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The Biblical Jubilee: A Review

by Lee Van Ham

The Biblical Jubilee and the Struggle for Life
Ross and Gloria Kinsler
Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 1999

(Reviewed for newsletter of Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education, Chicago)

The biblical Jubilee has risen from its grave. Ignored by preachers and teachers across the church and theological spectrum, treated as irrelevant and quaint, as something never really practiced even in biblical times, why has it risen at the turn of the millennium? The answer lies in the economic reality today — in particular, the growing gap between rich and poor that grotesquely distorts God’s abundance.

Ross and Gloria Kinsler open their book with the champagne glass diagram of the economy. The top 20% of the world’s population are the wide part of the glass, controlling and using 82.7% of the resources. Then, like a champagne glass, the resources quickly narrow to 11.7% for the next 20%. The remaining 60% of God’s human family are the thin stem of the champagne glass with a meager 5.6% of God’s resources. It is the profanity of this situation and the sacredness of the struggle for life amidst its oppression that has rolled the stone from the grave of the entombed Jubilee.

But who has raised the Jubilee, daring to proclaim it relevant for our time? It is the impoverished, those studying the bible with the impoverished, and those reflecting biblically on enormous wealth amid desperate poverty. We should note here that the countries of the southern hemisphere have not experienced the benefits of the expanding, global economy – except for a few of their elites. Rather, they know that the unsustainable economic expansion has been created from their cheap labor and the exploitation of their beloved environment. So, sisters and brothers in the Global South are leading the way in invoking the Sabbath-Jubilee for our time.

The Kinslers are among them. Though raised and educated in the North, they have been immersed in the struggle of Latin America for most of their adult lives and transformed by the experience. As they present the Jubilee, it invites us to a three-fold transformation: personal, ecclesial, and social. It works – at least it has with us. Through this book, my wife, me, and the community with which we live continue to rearrange our lifestyles, our expectations of church, and how we engage society. This book pushes us to live a response to the questions, “What does a faith-community shaped by Sabbath-Jubilee look like? What does it do?”

Jubilee’s ancient economic wisdom is not limited to a couple of chapters written by priests in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. It is in the decrees of kings, the oracles of prophets, the practice of those starting anew after being displaced in captivity, and the practice after Pentecost of the faith communities. Most strikingly, the Kinslers show us how Jesus and the gospel writers placed the work and words of Jesus in the reforming, liberating, and saving context of the Sabbath-Jubilee. They contrast conventional readings of the text with Jubilee readings. Their analysis, fueled by quotes from diverse authors, shows how the economic reality always impacts what’s happening in the bible. Read in this way, the transformative power of texts, freed from the familiar, comes after us.

In the hands of the Kinslers, this ancient wisdom makes the hermeneutical journey authentically into our time and gives us a faith-based critique of today’s economy, global and local, G-7 nations and personal lifestyles. The chapters have a recurring structure that teaches a Jubilee reading of Scripture. The table of contents shows how chapters repeat a hermeneutical sequence: (1) analyze today’s world, (2) reflect biblically, and (3) take steps for responsible discipleship.

Here then is a saving alternative for us – and just when the shapers of today’s global economy are insisting that no alternatives exist. The Jubilee detoxes us from our addiction to the champagne glass lifestyles and the economic structures that keep us in positions of privilege. It brings us into an alternative community that is God’s new humanity.

Has the Jubilee been practiced? Yes. Not as a dominant economic system, but as an alternative by reformers and by minorities who have covenanted together to follow Jesus more radically than conventional faith-practice does. It also gives us pause for reflection and repentance to see how often the world’s indigenous people practice Jubilee despite genocidal practices toward them by waves of expansion from dominant cultures. It’s up to us to give it expression today; the Kinslers give us great guidance.

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