The Cosmic Cathedral

Understanding God in the Word and the World

An Economic Jubilee — Reading The Politics of Jesus

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John Howard Yoder The Politics of Jesus

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Foreclosures, mounting debts, rich taking advantage of the poor, trapping people in cycles of poverty through loopholes, a lack of opportunities, education, or sufficient startup capital to raise them out of the clutches of low wage employment, and routine late fees and debt. Unfortunately this scene is all too familiar. While we would like to imagine we live in a society which has by and large corrected these systemic problems, one need not even look to the squaller of slums and ghettos in major metropolitan centers to know that this is not the case, most of us need only consider the friend or relative who faced foreclosure, the parent laid off do to the exportation of blue collar jobs, or the acquaintance shackled with mounting medical bills following a serious diagnosis.

If we are familiar, even in a superficial way, with these hardships in our present day, then it should not surprise us to fine strikingly similar economic situations when looking into the time during which Jesus lived in Palestine, and to find Jesus, throughout his ministry, addressing them. Following Yoder’s overview of the ministry of Jesus in his previous chapter he now turns to examining in closer detail some of the particularities found within that summary. As a starting point, in his chapter Implications of the Jubilee, Yoder focuses on the famous Luke 4:18 quotation of Isaiah 61 ending with the proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Within the prevous chapter Yoder had considered this quotation to be a declaration of the year of Jubilee: the year within Israel’s history, coming every 50 years, when debts are forgive, land returned to their families, slaves release — leveling the economic playing field, the rich sacrificing their wealth and the poor being restored to solvency. Here Yoder turns to address the specifics of Jesus’ minstry as a declaration of Jubilee. He identifies four distinguishing marks of what constituted Jubilee, using them to address the extent to which this Jubliee year was being implemented previous to Jesus and how this Jubliee declaration might be found within the traching and ministry of Jesus. The four distinguishing marks of the Jubilee — a) a year of leaving the soil fallow, b) the remission of debts, c) the liberation of slaves, and d) the return to each individual of his family’s property — form the structure of the chaper and will be laid out in more detail below.

The Fallow Year

The fallow year was the most ubiquitously adopted of the Jubilee measures, though not without its share of corner cutting and insincerity. The principle of leaving their fields fallow every seventh years was regularly practiced within Israel, a command as much tied to the faith of Israel to rely on the Lord for provision as it was to sound agricultural practices. Because of this it is not surprising to find that Jesus said little in regards to this element of the Jubilee, though  his Sermon on the Plain exhortation to not worry about what to eat or wear because “your Father knows that you need them” carries with it some connotations of the sort of Jubilee faith Jesus may have been seeking. Rather than seen as a exhortation of confident laziness, within this context Yoder sees the passage better read as:

“If you work six days (or years) with all your heart, you can count on God to take care of you and yours. So without fear leave your field untilled. As he does for the birds of heaven which do not sow or harvest or collect into granaries, God will take care of your needs. The Gentiles who pay no attention to the sabbath are not richer than you.”

Remission of Debts and Liberation of Slaves

Yoder spends significantly more time on the latter three Jubilee identifiers, especially as it relates to the forgiveness of debts and the liberations of slaves, a topic which sits central to Jesus’ teaching. In the Lord’s prayer, Yoder sees the use of the word aphiemi (remit, send away, liberate, forgive a debt) for the  verb  “remit us our debts,” a word used often in connection with the Jubilee, as establishing  the “Our Father” as “genuinely a jubilee prayer.” It is here Jesus, so often seen as a liberal in many aspects,  establishes what could be seen as his most legalistic equation: “the aphesis of God toward you becomes vain if you do not practice aphesis toward each other.”

Both the parable of the unmerciful servant and the unfaithful steward further expound on Jesus’ understanding on this point. Yoder argues our readings of these parables lose their meaning when read without an understanding of the socio-economic atmosphere of the first century. The servant of the first parable was in fact a real person, whose plight was not unlike many living in Galilee at the time, who had once been land owners but who had been reduced to practical slavery through debt — the mounting unpaid debts growing to a point when the creditor orders the sharecropper sold with his wife, children, and possessions to cover the debt. But in keeping with the Jubilee year the king aphiem the servants debts.

Yet Jesus does not end his parable here, with the encouraging promise of the overwhelming economic hardship being wiped away, but rather his point is found in the second half, where the servant refuses to extend the same jubilee forgiveness to a fellow servant who owes a much more modest sum, insisting he “Pay me what you owe me.” When the unmerciful servant comes before the king, the extension of Jubilee is no longer applicable, he will be sold with his wife and children. There is not divine jubilee for for those who refuse to apply it on earth.

