The Ethic of Jubilee

Jesus’ proclamation of Jubilee did not mean he was seeking to redistribute property in Israel according to the ancient Law of Moses. Even if he would have had the necessary political clout to do it, many centuries had gone by and it would have been impossible to identify the rightful heirs of the original owners. What it did mean was that trust in God and the spirit of freedom, equality, and economic sharing that shaped the original tenets of Jubilee would thoroughly permeate the kingdom of God movement he was starting. We see inspiring examples of that throughout Jesus’ ministry.

Including everyone is at the heart of the ethic of Jubilee. In the economy of God, communities are not divided between privileged elites and everyone else. Jesus created waves at the very beginning of his ministry by fellowshipping with those considered to be outsiders and sinners (Mark 2:16). Such radical inclusivity was the hallmark of Jesus and his followers. Inclusive faith communities are built from the bottom up on the conviction that God shows absolutely no partiality (Act 10:34).

Such inclusive community has radical economic expressions. This is vividly seen in Jesus’ encounter with the rich ruler (Mark 10:17-22) and with Zacchaeus, the tax collector (Luke 19:1-10). In the spirit of Jubilee, Jesus challenged the devout rich ruler to give all his possessions to the poor and join Jesus’ ragtag band of disciples if he wanted to be set free. The shocked man went way grieving because he was very rich. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, grasped the ethic of Jubilee by announcing that he was giving a half his possessions to the poor and would repay four times as much to anyone he had defrauded.

What does the ethic of Jubilee look like in our world where the divide between the rich and the poor continues to grow alarmingly wider with each passing decade? One encouraging example is the Jubilee USA Network, which has pressured rich countries and the International Monetary Fund to forgive part of the debt of impoverished countries. To find out more about this effort visit their website at http://www.jubileeusa.org/ .

A pressing question is what the spirit of Jubilee looks like in the life of local congregations. Certainly the many churches that run food pantries and homeless shelters are examples. But how might church members be more transparent with each other about our personal finances? I’m not talking about a rigid moralism but about the freedom to confide in each other and support each other. Money is a taboo topic that we find very hard to talk about. For the sake of our own health, we need to break its hold on us.

I was recently talking with a member of our congregation about the high cost of housing in Fairfax County, where our church is located. Could our church find a way to support each other in these costs? What would that look like? Might it involve a rotating sharing fund, modeled after the micro-finance practices used by development organizations in poor countries? The fund could be used for rent deposits or even down payments to buy a house. We’re only beginning to live into the spirit of Jubilee.

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