The Common Good
December 2011

Divine Regulation

by Lisa Sharon Harper | December 2011

What is valued in God's economy?

JESUS STANDS IN his hometown synagogue. He is handed the scroll. He unrolls it, finds Isaiah 61 and reads:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Jesus rolls up the scroll, sits down and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, you know how Isaiah said one day someone would proclaim these things. Well I just did! It’s on. The year of the Lord’s favor is on!

The Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-55) was the centerpiece of an economic system instituted by God as the Israelites entered the Promised Land. In this system every seven years the Israelites were commanded to observe the Sabbatical year (Leviticus 25:1-7, Deuteronomy 15:1-18). During this year, all debts were forgiven, slaves were set free, and the land was given rest from all sowing and reaping. In this theocratic agrarian society, Sabbatical year was a major regulatory act that imposed a yearlong cycle of rest for workers and the land in addition to the weekly Sabbath, which God instituted through the Ten Commandments. The Sabbatical year also affected merchants’ bottom lines. The cost of labor is a key factor in the ability of business to make a profit. Thus the command to free their slaves every seven years would have a profound effect on the ability of businesses to expand profits beyond modest margins.

The Year of Jubilee came at the end of seven seven-year cycles. In the 50th year, not only would debts be forgiven, slaves freed, and the land given rest, but also all land was returned to its original deed-holders, effectively banning outright the sale of land and only allowing land to be leased for 50 years or less.

This government regulation reinforced the view among the Israelites that natural resources belong to God, not to humanity. We are simply the stewards of land entrusted to us temporarily by God.

It also created conditions that would prevent any Israelite household from falling into multigenerational poverty. After 49 years, even the most destitute would reclaim the land given to their ancestors as they entered the Promised Land. The Year of Jubilee functioned as an equalizing reset button among the Israelites, preventing the accumulation of gross wealth and the entrenchment of gross poverty.

While the United States is not a theocracy, [ancient] Israel’s Year of Jubilee offers a useful picture of the priorities within God’s economy. In God’s economy, unlimited business growth is not an expectation. Rather, God imposes regulations on the business sector that prevent growth from producing mini-empires. In God’s economy, the well-being of workers and the land matters. God’s regulations limit exploitation and offer conditions conducive to flourishing by providing Sabbath and Sabbatical-year rest for workers and the land and by offering Jubilee debt forgiveness for all those enslaved to pay off debt. In God’s economy, there is no interest on loans to fellow Israelites (Deuteronomy 23:19). In God’s economy, private individual ownership of land does not exist. Rather, land is owned by God alone and exists for the common good of all the people and of the wild animals that live there (Leviticus 25:1-7).

This is what God’s dominion looks like. This is what Jesus announced as he read the Isaiah 61 prophecy in that Nazarene synagogue (Luke 4). The Year of Jubilee and the reign of God were at hand, and they stood in direct opposition to the kind of dominion practiced by King Herod and the Roman Empire. Jesus declares a divine revolt against the unjust systems and seditious priorities of human kingdoms. In Jesus’ proclamation we see that the dominion of God prioritizes the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the oppressed, and the poor. And we see, above all else, that Jesus has come so that the image of God might flourish in people, not the image of earthly kings on coins.

Excerpted from Left, Right, & Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics, by Lisa Sharon Harper & D.C. Innes, with permission from Russell Media. Copyright 2011. All rights reserved.

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