the idea of a Jubilee year. The Jubilee was based on the Sabbath principle of sevens and rest. “Take seven years times seven, which equals 49” God told Moses “and make that year a time of liberty.” In the Jubilee year all those in bondage, whether slave or debtor, should be freed and allowed to return to their families. Also, all ancestral land taken by a predatory economy should be restored to its original owners. Imagine if the land and the home you own were returned to whoever owned it 49 years ago. Would it still be yours?
Both the Sabbatical year and the Year of Jubilee were meant to reorganize and restore community back to its original intent. The promise of Jubilee addressed the violations that happen to the poor in the socio-economic systems we humans create. God knew that freedom should never be trusted to the powerful or the oppressor. The gift of Jubilee, as you can imagine, was not just good news for those desperately in need of starting over…it was great news. But for those who had benefited from the predatory economy and amassed great wealth on the backs of other people’s pain….well, it wasn’t such good news.
Walter Brueggemann, a biblical scholar, prolific author and professor of Old Testament, says that Jubilee is the only part of the Bible he ever teaches in which someone inevitably asks, “But they didn’t really do it, did they?” When it comes to Jubilee we want to know if it ever happened. We are secretly hoping it didn’t because if it was never practiced than…well…we assume we are off the hook. We get to keep our stuff. Rachel Held Evans wrote: “The Empire economy doesn’t seem to be budging one bit…in the world of my heart.”
Brueggemann says the idea of Jubilee….the righting the wrongs of predatory economics … is the most radical, ethical teaching in the whole Bible. His answer to his students that question whether Jubilee was ever practiced was: “I don’t know whether or not it was ever practiced but they imagined it and because they imagined it, Jubilee is waiting to be enacted.”
I love that this gifted scholar, steeped in the Old Testament, does not view the Bible as a history book. For Brueggemann the importance of the Jubilee isn’t whether or not it was practiced in the past but that it was imagined and now awaits our imagination. With that way of thinking the Bible becomes poetry and prophecy. It speaks to the artist in each of us.
Poet Christian Wiman in his book, “My Bright Abyss” writes: “What is poetry’s role when the world is burning?” Let me say that again, “What is poetry’s role when the world is burning?” Poetry, imagination, art, music…they seem to be the last things on our minds as we watch twenty-three states pass racist voting laws. What is poetry’s role when Latino children are separated from their parents at our borders? What is poetry’s role when almost 60% of our tax dollars go to build the military industrial complex while 7.5 million people in California live in poverty, tying us with Florida and Louisiana for the highest poverty rates in our nation? What is poetry’s role when the US has created a missile we call the Flying Ginsu that carries six long blades that extend outward just before impact so that it can literally shred anything or anyone in its path? What is poetry’s role when real wages have fallen steadily since the 1970s leading to the greatest economic inequality since the Great Depression? What is the role of poetry when the US has 5% of the population and 21% of the world’s prisoners? What is the role of poetry when the United Nations says we have 12 years left in order to make significant changes in the way we live on this earth before droughts, floods, extreme heat and poverty become common place? What is the role of poetry when gay teens contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth and 40% of transgender adults report having made a suicide attempt? What is the role of poetry when 38% of American women report that that have been sexually harassed in the work place? I could go on all day. Poetry will never save us.
We live by the rule of scarcity. We are worried there won’t be enough to go around and so we hoard the things we have. We are suspicious of everyone around us. We make the world a place of fear and our god little and impotent. The only thing left is despair and greed.
Poetry will never save us from all of that….but maybe, just maybe it can spark our imagination again. Maybe just maybe it can help us imagine once again the vastness of our God. The Bible is filled with poetry and music and imagination and awe and we have stopped hearing it. Let me remind us:
God declares, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
“When I look at the heavens, at the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what are humans, O God, that makes you care about us so?”
In our imaginations we have made God smaller than the Empire. But poetry carries within it the potential to remind us, once again, of the vastness of God and of the beauty and height and depth and abundance of God’s love for us and for the whole world. We need to imagine once again. Hear the poetry of Ephesians 3:
“Now to the One who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine according to the power of the work that is in us.”
Poetry can’t save us but it can remind us of the God we worship….God who created the heavens and the earth…who comes to us in the flesh…in the form of a vulnerable baby born to poor parents…who can’t be kept in tomb…God will break out every time…God cannot be confined in our narrow understandings. This is what I need to tell you today. God is alive and awake and bigger than our imaginations.
Poetry can’t save us but it can help us to see afresh. Music touches a part of us that can move us to action. Poetry, art and music all have the ability to shine a light into a corner that previously had been too dark to be accessible. It opens up our ability to see and think in a new way. It makes space. It subverts our assumptions. It expands our imagination. It helps us to stand up and sing, “We shall not be moved!” and “O, what a beautiful city!” Wiman writes: “Art is so often better at theology than theology is.”
Our response at this moment in history needs to be one of imagination…imagination that leads us out into the streets into direct community action because the one who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine has placed within us moral courage for these times that seem to have insurmountable odds….the one who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine have given us power to do the work that is in us.
Asking if Jubilee was ever practiced so that we know if it requires anything of us shows a lack of imagination. So for a moment let go of the inner voice that says, “We are too small…there is no hope.” Jubilee is an idea awaiting our imagination. Can you see it? Stop for just a second and give yourself time to imagine it….to visual what Jubilee would look like if we could not only imagine it but enact it. God is calling to us to the work that is in us….to restore community…to right the wrongs…to free the captives…to demand liberty and justice for all…to abolish oppression…to return to sanity…to name all of God’s children beloved…to live in God’s divine community here on earth as it is in heaven…to refuse to let our fear of scarcity win the day…to love with wide hearts…to see, once again, the vastness of God…to proclaim the year of Jubilee….the year of God’s favor.
Jubilee is poetry waiting to become justice and we are called to be the poets and prophets and Jubilee proclaimers! Amen.