Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Jesus & Economic Life (11) Jesus Jubilee

Jesus challenged the people to a new jubilee. This would involve cancellation of debt and restoration of land. Jesus preached a stark message on wealth and poverty:

Blessed are the poor. Woe to the rich
Blessed are you who hunger now. Woe to you who are well fed now (Luke 4:20-25).
These are strong words. He was promising that the poor would be blessed and the rich would experience woes. This is the reverse of the way things happen in the world, so what did Jesus mean? He was not referring to judgment. Judgement would destroy the rich, but it would also hurt the poor, so Jesus must have been talking about something different. He was prophesying a huge flow of of wealth/capital from the rich to the poor. Jesus was describing a different type of jubilee.

The exile to Babylon made it impossible to apply the Jubilee laws. The Jews returned from exile when the Persian Empire conquered Babylon, but it is not clear how many families were able to reclaim the land that their families had held before the exile. Jeremiah had redeemed a field at Anathoth, as a sign of eventual restoration (Jer 32), so someone from his family was probably able to claim it. However, I presume that most families were not able to reclaim their land when the returned from exile. Implementing a land-restoration Jubilee would not have been practical.

By Jesus time, most Jewish familys had no land. Even if a family re-gained their land after the exile, it would have been lost to the powerful families who collaborated with the Romans. Joseph’s family should have owned land near Bethlehem, because he had to go there for the census, but he had no land there, and did not even seem to have family members there that he could stay with. Being a carpenter or stonemason, he had probably moved to Nazareth to get work on one of Herod’s city building projects. Many families would be in a similar situation. Without access to land, they were dependent on casual work. Those with skills or a craft like Joseph would be in a slightly less precarious situation.

The ordinary people of Galilee and Judea were desperate for relief from their oppression, so when Jesus announced a new Jubilee, he would have created immense expectation.
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent…to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour (Luke 4:18-19).
Jesus promised that this Jubilee would be good news for the poor. It would provide a new freedom for people who were oppressed by the trials of life.

We tend to spiritualise this promise, but Jesus words must have meant something more real for his listeners. He was not promising to overthrow the Romans and take David’s throne in Jerusalem. This would not be practical. He was not even advocating a forced re-distribution of land back to the boundaries laid out by Joshua. That was not practical, because the Romans had used land to reward those who collaborated with them. The people who controlled the land in Israel were protected by Roman privilege.

Jesus was proclaiming a completely different type of jubilee. It would come about through ordinary people, applying the instructions for economic life laid out in the Torah. The land laws may not have been practical, but all the other instructions were still relevant. They did not need government intervention or consent. They could be applied by the ordinary people, despite the Roman control. Their application would bring a huge transformation to their society, as the practical sharing and caring was restored.

Returning to an equal distribution of land was not practical, because the Romans would not allow it, but that was less important, because for most people other forms of capital had become more essential. Jesus jubilee introduced a change that would create a more equal distribution of wealth/capital.

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