Ownership and Responsibility:

Economics and Faith, Sermon 4

Professor Judith Lieu

Robinson College 5th February 2012


Leviticus 25:8-24.


In SCR musing whether adage still true that could walk from Cambridge to London and never leave land owned by Trinity College. If so for them, and perhaps for Robinson as we consider complicate patterns of land ownership in Cambridge, the implications of this chapter of Leviticus would be too dreadful to contemplate. Land cannot be sold in perpetuity; every fifty years it reverts to its original owners. The same is true for individuals; if through fecklessness, or natural disaster, or personal tragedy someone becomes so enmired in debt that the only way to satisfy their creditors is to sell themselves or their family members — no official receivers or personal bankruptcy in those days — then when the 50th year comes round they regain their freedom and return again to their restored family land. This is the Jubilee, and in a year celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee we should remember that the term entered the English language through this chapter of Leviticus: the Jubilee is the 50th year marked by the blowing of the ram’s horn; in v. 10 ‘proclaiming liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants’.

The idea of the 50th year builds on the idea of the sabbatical year; just as human beings celebrate a weekly pattern of labour and renewal so must the land be given a pattern of productivity and renewal, 6 years of being toiled and one year rest. There is historical evidence for the observance of the sabbatical year, not as a cycle of letting different fields lie fallow but as a fixed calendrical pattern, but that the fiftieth year was routinely observed is far less certain, and we may not be surprised. While the 7th and therefore the 49th year could be prepared for through planning and self-seeding, an immediately following 50th year could surely prompt the hardship which would send half the population back into debt-slavery — although the chapter would suggest that such fears betray a lack of trust in God.

And that is where this chapter is so important; because it projects a vision and it provokes a whole series of questions about the relationship between humankind and the land on which our prosperity depends, and about the relationship between human beings and the labour we expend to the benefit of each other. This vision and these questions are not spelt out; perhaps that is the purpose of any Utopia, which in a sense this is, to provoke us to imagine how else things might be.

Behind it all is the conviction that the people take possession of the land as gift and not as right, and that it remains gift and not right. As each cycle turns everyone rediscovers their place as the recipient of gift, on an equal footing with all other recipients, restored to the beginning. The line is a fine one, and in Jewish and in Christian tradition gift has all too frequently become right. This is the land God gave us and so we have the right to defend it by force, and to take more of it from others; this is the prosperity God has given me because God loves me or because I am more gifted or more obedient or more righteous than others, and so I have the right to it, whereas those without are evidently less gifted in every sense of the word. I have earned what I have got; it is mine by right. Google ‘properity Gospel’ and you will see what I mean. An interpretation of the Christian Gospel that claims that since God will the well-being of all people, to use every effort to secure one’s own prosperity is diviney-approved and success demonstrates divine favour, failure some lack of spiritual virtue. Grievously wrong and dangerous.

‘With me you are but aliens and tenants’ says verse 23. Givenness demands recognition of dependency, an obligation to awareness of the giver, a realisation of vulnerability. It is no accident that this chapter is imaginatively located as Israel struggle through the Wilderness anticipating the Promised Land, and that it was probably put into writing in a period when the people were subjected to foreign empires, and living in or remembering exile away from the land. They knew what it was to be aliens, dispossessed; possession was a dearly sought vision, but ion one sense it is never totally attained.

The land is of course the fundamental source of livelihood. Each person depends on the land; it is a symbol of the resources for survival and also for prosperity. No doubt when this chapter was written economic structures were more complex than that, and indeed later in the chapter provision is made for the difference between the urban and rural settings. Yet again the underlying conviction is one that has often been forgotten although now is being recovered. Human beings may work the earth, draw from it the resources for life and for civilisation, but in so doing they must recognise the mutuality of that relationship. In the contemporary discourses of human rights and identity we speak of acknowledgement of alterity, respect for the inalienable ‘otherness’ of the other, and the same attitude is true here towards the land and all it represents. It is not there to be exploited and exhausted to destruction, just as other human beings are not there for them or their labour to be bought and sold generation after generation. The leaving fallow not just for the 49th but also for the 50th year is a radical symbol of recognition of our dependency, and of respect for the integrity of the world in which we find ourselves.

