You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. 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.
In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property. When you make a sale to your neighbour or buy from your neighbour, you shall not cheat one another. When you buy from your neighbour, you shall pay only for the number of years since the jubilee; the seller shall charge you only for the remaining crop-years. If the years are more, you shall increase the price, and if the years are fewer, you shall diminish the price; for it is a certain number of harvests that are being sold to you. You shall not cheat one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.
Our modern economy often involves the sale of land, looking to make profits. Leasehold reverts the land to the original owner after a set period, but freehold is a permanent transfer. Farmers work to get the best possible yield from crops every year, so the concept of jubilee in Leviticus allowing rest years is somewhat alien to us. Leviticus says that land belongs to God, not us – we are merely holding it as tenants. We are serving the land – note that the buying and selling is not of the land itself, but the crops from that land. While this has some parallels with a modern leasehold, the emphasis is still on God owning the land, not people.
In effect, the jubilee year is like a reset to factory settings – the year when everything goes back to the beginning –– not a comfortable process, as anyone who has had to do it with a phone will know!
Jubilee is a reset of the relationships between God, Earth and humans. Earth and humans both belong to God, but the principles of jubilee put humans after the earth. We are the tenants and aliens set to serve the earth.
Viewers of Frozen Planet II late last year will have seen the devastation that humans have wrought upon the Earth. The series also showed us people working to restore the earth following (perhaps unknowingly) the traditions of jubilee.
So, Jubilee is a time for rest – principally for the land, but also for those who toil on it. It’s a part of God’s plan.
Jubilee is also a time for reflecting on our relationships – with God, with each other and with the Earth.
Finally, it’s a time to restore justice as we change our practices to the way God intended.
Note: I am grateful to Meg Warner of Northern College for her studies on Leviticus at the Ministers’ gathering and at General Assembly last year, which have informed my reflection.
Lord of creation, you command us to live as tenants and aliens on your land, and follow your rules for a balance between work and rest.
Help us to keep that balance in our lives, in our work and in our relationships with others, remembering that rest is a fundamental part of your plan for us. Amen.
The Rev’d Sue Cossey is a non-stipendiary minister and Synod Pastoral Advisor for the Bristol area. She is a member of Zion United Church, Frampton Cotterell.