Echoes of Jubilee in the Sermon on the Mount

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May 29, 2013 by jmar198013

We find the proclamation of, and regulations concerning, the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee throughout the Torah (Exod. 21.2-6; 23.10-11; Lev. 25; Deut. 15.1-18) and the Prophets (Isa. 49.8-9; 61.1-2; Jer. 34.8-22). Jubilee was primarily a message of liberation, celebrated by allowing the land a Sabbath rest, manumission of slaves, cancellation of debts, and redistribution of capital. In recent years, a growing number of biblical scholars have shown much interest in examining the influence of Jubilee upon Jesus’ proclamation of the gospel. Those who see a correlation between Jesus’ proclamation and the Jubilee find find it an essential organizing principle for Jesus’ message (Yoder, Politics 71-72). The Jubilee theme throughout the Sermon on the Mount, and it can be shown that the earliest Christian communities embodied that proclamation.


When Jesus wanted to make a point about morality, ethics, or the character of God, he appealed to the Old Testament. “Jesus, as a Jew, had only one library at his disposal, namely the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms. These scriptures inspired his teachings and parables” (Trocmé 3). Jesus spoke to a culture whose idioms were determined by a common set of writings and traditions. At times, his words were a direct appropriation of the words of the Hebrew Bible; other times, one may perceive only the faintest murmur of an echo. Yet, whether in the background, or in the fore, the Hebrew Scriptures continually inform Jesus’ words and form a framework for their interpretation.

It is not enough to say, however, that Jesus’ teachings were informed by the Hebrew Bible. Rather, Jesus’ life (which was also his preaching) was an embodiment (Murray 150)—a fulfillment (Matt 5.17-20) in its truest sense—of those Scriptures. Jesus “interprets his own actions in terms of the fulfillment, not of a few prophetic proof-texts taken atomistically, but of the entire story-line which Israel has told herself, in a variety of forms, over and over again” (N. T. Wright, Jesus 130). The Sabbath year and Jubilee traditions were ways in which Israel was supposed to rehearse that story-line.

The regulations concerning Jubilee are presented in Lev. 25. During the Jubilee, liberty was proclaimed to all Israelite debt-slaves, and lands were returned to families who had been forced to sell them for economic reasons. Jubilee was an extension of the sabbatical, or fallow, year mentioned in Exod. 23.10-12 (cf. Lev. 25.1-7; 19-22). On the seventh year, the Israelites were supposed to let the land lie fallow and allow the needy to gather the yield of the land. In Lev. 25.10-22, the Lord promises that if the people will observe this ordinance, he will provide for them during the seventh year. The fallow year ordinances of Exod. 23.10-12 and Lev. 25.1‑7, then, emerge from a common reservoir of imagery which includes the provision of rest on the seventh day (Exod. 23.12), and the provision of manna for the Israelites in the wilderness, with its promise that God will provide enough manna on the sixth day that the Israelites would not need to gather on the Sabbath (Exod. 16.23-30). When we recognize the ultimate source of the sabbatical year and Jubilee as God’s provision of a Sabbath rest for his people, we may note that this tradition is bound up in the story of the formation of Israel, where God’s intention was to provide rest for a nation of abused slaves (Exod. 23.6, 9), but it also goes back to the fundamental logic of creation. The Israelites were commanded to rest on the seventh day because their God had rested on the seventh day after creating the world (Exod. 20.8-11; Gen. 2.2). The Jubilee was proclaimed at the close of a cycle of seven Sabbath years (Lev. 25.8-10), so it flows out of the general Sabbath tradition. It was the Sabbath writ large (Ringe 17-19; C. Wright, Walking 197-98; 202).

The function of the Jubilee year was essentially the maintenance of social solidarity. Its two primary concerns were keeping families together and the preservation of the lands on which they lived. The Jubilee was intended to be worked out in the context of Israel’s three-tiered kinship system, comprised by the tribe, the clan, and the household (cf. Judges 6.15). Clans were subgroups within the tribes of Israel, named for the grandsons of Jacob and other members of the patriarchal family (Num. 26), and the clan, as a kinship group, bore the responsibility of the preservation of the lands of the individual households within the clan. The inalienability of the land along the clan’s responsibility for ensuring the protection and security of the land of the individual households spelled out in Lev. 25.23-28, indicates that the function of the Jubilee was the protection of land-tenure within the kinship unit, so that the resources of the land could be distributed as widely as possible throughout the kinship unit (C. Wright, Walking 198-99). Jubilee was a family-sustaining ordinance, meant to ensure that the necessary resources for living were available to all households within the broader tribal unit.