Since the jubilee remission of debts froze credit, even the orthodox rabbis, Hillel and Shammai, sought solutions to the problems of strictly applying the troubling aspects of this  jubilee requirement. The solution was called a prosboul, — the very existence of which at the time of Jesus  indicates there was a strong current favoring strict application of the jubilee provisions. The prosboul allowed for a creditor to transfer to the court the right to recover in his name a debt which the sabbatical year would have canceled. With these provisions, the collecting of interest and the continuation of debt past the sabbatical year became possible and Jesus’ indictment of the Pharisees who “devoured the houses of widows” (Mark 12:40) comes into focus.

While in other issues Jesus appeared to be a liberal when it came to Sabbath law, when it came to economic justice he goes further than the Pharisees. His insistence that “God made the sabbath for humankind” mean that sabbatical year, like the day of sabbath, must be practiced in such a way as to “liberate people and not enslave them.” Rather than fearing lose, the rich are, per the Sermon on the Plain, to be generous without the fear of not being repaid since God will take care of them. And those who are in debt should hurry to repay their debts. If their creditor wants to the take away your tunic (as a security for a debt) to give your coat as well. In addition, Jesus instructs his listeners to hasten to make peace with their creditors on the road before they are handed over to the court, from which they will not be released until the last penny is paid.

The second parable is that of the unfaithful servant. Once again, the meaning of this parable comes into focus when understood in light of common practice of the time. Since only the rich kept record of debts owed, the inflating of debts was not an uncommon practice. Since most rural property owners had lost their land, they were at the the mercy of often absentee owners to which they were enslaved by debt. The accountants often presented to these owners fraudulent books, the true debts owed drastically increased, which allowed them to accumulate in a few years what Jesus called “unrighteous wealth.”

Within the parable the owner discovers his steward has been dishonest, not only inflating the debts of the sharecroppers, but stealing from this employer. This steward, realizing his time in his present position is short and he will never be able to repay the embezzled funds, goes to the sharecroppers, marking down their debt from the inflated amount to the correct amount owed — 100 becoming 50, 100 becoming 80. While this behavior would certainly further drive the steward into poverty, he would in the process acquire what Jesus calls true wealth — the friendship and gratitude of his former victims. Jesus declares his listeners should “make friends with unrighteous wealth,” by practicing jubilee, forgiving the debts owed you, in order to “liberate yourself from the bonds which keep you from being ready for the kingdom of God.”

The Redistribution of Capital

The fourth indicator of Jubilee finds itself in one of Jesus’ most radical calls on his disciples — that of voluntary poverty. While the church has traditionally accepted the, far easier,  interpretation of Jesus’ call to “sell all you have and give it to the poor” as a ‘counsel of perfection’ rather than one for all Christians at all times. While this interpretation could be acceptable, much of Jesus’ further teaching criticized those who found the base charity of the tithe adequate, insisting his listeners go further to fulfill the “more important points of the law: righteousness, goodness, good faith.” Yoder interprets this “righteousness, goodness, good faith” as meaning to give away ones own capital to the benefit of the poor. As seen in the story of he widow giving in the temple, the point becomes clear, it is not how much you give as long as it is from the surplus of ones income, but rather what is important is giving out of ones capital.

Yet it is not Yoder’s belief that Jesus commanded Christian communism. He sees Jesus’s call was not a “counsel of perfection” or a constitutional commandment for a utopian Israel state, rather is was a once time call in a moment of history for his disciples to put into practice the jubilee ordinance as a “refreshment” prefiguring the “reestablishment of all things.” It was Jesus in 26 A.D. proclaiming his ministry as a jubilee moment which was preparing for the coming kingdom.

The issue of economic facing human society has not sat dormant in the millenniums since Jesus preached throughout Galilee and Judea. Yoder presents a radical interpertation of Jesus’ teachings in the context of the economics of his day. His parables take on a fierce urgency against the backdrop of the greed, oppression, and unjust debts which where prevalent in the lives of his hearers. While the matter of Jesus calling a Jubilee  warrants further investigation, Jesus’ message of a radical return to economic justice is beyond dispute. While often Jesus’ parables on debt have been primarily seen as speaking only to “spiritual things” such as the forgiveness of sins, Yoder’s insistence that Jesus be understood in a political light forces us to understand his parables against the economic backdrop of his day and to see how those same parables may find significance in the present landscape of financial misdealings and economic injustice and unrighteous wealth devouring the houses of the poor, minorities, working class, and widows.

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Author: Kendall Beachey

I am an aspiring Biblical Studies and Theology student living in Kansas City. My goal is to attend seminary and give myself to Christian teaching and Ministry.

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