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Many Christians are celebrating the year 2000 as a Jubilee year. What does the word “Jubilee” mean? Is Jubilee found in the Bible? Was it ever observed in ancient Israel? How is it being honored as we enter a new millenium?

The word jubilee was probably derived from the Hebrew word “jobel”, meaning "ram's horn", which was used as a trumpet to announce the beginning of a Jubilee year. The word became associated with the Latin “jubilo”: to shout. In English, jubilation is a term of celebration. We can put them together and call Jubilee a celebration.

To understand the Biblical roots of Jubilee we need to find the origin of the term. The Sabbath is the biblical day of rest (Exodus 23:12). The Sabbath occurs once a week, every seventh day. “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy…” (Genesis 2: 2-3a).

Saturday has always been the Jewish Sabbath. Saturday, no work was done. They carried it one step further and observed a Sabbath year every seven years. Every seventh year, farmer’s fields were not plowed, there was no planting and no harvest (Exodus 23:10-11). The basis for this is that God owns everything and the seventh year is like a tax paid to Him. The people trusted that God would provide an abundant harvest in the sixth year that would supply their needs during the Sabbath year.

During the seventh year slaves were freed, debts were forgiven and the poor were allowed to take any produce that happened to be growing on the idle farmer’s fields. Debts and slavery were linked together. While Israelite law prohibited the charging of interest to fellow Jews (Exodus 22:25), many farmers fell into debt if there was a bad harvest. If the liability could not be repaid, the farmer and his family were sold into slavery to repay what was owed.

In the Sabbath year, debt slaves were released and debts were forgiven. Not all slaves took their freedom. If they married and had children while in slavery, they could not take their family with them. The slave owner was required to give his slaves some necessary provisions upon their emancipation. This helped prevent their early return to debt slavery. God asked for generosity: “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land’” (Deuteronomy 15: 10-11).

The texts concerning Jubilee are found in the Book of Leviticus. Jubilee is the fiftieth year, the year after seven cycles of Sabbath years. “Count off seven sabbaths of years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbaths of years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet (Jubilo) sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land…The fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee for you” (Leviticus 25: 8-11).

Subsequent parts of the text talk about “do not sow, reap or harvest” (v.11); “everyone is to return to his own property” (v.13); “Do not take advantage of each other” (v.17); “the land is mine (God’s) and you are but aliens and my tenants.” (V.23); if one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien…so he can continue to live among you.” (V.35) And concerning redeemed slaves with families: “…he and his children are to be released in the Year of Jubilee” (v.54).

Was Jubilee ever observed in Israel? We don’t know for sure. There are no stories in the Bible that indicates these things actually happened. The Jubilee was seen as an ideal future situation, to be put into practice when the Messiah would come.

When Jesus appeared on the scene he certainly espoused the ideals of Jubilee. The Sermon on the Mount, the Parables, The Lord’s Prayer, his teachings on forgiveness of sin and debts all make use of Jubilee images.

How is the Church implementing Jubilee in year 2000? “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it.” (Psalm 24:1).
Understanding that God owns everything is the challenge that faces us today. Third World debt is a crushing burden to the debtor nations, hardly able to feed themselves, let alone repay huge bank liabilities. The concentration of wealth in few hands leaves millions destitute. Does the earth need a fallow year? We are destroying the earth through ecological mismanagement, pollution and the depletion of limited resources. The many churches and belief groups who separate themselves from each other could use a strong dose of reconciliation after 2,000 years of schism. The ecumenical movement has been spurred on by the Jubilee call to reconcile. It remains to be seen what the Church will have accomplished as Jubilee 2000 draws to a close.