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The Other Jubilee

The Other Jubilee

Close off the road, put up the bunting, bake that celebratory cake: it’s time for the Jubilee.

Evidence suggests that this time round (unlike in 2002 and 1977) there is genuine and widespread enthusiasm for the Queen herself (as opposed to having a few extra days off). This will be a real jubilee.

Or, rather, half a Jubilee: early on in Christian history the Hebrew word ‘jobel’, referring to the ram’s-horn that was blown to mark Israel’s ‘jubilee’, was confused with the Latin word ‘jubilo’ meaning ‘I rejoice’, and the radical challenge of the former forgotten.

The ‘jobel’ was an idea of such transformative power that Jesus used it, via the prophet Isaiah, to announcing his ministry in Luke 4: “he has anointed me…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

It was an idea as brilliant in its simplicity as it was far-reaching in its repercussions. Having distributed the land equally among families, clans and tribes, the people were called, once every fifty years, to stop. Debts were cancelled, people returned to their ancestral lands, the land itself given the chance to rest. In a single stroke, the poor were to be lifted up, the lost reintegrated, creation given a moment to breathe, and the birthright of a future generations secured.

The genius of the idea was not in its utopianism but its realism. Early Israel did not pretend the people were naturally selfless or communistic. On the contrary, it presupposed a market economy but tempered its tendency towards inequality and exclusion by basing it on ineradicable ‘stakeholder’ foundations. Every family knew that no matter how hard the times they fell on, their basic stake in society could not be lost for good. Conversely, the successful knew that no matter how well they did for themselves, they would never simply be able to rest on inherited wealth.

So radical was the Jubilee as outlined in Leviticus 25, it is highly doubtful whether the nation of Israel even kept it.

And nor, of course, do we. The last thing on most people’s minds this weekend will be economic, social or environmental justice. That is not surprising or problematic. There is nothing wrong with wanting to celebrate the Queen’s sixty years on the throne or, indeed, to hold a good party.

But as we celebrate that ‘jubilo’, we should strain our ears and listen for the distant sound of the ‘jobel’.


Nick Spencer

Posted 1 June 2012


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