Saturday of Week 17 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Leviticus 25:1, 8-17

Today in our second and last reading from the Book of Leviticus we read of the tradition of the Jubilee. The Jubilee was calculated as happening at the end of seven times seven sabbatical years, in other words, every 50 years. To arrive at this number, the preceding year of jubilee was included in the count, and therefore this was more exactly the 49th year, the seventh sabbatical year. The word ‘jubilee’ is derived from the Hebrew word yobel, which means ‘ram’s horn’, because a horn was blown to announce the beginning of the Jubilee.

The observance of the Jubilee began on the 10th day of the seventh month, the feast of Atonement (Yom Kippur), when a horn or trumpet blast was heard throughout the land. The main purpose of the Jubilee was to restore social balance to the community. The year was to be made sacred first of all by proclaiming freedom for all citizens. This involved the restoration of both personal and economic freedom.

On the level of personal freedom, all Israelite slaves were to be set free. On the level of economic freedom all ancestral land was to be given back to the original owner. For this purpose, everyone was told to return to their own property and everyone to their family land.

The idea was to restore the social balance in a community which was family-based and whose livelihood depended on the ownership of family land. For various reasons, for which family members might or might not be responsible, people might be forced to sell their land in order to survive and, in more severe cases, might even have to sell themselves into slavery. The purpose of the Jubilee was to have their ancestral property and status restored to them.

This arrangement was also an attack on land monopolies, which are denounced later on by the prophets. So Isaiah (5:8) says:

Woe to you who join house to house, who connect field with field, till no room remains, and you are left to dwell alone in the midst of the land.

Also Micah (2:2), who says:

They covet fields and seize them, houses and they take them away; they cheat an owner of his house, a man of his inheritance.

They could be talking about situations in our own contemporary societies.

Whether selling back or buying back alienated property to or from the original owner, justice was to be observed and only a fair price charged. The price was to be calculated on the basis of the number of years the property had been held – a longer period meant a higher price, because, in effect what was being sold back was not only the land, but also the harvests which it yielded during that time.

In addition, during the Jubilee, there was to be no sowing, reaping of after-growth or picking grapes from untrimmed vines. Only what was taken directly from the field could be eaten and not any other produce from it. In other words, fields were to be left fallow during this year. It was easier to give back a fallow field to the original owner than one on which there was a valuable crop which had been planted by the person who had been holding the property.

All this seems a highly admirable arrangement and a model of social justice, but it seems that it was only a late attempt to make the sabbatical law, which had similar stipulations, more effective, and it does not seem that this particular law was ever really observed.

The passage concludes by urging all to deal fairly with their neighbour and stand in fear of their God:

I, the Lord, am your God.

One is reminded of similar ideals for a just society which one reads in the Acts of the Apostles. We are told that the new Christians would bring forward their property and give it to the community for the shared use of all. No one had any wealth which belonged to them privately. One couple, who gave only part of their property claiming that it was all that they had, was struck dead for their dishonesty.

Although this ideal never really took root in the Church, there is certainly much that could be done in parish communities to see that those in need are helped by their brothers and sisters. Each of us needs to seriously consider the many ways we can put the ideal of the Acts into practice.

The Church has a great record of speaking about justice and also, in many places, of doing justice, but we are a long way from perfection.

“Let there be justice done on earth, and let it begin with me.”

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