The Prophetic Power and Practice of Jubilee

A Gift of Shalom

Jesus Rejected in the Snyagogue by James Tissot, 1894. Pope Francis announces Jubilee Year of Mercy.

Introduction: “Rich with Joy and Peace”

St. Luke’s description of Jesus’ proclamation of His mission tells us that, on a sabbath day in a synagogue in Nazareth, the Lord

stood up to read … “He has sent me … to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” … And He began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”1

These words should continue to resound in our hearts and minds today, shaping our lives as disciples and as Church.

The entire reading proclaimed by Jesus that day told his hearers that he was speaking of the Jubilee year, described in both Leviticus and Isaiah.2 Since Christians are called explicitly to go out and share the Good News, Luke’s Gospel account can be heard as an invitation for disciples of Christ to proclaim and to enact the Jubilee, the acceptable year. Indeed, St. Paul stresses that now is the time to celebrate the Jubilee: “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”3 What is this Jubilee? Why is it part of the proclamation of the Good News? How can we as Church practice it today?4

The year of Jubilee portrayed in Leviticus is described as a time for atonement, trust in God’s providence, restoration of land and property to those in debt, and hospitality to those in need, whether to a fellow Israelite, or to an outsider living in Israel. Several passages in Leviticus 25 repeat the promise that the Lord is God of Israel, who blesses and liberates his people. This is a reminder and invitation for Israel to do the same for those suffering hardship.

Isaiah sees in the Jubilee a divine message of hope for the diaspora community, exiled from their land and from the Temple, yet promised freedom5 and a renewal of the divine covenant, with its attendant blessings and joy. Furthermore, Isaiah notes, Israel will once again become known among the nations, and thus God will be glorified.6 These Scriptures portray the Jubilee as both a visible sign of the Lord’s favor, and as a concrete practice of solidarity, that restores shalom, the fullness of peace, to the faith community, and to all of God’s creation.

Drawing upon Scripture, Tradition, and Church teaching, the shared practice of Jubilee can today be seen by Catholics as contributing to the communion of the Church, and to her ongoing labor of evangelization. Both contributions nurture each other. To live the Jubilee is a demanding practice, but one, as Pope Francis points out, that is “rich with joy and peace.”7

Periodically, the Church has called Catholics explicitly to celebrate a year of Jubilee. John Paul II in 1983 and 2000, and Francis in 2015, promulgated bulls for the celebration of Jubilee years. The shared practice of Jubilee deepens the communion of the Church (koinonia) and strengthens the Church’s witness in and to the world (euaggelion). These are works of shalom, or peacemaking. Furthermore, these sources can teach us that the prophetic practice of Jubilee calls on the Church to:

  • renew both personal and parish commitments to the sacrament of reconciliation;
  • reject the false temptations of gossip, greed, violence and corruption;
  • dialogue with the “other”;
  • incarnate new ways of using possessions and power;
  • offer a radical witness of forgiveness rooted in the Cross and Resurrection;
  • publicly proclaim the liberation of contemporary slaves;
  • practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy;
  • forgive debts.

Shared Practice of Jubilee

Living the Jubilee together with fellow Christians can be understood as sharing a practice, or, perhaps, more accurately, a set of interrelated practices centered on the Biblical model of Jubilee. The gift and responsibility of Jubilee is communal, in the sense both that it is to be lived out within community, and that it shapes community. It is a matter not only for the individual disciple, but also for the Church, family, parish, Bible study, school and university, religious community, prayer group, and religious education program. The Biblical call to mercy, which is inherent in the Jubilee, claims each disciple, and each gathered community of believers. Practicing the Jubilee is meant to bind us more closely together as the people of God, and Body of Christ.

As Catholics, a solid understanding of the Old Testament vision of Jubilee should inform our Christian practice. Leviticus, for example, narrates several foundational elements of a Jubilee year, which draws upon the practice of the sabbath year. Chapter 25 of Leviticus recounts the Lord’s command that, every seventh year, Israel should neither plant nor prune their fields and vineyards. This was a call for trust, that the Lord would feed all of the people in the land—Israelite and non-Israelite—as well as all the animals. This was also a year for the remission or release of debts to fellow Israelites, and for the freeing of slaves.8 Similar to the seventh day of rest, this was known as a sabbath year, and thus was also a sign for Israel of God’s covenant.9

The Leviticus text calls for the land itself to have a sabbath, a reminder perhaps of the creation account in Genesis. God saw that all was good, very good, and then rested on the sabbath.10 It is fruitful to reflect on this Scriptural practice of the sabbath year in light of the promulgation by Francis of the encyclical, Laudato Si’, “On care for our common home,” in which the Holy Father mentions both the sabbath and Jubilee years.11 Furthermore, the sabbath year brings to mind the Exodus, the liberation from Egypt, and the feeding of the people during the time in the desert. An entire sabbath year, trusting that God will provide food for Israel, similarly marks a stupendous call for faith in the living God.

