How does an ancient law from the Hebrew scriptures translate for followers of Jesus today?
In a conversation that crossed three disparate time zones, Ruth Padilla DeBorst and René August, two inspiring theologians and friends of Tearfund (and each other), shared how the narrative of Jubilee is threaded into their local contexts – and how the Church can step into its continuing story today.
René: Jubilee starts with the word “rest”. It’s in the origin story that we find in Genesis: God created, God rested, and God called rest holy. And then we see what is right at the beginning in Genesis exaggerated through the narrative of Jubilee: not only one day a week, but one year in seven – the Sabbath year [Deuteronomy 15]. And then on top of it, the seven times seven – and the 50th year will be Jubilee. And so, Jubilee is compounded rest. It’s the year of celebration after the year of rest. This law was given to a group of people who were enslaved, whose lives for many years were measured by what they were able to produce.
Jesus comes with an identity that shapes us outside of our capacity to produce. If we think about ourselves as people who were created not to produce, but to be, to create space for – and you look at all the things that come with instructions for Jubilee: to be together; to take care of the land; to care for creation; to let the planet rest; the fields rest; our bodies rest.
God’s favour, God’s restoration, is for all people. And so, get rid of your self-satisfied, self-seeking reading of Scripture and of Jubilee and open up to God’s outrageous love and desire for restoration of all things and all people.
Ruth: When I think Jubilee, what just jumps out to me is that element of setting right all that has gone wrong; how the image of God in people has been effaced. In the year of Jubilee, land is returned to original owners, slaves are released, no one is allowed to accumulate endlessly, ceaselessly: there needs to be restoration and equalisation – both in interpersonal relationships, but also in terms of work, so that there is the possibility of rest; restoration to family; restoration of land. And so, those are coupled: rest and restoration.
When Jesus comes into this small synagogue in Nazareth, in what is known somewhat as his declaration of his mission [Luke 4], he beckons back to this call of the year of Jubilee, and he makes very explicit how those things get to be set right: how that which is good from the original creation is restored by freeing the oppressed; giving sight to the blind; hearing to the deaf. He proclaims the year of God’s favour, and what’s fascinating to me is how in that proclamation, Jesus chooses to edit the words of Isaiah  that he’s citing. It’s almost verbatim, except he dares to drop out the last line: “… and the year of God’s vengeance to all your enemies.” Jesus drops it. The people in the synagogue who are very satisfied with “Oh yes, this is the year of God’s favour for us; this is for me, this is for the insiders; this is all so comfortable”, they’re all rejoicing. But if you look at the end of the passage, they’re ready to stone him. Why? Because he dares to edit out that line. What he’s saying is God’s favour, God’s restoration, is for all people. And so, get rid of your self-satisfied, self-seeking reading of Scripture and of Jubilee and open up to God’s outrageous love and desire for restoration of all things and all people.
Ruth: Having our imagination captive to production, consumption, accumulation, is what Jubilee counters so intensely, right? So, how do we engage with the reality of sufficiency? Our society says “you could never have too much, you need to accumulate, you need to acquire, you need to produce, you need to be part of this machinery”. Because of this, we’ve just been grinding up people and grinding up creation, with this unquenchable thirst for more. The call at the core of Jubilee is enoughness; sufficiency. And that demands a recasting of imagination, of what the ideal is: what is the good life? What does it mean to live well? Is it stuff? And Jesus is very clear: life does not consist of the possessions you have, of the stuff of life. Can we come back to a recognition of the value of the essential need of right relations? And right relations not just between humans, but with the rest of creation. The call to rest is a way to call us back to that.
René: The word sharing comes to mind. I can’t call it rest if someone else is working for me. God creates this rest and then says it is good: this goodness is not inherent in the nature of the rest, the goodness is inherent in the relationship between what creates rest. Whatever community you’re part of, what rest looks like is creating the capacity for everyone to thrive.
