Leviticus 25: 1-17; Luke 4: 14-21
August 26, 2012
But in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest of the land,
And you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.
For a year.
Tell me something: what do you imagine this looked like? To let the land go for an entire year without so much as a hint of a back hoe or a lawnmower or a weed eater. What’d that look like? I mean, the Bible is chopped full of all kinds of amazing stories and evocative images: the parting of the Red Sea, the walls of Jericho, the baptisms at the Jordan River. It’s one thing to read about them in black and white, but it’s another to try to engage them with all five senses. What did Leviticus 25:3-4 look, feel, taste, touch, smell like?
Maybe it was like my lawn earlier this week; the lawn I hadn’t mowed in quite a while; the lawn that’s experienced freakish growth in our relatively wet summer, absent the typical brown patches that usually fester in late August. Uneven, unruly, a mess. It would not win any awards from the homeowner’s association, I can assure you!
Or maybe Leviticus 25:3-4 is like the “garden” in our backyard. And I use that term very loosely. It’s more than a mess – it’s an absolute disaster. Where green peppers and tomatoes and beans and lettuce should be, are instead a vast cornucopia of weeds and grass than I couldn’t have grown if I tried. We haven’t touched this thing since June; and I’d like to say it’s because the Lindsleys are faithfully observing Leviticus, but the truth is that we gave up on it a long time ago. Not out of scriptural celebration but cynical frustration.
Such an odd commandment, this “land-sabbath” thing. But we’ve got to pay attention to it, don’t we? Just like A.J. Jacobs did. Because it’s in here – it’s in the Bible, and the Bible is the book we say we believe in as Christians and as people of faith. So let’s see what A.J. has to say about it – and as we’ll see, it’s about a whole lot more than the land itself:
Here’s how it works: The Bible says that years—like days of the week—belong in a cycle of seven. The seventh year is called the Sabbath year, and big things happen.
First, that entire year, you must stop working. No farming is allowed. This is so the land can rest, and the needy can come and eat all they want from the vines and olive trees. Second, you must forgive your neighbor’s debts. All IOUs are erased.
After seven consecutive Sabbath cycles – forty-nine years – something even more radical happens: the Jubilee year. During the Jubilee year, you must return all property to its original owner (Leviticus 25:10).
(Year of Living Biblically, pg. 63)
Now imagine that! We’re not just talking about unmowed lawns or garden disasters, are we? The needy grazing in our yards? Forgiving all debts? Returning property? What kind of madness is this??
I mean, last week we acknowledged that in our quest to “live biblically,” we do a fair amount of cherry-picking commandments. And oftentimes the ones we choose are ones that already fit: the “Do not kill” and “Do not steal” type of things line up pretty well with the way our society is supposed to function.
But sometimes we ignore commandments like this because, frankly, the consequences of following them are ridiculous. As A.J. recognizes, erasing all debts and returning property would throw the world’s financial markets into chaos. And letting the poor graze on our land and eat from the crops we once planted, taking advantage of our work and our labor while doing none of their own – well, there’s a term for that in our highly-charged political rhetoric, and it’s not a flattering one.
So it’s hard to personalize a commandment like this, don’t you think? A.J. thought so:
Even on a personal level, I’ve found (jubilee) a challenge to practice. Consider the not-working part. I've worked for sixteen years straight, so I'm long overdue for a yearlong hiatus. The problem is, I've got a deadline for this book and a kid who is obsessed with offensively pricey Thomas the Tank Engine toys.
As for forgiving debts, I try two things:
1) Since bonds are debts, I try to forgive a bond I have owned for nine years. It was issued by the New York State Dormitory Authority. “We’ve never had a request like this before,” says the fourth guy I was sent to. He finally suggests that I donate some money to my favorite State University of New York school.
2) To my recollection, the only other outstanding debt that stretches more than seven years is the one owed by my sophomore-year college roommate. He owed me at least twenty dollars. The weasel would buy yogurt with the communal house money, then hide it from the rest of us in paper bags labeled “Photo Equipment— Do Not Touch.” I’ve always held a grudge. I let it go.
(Year of Living Biblically, pg. 64)
I’m sure if A.J.'s college roommate ever read his book, he’d do a little “jubilee dance” in the streets! Twenty bucks, whoo-hoo! But really, A.J. hits the nail on the head: it’s hard to internalize commandments like this when they operate on such a grandiose scale.