The emergence of the Jubilee year from the Sabbath and manna-blessing traditions yields two important observations. First, the extension of Sabbath into Jubilee should compel us to acknowledge that Jubilee speaks a fundamental truth about God’s intentions for human initiative: “Sustaining abundant life for all is the fundamental logic of creation, the vocation of every human being” (Lowery 149). Whatever, then, sets itself against the well-being of humans dishonors God’s will. The Jubilee year worked to promote the well-being of humans by protecting resources needed for survival.

Second, an important theme is highlighted when we look to the manna-blessing as a paradigm for Sabbath year and Jubilee traditions. The corporate welfare of the people was not measured by a collective standard, such as a Gross National Product or per capita income, but in terms of the need of each individual within God’s people: “he that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack; each gathered according to what he could eat” (Exod. 16.18). The deeper implication of this truth is that whenever one is living in abundance while a neighbor is destitute, it is a manifestation of hostility to God’s reign. “God blesses generously, lavishly providing life abundant for each person under God’s care, regardless of ability. But the surplus is limited by actual human need” (Lowery 100). Jubilee was meant to ensure that hoarding of resources to the detriment of others did not occur, by regulating the distribution of those resources.

To the laws concerning the sabbatical year in Lev. 25.1-7, an expansion on the fallow year provision of Exod. 23.10-11, are added provisions for debt-release in Deut. 15.1-2. When Deut. 15 is read in connection with Lev. 25.8-12, 35-43, we see that the provisions for debt-release and the release of slaves during the Jubilee year are closely connected. Those to whom liberty was to be proclaimed (Lev. 25.10) were those who had been forced to sell themselves into slavery on account of debt (cf. Lev. 25.35). The proclamation of Jubilee in Lev. 25.8-12 sounds the harmonizing notes of liberation and restoration: “liberty from the burden of debt and the bondage it may have entailed; return both to the ancestral property if it had been mortgaged to a creditor and to the family which may have been split up through debt-servitude” (C. Wright, Walking 202). These interwoven concepts of liberation and restoration signaled by the Jubilee year form the basis for its use as an embodied metaphor in the prophetic literature and New Testament documents, which we shall explore shortly.

With the year of Jubilee also came the return of ancestral property which had been mortgaged to creditors (Lev. 25.10, 23-31). This Jubilee principle we place under the broad rubric of “redistribution of capital.” What we would refer to as capital is represented by the land (Harris 80-81). Again, the broader concerns indicated by the return of land during the Jubilee were keeping family units intact and not allowing people to hoard capital at the expense of the well-being of others. These concerns worked themselves out in two closely-related ways. First, God’s command in Lev. 25.23 that the “land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine” did not necessarily do away with the concept of private ownership. Rather, this command relativized the nature of private ownership. By proclaiming a return of land to its original owners every Jubilee, God reaffirmed the concept of ownership, while putting a check on human greed that tends to acquire and hoard at the expense of others. The pragmatic outworking of the return of family lands is that no “contingent circumstance can force a man to alienate his share of the world’s in such wise that he and his family will be left destitute while others immoderately abound” (North 214). This first practical benefit of Jubilee implies a second. The acquisition of capital by a few at the expense of the well-being of others will always be bad for families, who will then be reduced to poverty. The redistribution of capital during the Jubilee carried with it the benefit of keeping families intact:

Like the doctrine of the living wage, the property-restitution aims to guarantee to the family the means of worthy independence, the basis of contented cohabitation. If the claims of commutative justice made it necessary to restrict this independence temporarily, the family even during that period had the stimulus of guaranteed hope . . . Pride in one’s modest property and resolve to preserve and improve it through generations is a strong incentive to hold the family together. (North 215)

The fundamental concerns of Jubilee were social solidarity, an ethic of abundance and self-restraint, and concern for the long-term survival of family units (Lowery 149). These principles converge into an embodied metaphor for the reign of God in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament and in the New Testament writings.