Verse 24 ‘Throughout the land you hold you shall provide for the redemption of the land.’ Redemption here is not some spiritual feel-good but a search for the  land also to be liberated from abuse and exhaustion. Human beings are under obligation to include this goal in all their activities. This is a declaration of the interdependency of human beings and the rich resources of a world that sustains them. For there is here the challenge to trust that if we risk surrendering but for a moment the human impulse to exploit to the limits, there may yet be enough to live on, for all to live on. One of the theological sources of this vision is the story of the God who brings the people out of slavery into possession of the land, the other is the conviction that the whole created order owes its being to God, and that it is not haphazard but shaped with integrity and wholeness, sealed by a God who also observed a 7th day of rest.

And that too brings us back to relationships with one another; because in the face of the risk of the 50th year, returned to one’s own land, and with stored resources depleted, all are equally vulnerable, and so perhaps equally dependent on openness to each other.  The parable read from Luke’s Gospel is commonly known as the Parable of the Rich Fool, but mere folly is not the point of the tale. The lead character has not, we may say, taken heed of the message of the Jubilee year. Filling ever yet greater barns, he assumes that all that he has is his to enjoy in perpetuity, and that he has no other obligations to God or to his fellow human beings. Suddenly divested of those layers of protection, by death or by the regular reminder of the Jubilee cycle, he is left bereft, ignorant that he has throughout been called into recognition of his dependency on God.

In all this the point of the 50th year is not that once in a lifetime, if that by ancient reckonings of life expectancy, one needs a ‘reality check’ but that the shadow of the 50th year changes the meaning of all the years in between. Years are counted from then and to then; the ownership and use of land, buying and selling all are done in awareness of the truth of the Jubilee. And yet, even so, one works the land, buys and sells, improves the soil, educates the offspring of the enslaved, even in the knowledge that they and not you will ultimately benefit therefrom.

Last week I think Simon read the story that open’s Luke’s account of the ministry of Jesus: ‘he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’. Behind the chapter of Isaiah which these verses recalled lies the chapter of Leviticus which we have read. The year of the Lord’s favour is the year of the jubilee, and the release for the captives and the freedom for the oppressed are not an impossible promise reserved for the distant future, still less a spiritual uplift for those oppressed by sin. They are the trumpet call of the jubilee with all its rootedness in the social and economic practices of the present. The words are not only to be heard by those same captives and oppressed but by all, because everyone has to respond to the declaration of the Year.

That means that the needs of the poor, the captives, and the oppressed do not have to be met because they are poor, captive, and oppressed, and so deserve our pity, we who are rich, free, and able to exercise our will and rights. The declaration of the freedom for them is not something which we are invited to approve and pray for but is something that will impinge on what we consider our rights, our ability to decide to give or not to give. Rather release and freedom is as much their right as it is ours, and it as much a gift given us as it is a gift given them.

Such a vision is not one to be swiftly turned into economic policy, and perhaps it never was.  The chapter has no interest in economic theory. If taken seriously as the principle for charitable giving in the church and outside the consequences would be far reaching. Charity would no longer be based on and reaffirm the division between we who can give, and they who are dependent on our generosity, but would be an act of humble restoration. At a time when many resent the aid given to other nations in a time of our economic hardship, it questions responses that defend such aid in terms of our security and equally those that frequently tie aid to our own values and economic benefit.

What this chapter does suggest is that the politics of ownership and economic distribution are not to be measured by likely or proven outcomes, instead they imply a fundamental understanding of what it is to be human. What is it to be human, what is it to be in relation to other humans, what is our relationship with the resources before us; these are economic questions just as they are philosophical, theological questions.