According to Leviticus, Israel was to practice a Jubilee year after every seven sabbath years. The Jubilee was, likewise, a time to leave the fields fallow, to carry out atonement, and to free those sold into slavery because of debt. Even non-Israelites living in Israel were called upon to release their Hebrew slaves during the Jubilee. This fiftieth year began solemnly with the blowing of the trumpet, announcing a day of atonement, yom kippur. The word “Jubilee” comes from the Hebrew yôbêl, the sound of the trumpet or horn blast.12 Yom Kippur was the holiest day of the year, a time to be forgiven by God and washed clean of sins.13

The Jubilee forbade enslaving fellow Israelites because of debt, and prohibited the taking of interest on loans made to fellow Israelites.14 In essence, this fiftieth year of Jubilee was an opportunity to restore Israel’s social and physical conditions back to a peaceful (shalom) order more in keeping with the Lordship of God.15 It was meant to bring redemption, justice, liberation, safety, and peace for the community, as well as rest for the land. The Jubilee was truly a year of grace. Leviticus also describes the Jubilee as a type of Exodus, that is, a divine liberation from slavery.16

Chapter 61 of Isaiah echoes the annunciation of a year of favor combined with an assurance of liberation.17 Isaiah spoke these words to an exile community, brought in captivity to Babylon, and living in mourning, shame, and humiliation. Yet, the prophet says, they will become like mighty trees or like a rich, bountiful garden. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus uses this Jubilee language to herald his own ministry.18 The Scriptures depict the Jubilee as good newsa sign of grace and an invitation to a shared practice of solidarity that restores peace and goodness to the believing community, and to creation.

Multiple threads in the Gospels invite the listener to remember Israel, while also bringing out Jesus’ fulfillment of the Jubilee, the acceptable year. Consider Jesus’ teaching in Luke about the ravens, lilies, and grass against the backdrop of the Jubilee command to leave the soil fallow: both invite deep trust in God.19 The forgiveness of debts in the “Our Father” echoes and deepens the Sabbath year exhortation to remit the debts of fellow Israelites.20 Read the parable of the wicked servant in light of the Jubilee prohibitions against lending with interest, enslaving a fellow Israelite, or harsh treatment of servants.21 We still need such regular reminders and practices that summon and enable us to restore a degree of mercy to a Fallen world.

In Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis emphasizes the Church’s prophetic practice of Jubilee, incarnated in the receiving and offering of forgiveness, as well as the proclamation of liberty to slaves. This Jubilee theme is central to the Pope’s 2015 Message for the World Day of Peace entitled, “No Longer Slaves, But Brothers and Sisters.”22

As noted above, the Jubilee can be understood as a shared practice that deepens the communion of the Church (koinonia), and furthers the Church’s witness in and to the world (euaggelion). These ideas are examined next.

Koinōnia—The shared practice of Jubilee can help the Church to intensify her communion among Christian disciples, building up solidarity within the Body of Christ. The Jubilee calls us: to atonement, reconciliation, and conversion; to turn away from idols, and toward God; and to true dialogue with others.

Conversion and Metanoia—Meditation upon God’s ongoing gifts of grace, liberation, and exodus can bring us to recognize the ways that we so often ignore or reject the Lord’s gifts, and, in response, increase our motivation to ask God for forgiveness and cleansing.

Practicing the Jubilee is an opportunity to renew personal and parish commitments to the sacrament of reconciliation. The idea of Jubilee as a communal practice invites us to consider how we might better shape our parishes to be hospitable environments for the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation. The sacrament is personal, between priest and penitent, but is best sustained within a community of disciples, which can help to foster the practice of forgiveness, penance, and restitution. As the Jubilee approaches, how can we strengthen our resolve to regularly receive the sacrament of reconciliation? How can we help family, friends, classmates, co-workers, and fellow parishioners to do the same? As Catholics, are we encouraging one another to practice forgiveness? Have we asked a trusted fellow believer to help us identify our common temptations and sins? In the reconciling spirit of Matthew 18:15, are we able humbly to speak with fellow Christians about sinful behavior?

Forgiven and reconciled, we are enabled to joyfully forgive others, and to incarnate God’s mercy. In declaring the Extraordinary Jubilee, Pope Francis points out that in the parable of the ruthless servant:

Jesus affirms that mercy is not only an action of the Father, it becomes a criterion for ascertaining who his true children are. In short, we are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us. Pardoning offences becomes the clearest expression of merciful love, and for us Christians, it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves.23

Turn from Idols Toward the Living God—The sin of idolatry remains an ongoing temptation in the life of the Church and individual disciples. Putting our trust in false gods, and the work of our own hands, brings chaos and dissension, while turning to the one God, brings shalom and unity. The sacramental life helps Catholics to turn from these temptations, and toward the Lord.