Ruth: It demands a reimagining of life, of societal life, of political life, to allow for a distribution that has space for rest for all. And it’s the same with finances, right? If everybody’s out to seek their own profit and security, then the battle is an uphill and all-consuming one. If we can imagine sharing so that we don’t all need to have everything, because we can all share what we do have, then it’s a totally other picture. There’s space to do other things with life; to do non-paying things; to volunteer; to support... but it demands that kind of radical releasing of a certain mode, a resetting of our relationships.
René: In the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus taught to the disciples, is “forgive us our debts …”. We experience the words of Jesus as disruptive, but actually, they’re restorative to the majority of the world. So, I would say that today: peace. If anyone owes you money, cancel it. Just try it. I promise you, there’s Jubilee for you, because there’s a chance for that relationship to be about more than money; about more than what is owed to me; an end to your entitlement; and an opportunity to embrace a human.
Ruth: When Jesus says that “this is fulfilled today”, it’s an invitation also for us to continue in that same story that Jesus stepped into. A story that began with a good creation and ends with the renewed creation that has not yet occurred. Are we going to believe the stories of a capitalistic accumulation production machine that grinds up people and land and the whole of creation? Or are we going to acknowledge our belonging to this story of renewal and restoration and rest and recalibration? And in so doing, step into that very same story that Jesus announced that day in the synagogue.
That is the invitation: can we pray that the Spirit will weave us into that story that makes that “today” call effective for us? And determines then our value system, our priorities, our use of time, of money, our relationships, our valuing of people, our openness to that beautiful diversity?
René: “What is church when we can’t gather?” That for me is a reset question. COVID-19 has been so disruptive in South Africa. There wasn’t a single church who could operate independently anymore. The need was too big. Whether it was the issue of shelter, or feeding, or unemployment... Here, food insecurity is the biggest consequence of COVID-19. Not illness and death, hunger. [Churches] are asking: “How can we do this together?”. Praise God for a problem that forces you outside of yourself. It’s too much to do on our own. Food insecurity is going to be with us for a while. So, what do agricultural hubs in local churches look like? What does it mean to help people put food on the table? I think that’s gold for this new normal: the decommodification of what God has given freely, in the Lord’s prayer, and in manna from heaven: enough food for everyone.
Ruth: And that is totally connected to our relationship to the rest of creation. The industrialisation of food has just wreaked havoc on environments around the globe. What happens if instead, it’s every local plot of every local church, it’s every green space of every house, it’s every little pot on a balcony in a building, and you re-engage with what the cycle of life: where kids learn that eggs don’t come and cartons, that they come out of this chicken that’s in your yard; where meat isn’t packaged five times in plastic, and you start wondering if you should even be eating it... Rethinking our place in the rest of creation.
Now is the time to see a bigger picture of who God is, and dare yourself to love more than you think you have the capacity to love.
René: Go and see the life of someone else, who you think has less than you. And allow these stories to inspire you, and fill your imagination. The story of God that we live in, is a story of “God so loved the cosmos, that God gave Jesus”. God loves the cosmos. And so how do we take the next step in loving the cosmos? The limitation on my imagination is because my love is too small, and my picture of God is too small. Now is the time to see a bigger picture of who God is, and dare yourself to love more than you think you have the capacity to love.
Ruth: My personality and my experience has been, “I’m gonna plan and I’m gonna control and I’m gonna make it happen, and I’m responsible for it.” I take the challenge René gives of rest as something I have to struggle with daily, because of my operational mode. That is totally contrary to the story of God the Creator, God the Sustainer, the Spirit breathing my every last breath – of which I know these days, with COVID and the limitations related to it. Every breath I take is a gift. In the midst of so much uncertainty these days, where you’re trying to plan things and you can’t, and life has been so disrupted, and it can be overwhelming and we’re at a loss. Well, let’s allow the Spirit to transform that loss into a posture of receptivity to God. God has not abandoned the world. God’s love is present: may we pray to see it, to sense it, to be renewed in that hope of God’s love for the cosmos.