You could be a faithful, practicing, every-Sunday Christian your entire life and never have run across the 25th chapter of the Book of Leviticus.
How many of you earned Sunday School Attendance Pins when you were little? If you lived a hundred years and never once missed Sunday worship in those years, and if you earned 100 years of Sunday School Attendance Pins, for attendance at 5200 Sunday worship services, you could be forgiven if you still knew nothing of Leviticus 25.
The 25th chapter of the Book of Leviticus didn't make the cut in the cycle of lectionary readings. In the assigned cycle of readings that are intended to take us through most of the Bible over the course of three years, Leviticus 25 didn't make the cut.
I don't know about you, but that peaks my curiosity. I want to know: What are they hiding from us? Or, what is considered too difficult for you and me to wrestle with? Or what is deemed too volatile, too socially disruptive, to read aloud on a Sunday morning when God and the Holy Spirit are in the room?
Upon examination, the 25th chapter of the Book of Leviticus does indeed contain, what can only be described as an explosive, disruptive, chaos-inducing, dangerous prescription for reengineering socio-economic life when, not if, things get out of balance … when, not if, the poor become too poor.
Let's step back, put this in context and get our heads around what is proposed in this chapter.
From atop of Mt. Sinai, God gives to Moses the law, the Commandments … the rules by which we are to live together if we wish to remain in covenant with God.
You know the Big Ten:
- You shall have no other gods before me
- You shall not make for yourself an idol
- You shall not take God's name in vain
- Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy
- Honor your father and mother
- You shall not murder
- You shall not commit adultery
- You shall not steal
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor
- You shall not covet your neighbor's wife
It turns out, that these Big Ten are not the half of it.
In the 25th chapter of the Book of Leviticus, God and Moses are still up there on Mt. Sinai (remember, Moses was up there for 40 days and 40 nights). We overhear God instructing Moses about an event that is to occur every 50 years (twice a century) for the purpose of rescuing the poorest of the poor - and their progeny - from crushing, humiliating poverty and indenture. The purpose of which is to limit the debilitating effects of poverty to a single generation.
It is called the Year of Jubilee. But that's a poor translation. The biblical word that is translated jubilee really means, shouting, or alarm. It is from a word that describes the act of blowing the ram's horn … the act of sounding the trumpet, or sounding the alarm.
So, imagine we are at very end of year forty-nine. The calendar page turns, the fiftieth year arrives, the ram's horn is blown, the alarm is sounded, the Year of Jubilee is announced.
Here's what God says is supposed to happen: those enslaved because of debts are freed, lands lost because of debt are returned, and community torn by inequality is restored.
The Year of Shouting or the Year of Alarm, indeed!
The 25th chapter of the Book of Leviticus contains God's instructions to Moses for nothing less than a radical, sweeping redistribution of property, when, not if, the poor become too poor … too poor for their own good … too poor for their children's good … too poor for the good of the whole social fabric of the people. Because, as many a social scientist will aver, we are only as strong as our weakest members.
Look at it this way: before the New Deal, before the Federal Reserve System, there was God. There on Mt. Sinai, God was anticipating human greed and human need… and the need to smooth out the economic life of God's people.
There are two theological reasons for the Year of Shouting,
- The land belongs to God … we are but tenants or stewards anyway.
- God, who knows a thing or two about human sin, demands protections for the weak and vulnerable from the power of the strong and rapacious.
Did the Year of Jubilee and its radical economic adjustments ever happen? Is this yet another naive, utopian, impractical religious impulse? What is its historicity and practicability?
The jury is still out. Historians have not been able to prove that this Year of Shouting occurred (although there are some hints, [see Nehemiah 5]). Neither have they been able to disprove it.
This 25th chapter from the Book of Leviticus has, however, inspired a variety of recent efforts to restore justice where economic systems have become dangerously out of balance:
- Jubilee 2000, an international coalition movement in over 40 countries that called for cancellation of third world debt by the year 2000.
- Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, in which Old South is an active member, engages in such acts of ethical imagination all the time. GBIO is currently engaged in an Anti-Usury Campaign, calling for reinstatement of usury laws, and capping interest rates at 10%.
- GBIO has long been a leader in the effort to bring Universal Healthcare to Massachusetts because medical debt has brought a great many American families into poverty.
It is a grand coincidence - or, perhaps not a coincidence at all - that it was at an auction benefiting landless Bostonians, a Habitat for Humanity Auction, that this text for this sermon was purchased.
It is a grand coincidence - or, perhaps no coincidence at all - that a beneficiary of the auction, a formerly landless mother, is moving into her new home today.
While the work of Habitat does not satisfy the radical ethical-economic practice called for in Leviticus 25, it does at least turn a kind heart and a helping hand to those among us who are without land or property.
The teaching of the Jubilee Year was and remains, in the words of scholar Walter Brueggemann, "a daring act of ethical imagination" … a daring act of ethical imagination that sees an alternative future for the community, for the poorest of the poor … a daring act of ethical imagination intended to guarantee a new beginning, a fresh start for those who are drowning in debt. In the church, we call that grace.
The lectionary cycle has smothered this radical teaching. It has been bound and gagged.
It is a remarkably act of serendipity that the combination of our Habitat auction and David Vogan has released this ancient teaching.
What alarms might sound, what shouting might ensue if this teaching reaches the ears of our Christian hearts?