As part of his promulgation of the Jubilee year, Francis appeals to Christians to firmly reject the false and idolatrous temptations of gossip, greed, violence, and corruption, and to move toward justice and mercy. These temptations are attempts to cast ourselves as gods, who decide what is right, true, and good. This brings only harm. Indulging in gossip, for example, makes the practice of forgiveness and reconciliation within the community that much more difficult.24 We gossip with the intent to hurt, rather than speak lovingly with the desire to heal. The Jubilee, therefore, may also be a good time for Catholics to deeply study the ecclesial process of reconciliation laid out in Matthew 18. How can we help one another to make amends? Whom can we ask for help in restoring a broken relationship?

The Pope further warns disciples of the ever-present lure of greed, and encourages disciples to reject the idolatry of money that so often generates debt, marginalization, and violence. His warnings echo the wisdom of the sabbath and Jubilee years described in the Old Testament. Giving in to such temptations disfigures the Body of Christ.

Dialogue with the “Other”—In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus broadens his fulfillment of the Jubilee beyond the borders of Israel. This has powerful contemporary lessons for the Church. “In this Holy Year, we look forward to the experience of opening our hearts to those living on the outermost fringes of society: fringes modern society itself creates.”25 Pope Francis urges dialogue with other Christians, and with those of other religions, such as Judaism and Islam—even in situations of disagreement, struggle, or discord.26 With the declaration of this Extraordinary Jubilee, the Pope reminds the Church that the Holy Spirit can bring unity in the midst of every conflict. As we move toward the Jubilee of mercy, whom might we be called—as Christian communities and as individuals—to reach out to? Is there someone in our family, an isolated student, a solitary co-worker, a forgotten fellow parishioner, or a lonely neighbor that we might approach in Christian fellowship? Whom can we seek out at the margins? Where are those we so often disregard or forget, or see as enemies? Francis is clear that Christ-like dialogue can open the door to understanding, healing, friendship, and concord.

Euaggelion—Practicing the Jubilee together can help the Church to show the world a sign and witness of Christian forgiveness of hurts, and of actual debt, to proclaim the liberation of today’s slaves, to find new ways of using rightly the goods of the earth, and to practice the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.

Witness of Forgiveness—The practice of Jubilee offers a radical witness of forgiveness, which for Christians can be understood as rooted and fulfilled in the Cross and Resurrection. In the Jubilee, debts are to be forgiven, and land (which is a source of livelihood) is to be returned, because we are a covenant family liberated by the same God. The land itself is to be redeemed from our permanent possession. In God’s eyes, we are all equally strangers and sojourners upon the land.27 It is not permanently ours; rather, we are God’s servants living upon the gifts of his creation and land.28 How much more so has Christ brought true and lasting redemption, and a sure and certain promise of an eternal land that will be our home.29

As disciples and as Church, are we sharing the goods of creation with those in need right around us? Some Christian groups, for example, have offered interest-free loans of small amounts as one way of lessening the crushing weight of debt. As Christian individuals, families and parishes, what would it take for us to forgive those who owe us, to give without expectation of recompense, or to lend to one another without interest, even in small amounts?

As Jesus forgave those who hated and hurt him, we are called and equipped to do the same today. This is a true witness of mercy: “The Church which “goes forth” is a community of missionary disciples who take the first step … Such a community has an endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy.”30 The Christian forgiveness shown by members of the Charleston church, or by the Amish community in Nickel Mines, are instructive examples of a hard-won communal orientation to the practice of reconciliation and mercy.

Call for the Liberation of Slaves—Pope Francis reminds the Church that we are to publicly declare the liberation of slaves—which includes migrants, exploited laborers, child soldiers, those forced into prostitution, and the victims of kidnapping.31 In this way, the Church can become a much-needed sign of Christ’s mercy to and in the world. Public proclamation of the liberation of contemporary slaves can be accompanied by walking with those in slavery, helping to make their lot known, and spending resources to free them. The Church can shine a bright light on the sinful darkness of structural injustice and slavery, and call for greater justice. Christians can come together to end such slavery—such as advocating and laboring for the protection of vulnerable children, for greater economic and labor justice, and for the just treatment of immigrants.