Which is why you and I have to dig a little deeper into the fabric of this commandment; beyond what it tells us to do to who it is calling us to be. And see, when we dig deeper into Jubilee, when we journey to its heart and see that single strand that runs through it all, we come upon this timeless truth: all that we have, all that we have worked to acquire in our lives, really does not belong to us. It’s not ours. It all belongs to God. All of it. All of it. And that is a tremendously powerful and extremely unsettling truth.
I think about this truth every time the offering plates are passed up and down the pews on Sunday morning. I think about the fact that we put our dollar bills or our check in there, thinking we have done some exceedingly gracious act by giving to God’s kingdom-building something that belongs to us. When, in fact, the powerful and unsettling truth is that we are only returning to God a portion of what God has already given us.
And it’s not just our “stuff” that belongs to God. You know, it’s easy to feel good about ourselves when we work hard in the fields – or in the office, or in the classroom – and are sustained in doing so. But to stop doing that for a whole year and still be sustained – we eventually realize that we belong to God as well. Despite what some in our culture try so desperately to convince us of, despite what we try to tell ourselves, we are not unto ourselves. We belong to the God who sustains us even in our rest; even when the fields go untamed for a year.
So if this is the heart of jubilee – a complete redefining of who we are and whose we are – then what other crazy things might this commandment be commanding us to do?
Back a few decades ago, two British evangelists named Martin Dent and Bill Peters put this commandment into practice as it related to the weighty (and sometimes contentious) issue of third-world debt. Billing themselves as “Jubilee Network,” they lobbied some of the larger nations of the world – including England, France and the United States – to forgive debts on monies loaned to third-world countries.
The movement got quite a boost when Bono, lead singer for a little rock band named U2, joined the cause. And not just as a celebrity face, but as a full-fledged Jubilee activist. In 2006, Bono spoke about his work with Jubilee at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC:
It is such an important idea, Jubilee, that Jesus begins his ministry with it. Jesus is a young man, he’s met with the rabbis, he’s a clever guy; but he hasn’t done much yet. When he does, his first words are from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, setting the oppressed free – to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, the year of Jubilee.” And he closed the scroll and said, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
And listen to what Bono says next:
What Jesus was really talking about in this year of the Lord’s favor, this year of Jubilee, was an era of grace. And we’re still in it.
Grace. Now that’s something we can sink our teeth into, isn’t it? More than fields and crops, vineyards and grapes, lawns and lawnmowers. Grace. Begun in the year of Jubilee, completed in Jesus himself. Resting and letting go and starting over. Grace.
How hard it is for us to give to someone something they didn’t earn; something they may not deserve. How hard it is to not only turn our lives over to God in a holy period of rest, but to share our lives with others, even though they have no claim over our lives, even though we don’t have claim over our own lives.
How hard that grace is. But my friends, this Jubilee grace is not just about us giving it. It’s not just about us extending jubilee to others. Because that side of grace is the easy kind of grace. That’s the kind we’re good at! That’s the kind we get recognized and acknowledged for.
No, the harder grace for you and for me is receiving it.
And here’s why: you and I operate in a world where people work and not rest, where people grab hold and not let go, where people continue down the dead-end road instead of turning and starting over. We live in a world that is so caught up in rugged individualism and personal pride that we make it near impossible for grace to be a two-way street. We love God and we love others. The part we struggle with is letting God and others love us.
There’s this wonderful little story about an African tribe and what they do when a member of that community breaks tribal customs and rules. That person is brought to the center of the village. All work ceases and every man, woman and child gathers in a large mass around the accused, encircling them completely so they have no way of escape. They are trapped.
And you know what the tribe does to them? They bombard the rejected person with affirmations! One at a time, friends and family expound on all the good that person has done. Every incident, every experience is recounted with detail and accuracy. All their positive attributes, their strengths and kindnesses. Finally, the circle is broken, and a joyous celebration ensues, and the outcast is welcomed back. And the village is made whole again.
Now that, folks, is some jubilee grace! For everyone. So listen: if you want to let your lawn or garden go rogue for a year, and risk the wrath of the homeowners association, have at it! But how about doing something really biblical? Forgive debts. Share your bounty with others who, like you, don’t own it. Share grace. And most importantly, receive it. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.