Singapore will celebrate 50th anniversary next year. The SG50 committee was set up to see through various events and programs to commemorate this important milestone.
Many are using the common phrase "golden Jubilee" to mark this anniversary. And of course the word "Jubilee" came from ancient Israel's religious tradition. For this reason, many Christians tend to see the SG50 celebration in relation to the "Jubilee" in Leviticus 25-27.
In view of all these, it's perhaps good for us to rediscover the concept of Jubilee.
The concept is related to the verb y-b-l that means 'lead back, lead forth', which carries the imagery of release and return (Isa. 55:12, Jer. 31:9). Hence, the word yobel was translated into the Greek word aphesis ('liberation') in ancient texts.
This connotation of freedom goes along with Lev. 25:10: "Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you..." Ezekiel called it the "year of liberty" (46:17).
The background for Jubilee is the ancient socioeconomic system of land tenuring. The Jubilee proclaims liberty for the vulnerable members in the Israelite society from being alienated from their land.
The fact that Jubilee occurs on the Day of Atonement has a deeper meaning. It is not only a celebration that the people of God are liberated from economic hardship, but also liberated from their sins and separation from God. This combination of Jubilee and the Day of Atonement points out the overarching motif of the people's restoration to their rightful place before God and other people.
Isaiah refers to this "consecrated" year as the "year of the Lord's favour", when liberty is proclaimed and restoration takes place (61:1-9). And several times the Israelites were reminded to follow Jubilee’s instructions because of their covenantal relationship with God (Lev. 25:17, 36, 38, 43, 54, 26:1-2, 12-13, 44-45).
From all these, we can draw out two major objectives of the Jubilee. First, Jubilee is about the restoration of the Israelites' socioeconomic life, and hence the whole community's sustainability. The institution of social safety net through property return, workers' liberation, and cessation of field plantation brings about a new start for the less fortunate and narrows the gap between the rich and the poor.
Secondly, the Jubilee was instituted to have the Israelites put into practice their knowledge that they belong to God, that God is their Lord. "Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the Lord your God." (Lev. 25:17) In other words, Jubilee was given to transform 'theology' into 'ethics', turning the people's knowledge of God into practices that reflect that knowledge.
Jesus Christ and Jubilee
Our understanding of Jubilee should always be understood through Jesus. Although there is no explicit mention of the Jubilee in the New Testament, Jesus quoted from Isaiah's "year of the Lord's favour" as the overarching motif of his ministry (Isa. 61:1-2; Lk. 4:18-19). He proclaimed the fulfilment of the Jubilee concept through him (Lk. 4:21). It is through him, we gain liberation from socioeconomic struggles and eternal separation from God. He is the true Jubilee.
His disciples (as spiritual descendants of the Israelites) therefore have the responsibility to carry out the restoration of socioeconomic life and community's sustainability among themselves. Living out this communal life is practicing the acknowledgement that we belong to God. It is the reflection of our discipleship.
This is not a call for state communism. It is not meant for everyone in a secular society, just as the Israelites' Jubilee is not for everyone in ancient near eastern world. It is God’s summon to the churches. This church-based ethics is how disciples are to live in their community.
Therefore, Christian's celebration of the Jubilee is neither a call for cancellation of public debt nor overturn alleged unfair political and economic policy.
Rather, Christianity's Jubilee is a call for disciples to establish and manage the church as a community where we help those who are financially and spiritually distressed so that they can sustain their life and continue their discipleship journey with God. Let this Jubilant call as understood through Jesus be a reminder for all disciples in this city-state as the nation celebrates her 50th anniversary.