Practice the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy 32—The Jubilee described in Leviticus was a time to help those in need, specifically, those struggling in debt. So many in our world today are in debt, often because of mortgages, auto loans, credit card payments, hospital bills, or student loans. This focus on remission of debt may rightly be broadened in line with the Gospel to consider how we as a Jubilee Church may joyfully serve those who are struggling and in need. “The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more. It is time to return to the basics, and to bear the weaknesses  and the struggles of our brothers and sisters.”33 The Jubilee year is a time to carry out the works of mercy together with others: caring for the hungry, homeless and lonely, or visiting those in prison; instructing, counseling and comforting those in need, and forgiving all injuries.34

As we reflect on the shared practice of Jubilee, let us renew our commitment to Christian community, deepening the bonds with our fellow disciples. Let us prepare ourselves to graciously accept forgiveness from others, and begin to seek out those to whom we can show Christ-like forgiveness and mercy. As communities and individuals, we can continue to discern areas in our lives in which we require conversion. The practice of Jubilee can be a call to devote our power and possessions into carrying out the works of mercy. In these, and so many other ways, the Jubilee will become a joyful opportunity for Christians to practice mercy, a sure sign that we are God’s children.

  1. cf. Lk 4:16-21.
  2. Lev 25:8-55; Is 61:1-2.
  3. 2 Cor 6:2. Paul draws on Is 49:8. Both Is 61:2 and Is 49:8 use the same noun, ratsown, to describe a year of favor from the Lord. Strong’s H7522. One of the Greek adjectives that Paul uses in 2 Cor 6:2, dektos, which means acceptable, also appears in Lk 4:19, the passage cited above. Strong’s G1184.
  4.  See Marc Tumeinski, “Proclaim and Practice the Jubilee,” America magazine, accepted for publication. This manuscript and the America article both focus on the topic of Jubilee, though this present paper is a longer and more detailed reflection, using a distinct conceptual framework and incorporating additional material. The America article looked at Jubilee from the perspectives of: conversion, witness and action. This paper focuses instead on a shared, ecclesial practice of Jubilee in terms of koinōnia and euaggelion.
  5. Lev 25:10 and Is 61:1 proclaim the same noun: dĕrowr, liberty. Strong’s H1865.
  6. Is 61:3, 9.
  7. Francis, Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus, 11 April 2015, # 13.
  8. Dt 15:1-2, 12.
  9. Lev 25:2, 4, 6, 8. cf. Ex 23:10-11. John Bergsma points out some of the connections, similarities and distinctions between Lev 25 and Ex 23. John Bergsma, The Jubilee from Leviticus to Qumran (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 48-50. See also Ex 31:16-17.
  10.  Gen 1:31-2:3.
  11. Francis, Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si’, 24 May 2015, #s 71, 237, 243.
  12. Strong’s H3104.
  13. Lev 16:30.
  14. Lev 25:36-37, 39-42.
  15. Some scholarly debate revolves around whether the Jubilee was the 50th or the 49th year. See for example: Robert Kawashima, “The Jubilee, Every 49 or 50 Years?,” Vetus Testamentum 53, no. 1(2003): 117-120; John Bergsma, “Once Again, The Jubilee, Every 49 or 50 Years?” Vetus Testamentum 55, no. 1 (2005): 121-125; Young Kye Kim, “The Jubilee: Its Inception and Reckoning Day,” Vetus Testamentum 60, no. 1 (2010): 147-151. While an interesting question, with Scriptural and historical implications, it goes beyond the scope of this paper.
  16. Lev 25:55.
  17. Bergsma, The Jubilee from Leviticus to Qumran, 198-202.
  18. Ibid., 196.
  19. Lk 12:22-31; Lev 25:3-7, 11-12, 19-21.
  20. Lk 11:4; Dt 15:1-3.
  21. Mt 18:23-35; Lev 25:36-37, 39-43.
  22. Francis, Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace, “No longer slaves, but brothers and sisters,”  January 1, 2015.
  23. Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, # 9; cf. Mt 18:21-35.
  24. Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, # 14.
  25. Ibid., # 15
  26. Ibid., # 23.
  27. Lev 25:23, 24.
  28. Lev 25:55.
  29. cf. Lk 2:38, 21:28; Rom 8:23.
  30. Francis, Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium,  November 24, 2013, # 24.
  31. Francis, “No longer slaves, but brothers and sisters,” # 4.
  32. Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, # 15.
  33. Ibid., # 10.
  34. Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 2447; IS 58:6-7, 66:13; Mt 25:31-46.
Dr. Marc Tumeinski About Dr. Marc Tumeinski

Marc Tumeinski is currently a visiting assistant professor of theology at Anna Maria College in Massachusetts. He received his PhD in theology from the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, UK in 2015. His research looked at the communal Christian practice of peacemaking from an ecumenical perspective. Marc and his wife are members of the Cathedral of St. Paul in the Worcester diocese (Massachusetts).