The Year of Jubilee

Sheila Baxter has written a book on homelessness called Under the Viaduct that describes a society in which the accumulation of wealth has taken the place of compassion.  Some of us are homeless because those with enormous homes are dependent on our homelessness for their homes, and some of us are homeless because we have lost “the great shining of the world’s inwardness” as the Hasidic tradition puts it.  What have we forgotten?

Different traditions have different stories about homelessness and homecoming.  Here is one story from one tradition.

Long ago the ancient Hebrews lived as slaves in Egypt for more than four hundred years.  They knew what it was like to be homeless. They knew what it was like to be used for the profit of others.

Under the leadership of Moses the people fled Egypt, and wandered in the wilderness for forty years.  They longed for home, a land to which they could belong, a land overflowing with milk and honey.

A land was given to them by the Creator, but with this gift came responsibilities.  The people agreed to a covenant or contract concerning their behavior in this precious land.

Every seventh day was a Sabbath day, a day of rest for the people, their animals, and the land.  On this day the people remembered their covenant with rejoicing, and remembered also the giver of the gift.

Every seventh year was a Sabbath year.  In this year debts among the people were forgiven, and those of the people who had become slaves because of debt were released from their slavery.  In this way the people reminded themselves that the ethical foundation of their community was more profound than the rules of commerce – that economics must be regulated by ethics.

Every fiftieth year was the year of Jubilee. In this year all land was returned, without repurchase, to the original owner.  When the people first came to the promised land, each family, except for the tribe of Levi which had special duties, was given land on an equal basis. This was the inheritance of that family.  It was a gift.  The family did not think of themselves as owners of the land, but as stewards of the land.  Stewardship was part of the covenant.

In each generation commerce took place, and some families lost land.  This land would be returned to the family that lost it during the year of Jubilee.  In this way the people reminded themselves of their covenant and of their responsibilities to the land and the coming generations.  They remembered what they had been told by the Creator:  “For the land belongs to me, and you are only strangers and guests of mine.” (Leviticus 25:23)

In those days the people didn’t think much of one person trying to take away another person’s land, and they remembered what has been called the eleventh commandment:  “Thou shalt not remove thy neighbour’s landmark.| (Deuteronomy 19:14)  In other words, it is wrong to take away another person’ means of making a living.  If my home depends on you homelessness, then my home is built on quicksand.

The Sabbath/Jubilee model of society was based on compassion and justice, and it implied that a model of society based on profit and loss was unacceptable because such a model not only denied justice to the poor, but it forgot that wealth was a gift and that we are called to be stewards, not owners, of the land.

About three hundred and fifty years went by between the time the people entered the promised land until they set up their first king.  Many of those years were good years, but gradually wealth and power began to concentrate in the hands of fewer people.  Some say an urban elite, with military backing, turned agriculture from village subsistence to one crop exploitation for export, causing independent farmers to become day labourers on large estates.  Whatever the reasons, the covenant was forgotten, and the prophets arrived.

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