The key jubilary word is דְּרוֹר , which is used seven times in the Old Testament, all in relation to Jubilee regulations: the release of slaves (Lev. 25.10; Jer. 34.8, 15, 17; Isa. 61.1), and the reversion of property to original owners (Ezek. 46.17). The LXX translates דְּרוֹר  with ἄφεσιν, a word which also translates יוֹבֵ֣ל, “Jubilee,” in Lev. 25.12 (Olivier 987; cf. HALOT 1:230). In the Old Testament prophetic literature, perhaps its most striking usage is in Isa. 61.1-2, where דְּרוֹר is used in relation to evangelizing the poor and proclaiming “the year of the LORD’s favor,” which most scholars take as a reference to Jubilee (i.e., Ringe 30; Childs, Isaiah 505; Brueggemann, Isaiah 214). This usage of Jubilee imagery as a metaphor for the reign of God signals the restoration accomplished by God through the Messiah, and also functions as “an ethical challenge for justice to the oppressed in contemporary society” (C. Wright, Walking 208).

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry by reading aloud the Jubilee passage Isa. 61.1‑2 (Luke 4.16-30), but Luke is not alone in using Jubilee imagery as an important organizing principle for his Gospel. The Jubilee principles of liberation and restoration may also be found in Jesus’ response to John the Baptist (Matt. 11.2-6); his parables about indebtedness (i.e., Matt. 18.21-35), and the parable of the banquet (Luke 14.12-24) (C. Wright, Walking 209; Ringe 54-64; J. H. Yoder, Politics 63-64).

Noting how often Jesus used Jubilee as a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven, it should come as no surprise that this image also appears in the Sermon on the Mount. The “poor in spirit,” “those who mourn,” and “meek” of the Beatitudes find their antecedents in those figures as typified in Isa. 61.1-2 (Ringe 51-54; Guelich 111). Likewise, the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6.12) in the context of an urging for the establishment of the kingdom of God and a request for daily sustenance (6.9b‑11) is a rich Jubilee image (J. H. Yoder, Politics 62-63; Ringe 77-80). Against this thematic backdrop, provisions in the Sermon on the Mount such as the sharing of wealth (Matt. 5.42; 6.19-23) and trusting God to supply needs while we seek first his kingdom and justice (Matt. 6.24-34), take on a new significance. They are practices that announce God’s kingdom, which he has called a Jubilee to inaugurate.

These measures were enacted by the earliest Christian communities, as recorded in Acts 2.42-47; 4.34-35. They practiced a radical sharing in response to their experience of the reign of God, which signaled for them God’s initiative in restoring all things (Acts 1.6; 3.21). In fact, Acts 4.34 is almost a direct citation of the Jubilee passage Deut. 15.4 (C. Wright, Walking 210).


Works Cited

Brueggemann, Walter. Isaiah 40-66. Westminster Bible Companion. Louisville: Knox, 1998.

Childs, Brevard S. Isaiah. Old Testament Library. Louisville: Knoxville, 2001.

Guelich, Robert. The Sermon on the Mount: a Foundation for Understanding. Waco: Word, 1982.

(HALOT) Koehler, Ludwig and Walter Baumgartner. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. 2 vols. Trans. M. E. J. Richardson. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

Harris, Maria. Proclaim Jubilee! A Spirituality for the Twenty-First Century. Louisville: Westminster, 1996.

Lowery, Richard H. Sabbath and Jubilee. St. Louis: Chalice, 2000.

Murray, John. Principles of Conduct. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957.

North, Robert. Sociology of the Biblical Jubilee. Rome: Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1954.

Olivier, J. P. J. “דְּרוֹר.” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Vol. 1. Ed. Willem A. VanGemeren. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.

Ringe, Sharon H. Jesus, Liberation, and the Biblical Jubilee: Images for Ethics and Christology. Overtures to Biblical Theology. Ed. Walter Brueggemann and John R. Donahue. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985.

Trocmé, André. Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution. Ed. Charles E. Moore. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004.

Wright, Christopher J. H. Walking in the Ways of the Lord: The Ethical Authority of the Old Testament. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 1995.

Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Christian Origins and the Question of God Vol. 2. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.

Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.


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