Catastrophe. Tragedy. Jubilee?
There are many words that come to mind during the coronavirus pandemic, but jubilee is not one of them. Nothing about the present situation causes jubilation: There is a backlog of bodies overwhelming morgues. Parks, once places of blithe relaxation, are now field hospitals for feverish patients. An unprecedented number of unemployment requests threaten to overwhelm resources.
And, yet, jubilee is appearing all around us amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In surprising ways, 2020 is turning out to be a year of jubilee. Prescribed in Leviticus 25, the year of jubilee occurred every 50 years. The jubilee was a time of liberation throughout the land of Israel:
And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: You shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces. (Leviticus 25:10-12)
The year of jubilee enacted several distinctive practices: On the year of jubilee, the ancient Israelites were supposed to leave the land fallow, remit debts, liberate slaves, and return property to its original owner. It was a year standing in stark contrast to the previous 49 years.
Curiously, the jubilee is being put into practice amid the coronavirus pandemic. Though it breaks the logic of a pandemic, jubilee is blooming in this bleak moment in history.
The “land is being left fallow” as many are not working or staying at home. Resembling what the Israelites did in the year of jubilee, yesterday’s work is sustaining today’s needs while in quarantine. Many factories, stores, and markets around the world have shut down and the land is experiencing a partial sabbath rest.
The rapid halt to work and income has left many people in financially precarious positions. This has led to another jubilee practice: Lenders are remitting debts in unlikely ways. Some – though not all – lenders are offering to forgive certain loans or allow for deferred payments. Banks and credit card companies are ostensibly working with customers to defer interest temporarily or allow for a few skipped payments. Insurance companies have waived certain copays and libraries are foregoing late fees. To be certain, a large gap remains between the present social realities and the full year of jubilee. Nevertheless, these offer a slight glimpse of the remission of debts that occurred in the year of jubilee: “In the jubilee it shall be released” (Leviticus 25:28).
Slaves were to be released in the year of jubilee (Leviticus 25:54). In ancient Israel, it was not uncommon for individuals to incur such large debts that they would be forced to sell themselves into slavery. The year of jubilee, however, liberated all who were under the burden of indentured servitude or slavery. Again, the coronavirus has prompted a variation on this jubilee practice: Prisons are releasing thousands of low-level or nonviolent inmates. In an effort to mitigate coronavirus infection, prisoners are being released in numbers that were unimaginable just a few months ago. Is this full-fledged jubilee liberation? Far from it. Yet, some are experiencing jubilee as a result of the coronavirus.
Another jubilee practice appearing amid of this pandemic: Generosity is being practiced through the sharing of resources. Whether out of kindness or furtive marketing, companies are offering temporary free access to paid subscriptions. Assistance programs are being rolled out on a daily basis. Spontaneous acts of charity are happening as people make homemade facemasks. These pockets of generosity emerging as a result of the coronavirus resemble yet another the jubilee prescription: “If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner …” (Leviticus 25:36).
The world is clearly longing for jubilee.
Jesus alluded to his ministry being the beginning of a new jubilee (Luke 4:16-21). He came to, “proclaim good news to the poor,” “to proclaim liberty to the captives,” and “to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). Jesus made the jubilee vision a reality by inaugurating a radically new and peaceable kingdom in the world.
As the body of Christ on earth, the church puts this jubilee into practice. Some of the jubilee practices of the church are so ordinary that they are easily overlooked. Nevertheless, these odd and ordinary practices are foundational to how the Christian community bears witness to the world both during times of pandemic and in far more ordinary times.
Worship is sabbath rest and fallow time for renewal. While the coronavirus has forced many to pause from a life of total work, this has been willingly practiced by the church over the centuries. In the words of theologian Marva Dawn, worship is “a royal waste of time,” showing the world what it looks like to engage in sabbath rest. The world is now getting a taste of what the church has been doing for centuries.
Forgiveness, remitting sins, and enacting reconciliation, is another jubilee practice of the church. Long before the coronavirus prompted the forgiveness of loans and the absolution of late fees, the Christian community practiced forgiveness and absolution. Captives are released from shame and guilt as the good news of Jesus is offered to others.
Sharing resources and table fellowship are yet other practices occurring within the Christian community. Wealth is redistributed through offerings, support comes through communal generosity, and needs are met by spontaneous acts of charity. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper, though many churches have temporarily suspended this practice on account of the coronavirus, ordinarily provides a visible display of table fellowship and unity.
Eventually, this coronavirus-induced year of jubilee will come to an end. Credit card companies will charge interest again. Libraries will impose late fees. Prisons will be full once more. The land will be worked and overworked.
But the church – along with its peculiar practice of jubilee – will remain. It will bear witness to a greater and perpetual jubilee inaugurated by Jesus. And, in its odd and ordinary ways, it will bear witness to a world yearning for jubilee.