READ: Leviticus 25
THINK: Over the course of the last week and all of its patriotic 4th of July celebrations I happened to hear the song This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie and, while singing along because it’s a catchy tune, I began to think about this great and beautiful land of ours and about “The American Dream.” And I decided that The American Dream, at least in its current iteration, does not fit well with Woody’s words…or those of Leviticus 25. Ours is a society so focused on the accumulation of wealth and personal property that it borders on a national obsession. We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world and we are saturated to the core with the ethos of materialism. The old song, if remade today, would go something more like, “This land is my land, this land is my land, and I want more land, I want a private island…”
The reality of our world is that you cannot turn on a television set, read a newspaper, surf the internet, or check your mailbox in the United States without being bombarded by messages promising to help you accumulate wealth and property or to help you save for retirement – which is itself a concept less than a century old in practice…but we should want to accumulate so much stuff for ourselves that we can quit working as soon as possible because work isn’t something God created us for, right? And, for what it’s worth, you can even take classes where you’ll learn how to think, get, and remain rich at any number of American evangelical churches. Let that sink in for a minute…through the lens of what you just read in Leviticus.
The word Jubilee literally means trumpet-blast or rams-horn-blast, a reference to the sound which was to mark every 50th year, consecrated as special unto God. And there are some huge, if challenging, things in this chapter that I think we need to hear. First, it all belongs to God. Every single bit of everything. God built this cycle into Israelite life and practice so that they would be constantly aware and regularly reminded that what they had was a gracious gift from him. That none of it was owned but rather all of it was leased from the Creator and the Owner of all things. The question for us is: do we treat our stuff that way? And feel free to dispense with the Sunday School answer that all of us – myself included and highly guilty on this charge – give of, “Oh, yes. It all belongs to God, and I’m thankful for his blessings.” It’s one thing to say it. It’s another to actually believe it and to live like it’s his and not ours.
I don’t think most of us really do that because deep down we believe that we have earned that which we have actually been given. We’re enculturated to think that we deserve the material wealth we have and that our ingenuity, ambition, and work ethic have somehow merited it. I was recently confronted with just how mythological that idea is while visiting Haiti. As we drove by people who were suffering the deepest poverty in the Western Hemisphere one of the members of our team said, “What strikes me is that the single biggest difference between me and them – the thing that separates us – is simply where I was born.” This isn’t to say that hard work and effort aren’t important. They are. But not because they get us tons of money. They’re important because they’re a part of how God made us and who he made us to be and what he made us to do! But the cold, hard facts are these: we are all sinners who have rejected God and the only thing we have earned that we deserve to receive, no matter what our best efforts in this life, is death and eternal separation.
The second major theme of this chapter, very simply, is God’s deep concern for the poor and the disenfranchised. God literally sets up a system where generational poverty cycles are an impossibility. In the Ancient Near Eastern world land was the primary and most important source of wealth. And God ensured that nobody could ever be trapped in a cycle where land ownership became an impossible dream. Where generation after generation had no hope of escaping economic powerlessness and destitution. And this system also made it impossible to amass or accumulate great wealth. The generational accumulation massive amounts of property is precluded when that property must be turned over every half-century.
God wanted to make sure that everybody had enough. Always. In his love, because of his love, God provided for all of his people. And he made is clear that they were not to take advantage of one another or to profit off of one another’s misfortunes in times of desperation and need. Instead, they were to treat one another as God had treated them – with deep compassion, grace, love, and self-sacrifice. Is that the way we treat the poor around us today? Is that the way we treat those in need in our own communities and across the globe? Do we use what we have been graciously given to ensure that everybody always has enough? And if we have more than enough and there are others that don’t have enough, what does Leviticus 25 have to say to us?
The sad historical reality of the Year of Jubilee is that the nation of Israel never practiced it. Not once. Sometimes guys like the Pharisees did weird stuff to abide by the letter of law while finding loopholes around embracing the spirit of it, but the nation never actually instituted Jubilee. Instead, Israel was gripped with materialism and in the end it cost them everything. Literally. Their blessing was the land and they were forcibly removed from it. It makes me wonder what fate awaits our nation. We just celebrated our 237th birthday. How many more birthdays will God give us if we continue to treat him with contempt and continue to believe that all he’s blessed us with is ours – not his – and we deserve it and we should accumulate more and more and more of it? History – i.e. The Old Testament – indicates that God views that attitude none to kindly.
In Luke 4, when Jesus kicked off his earthly ministry, he quoted from Isaiah and said that he came “to proclaim the Year of the Lord’s Favor” – the Jubilee for all people. Jesus came to make things and people right. Is that what we are all about…or are we all about The American Dream?
PRAY: Confess your materialism to God. Thank God for the incredible blessings he has given you! Acknowledge that all you have is from him, and ask him how he wants you to use it to be a blessing to others, to make things and people right.