Jubilee is seen as one of the overarching biblical principles in relation to debt. Found in Deuteronomy chapter 15 and Leviticus chapter 25, it is one of the core tenants of the new community set up as the people of Israel fled from Egypt.
Primarily, Jubilee is a remembrance of the debt-slavery from which the people of Israel have just been liberated. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today” (Deuteronomy 15:15).
As a redeemed people, building a new community in the wake of their freedom from debt-bondage in Egypt, liberation becomes a key tenant of the new society for the people of Israel. The jubilee principle is a commitment that freedom might be the core foundation of their relationship with one another, and a safeguarding against the kind of debt-oppression they have left behind.
As a principle, it ensures that no one is trapped in poverty or bondage because of debt held against them. The practical details of the jubilee principle laid out in both passages ensure that not only are those held back by debt liberated regularly, but that they are brought into common life with the community by their provision of food and resources from the creditors own produce (Deut. 15:14).
Beginning here, the jubilee principle embodies the fairness, relational-wholeness, prosperity and blessing that God desires for God’s people.
Principles of lending
If jubilee is the broader cycle in which debt should be viewed and managed in the new community the people of Israel are building, they are also offered principles for how lending should be managed in between jubilee years.
Found in Exodus3, Leviticus4 and Deuteronomy5, clear principles for lending are established.
Do not profit from another’s misery
Each of these passages make it clear that need will always be present within the community, and in all circumstance should be met by generosity. ‘Open handed’ giving (Deuteronomy 15.8) should be offered liberally – where need is seen it should be met from within the community. Within these principles, responsibility for meeting need not only lies with the debtor, but with the creditor too. Meeting need becomes the responsibility of the whole community.
Seeking profit from the need of another is clearly established to be immoral: “Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them” (Leviticus 25). In fact, Exodus 22 establishes clear boundaries for lending, taking clear concern that resources needed for survival and dignity should never be used as collateral for a loan (Exodus 22: 25-27). This is not the only place where concern for this kind of lending is expressed. The prophets in the Old Testament express clear outrage at lending done at the expense of the debtors survival, the vivid language of Amos lamenting creditors who ‘sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals— they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth” perhaps the most evocative (Amos 2:6-7). Clear prohibitions on unlimited collateral are established – the dignity and welfare of the debtor should always be paramount.
Ownership is never absolute
The final principle of lending embedded beneath all of this is that ownership of resources (particularly the land) is never absolute. The land that the people of Israel occupy, and the land promised to them, is clearly established not as their own but God’s, given ‘as a possession to occupy’ (Deut. 15:4). The land, the primary source of economic security, does not belong to anyone. Therefore, all people are first indebted to God, and from this place lend the use of resources. Lending becomes therefore a practice of stewardship. Economic transactions must be made in the light of the call to steward the resources lent by God, for the good of all people and creation.
Dignity and Welfare
It becomes clear from these biblical principles of lending that that the area of primary concern in any economic transaction is to be the dignity and welfare of all those involved.
As God’s image bearers, all people have inherent dignity and worth. It is of principle concern throughout the biblical tradition of debt therefore that this dignity is honoured in practice. This concern extends particularly to the poor and marginalised, as identified in each of the key texts exploring the principles of lending.
Participation in the common life
A key implication of this dignity and welfare is the ability of all people to participate in the common life of the community. Lending and borrowing is established in these passages as a practice primarily to establish the participation of all people in the common life of the community.
For those who have faced hardship for any reason, lending from within the community is an invitation to continue to participate in the common life. It is an invitation to live within the community (Leviticus 25), to be supported by them (Deuteronomy 15:7) and to be offered abundance by them (Deut. 15:14). No one should be excluded from the common life because of hardship. Instead, as lending happens between neighbours, inclusion is offered.
Debt as relationship
This view of common life establishes relationship as a key component of debt. In particular, the quality of relationship debt establishes is important.
It is clear from these passages that debt relationships are inevitably power relationships. There is always a risk that borrower and lender will become uneven in their relating to one another – something keenly felt by the people of Israel only recently liberated from a damaging debt-bondage. Both the principles of lending and the overarching pattern of jubilee seek to address this. Jubilee ensures that the potentially widening gap of need and provision between debtor and lender is regularly addressed and set right.
Even when relationships of debt-bondage are discussed, these are required to be established as beneficial to both creditor and debtor (Leviticus 25). The relationship established between creditor and debtor needs to be one where the needs of both are known and accounted for. If lenders are to adhere to the principles of Exodus 22 – that debt should never be conditional on the resources needed for another’s survival – then the lender must know the needs of the debtor. For the dignity and welfare of the debtor to be maintained, they must be known through relationship.
This sets debt relationships within the bigger biblical vision of right-relationship. Debt becomes a tool for seeking the right-relationship of everyone in the community, as a reflection of God’s endeavour for right relationship with God’s people. Once again, we see the economic relationships of God’s people in community with one another as a reflection of God’s relationship with God’s people – a vision of the kingdom of God come on earth.
Moving from the Old Testament to New, this principle can perhaps most absolutely be seen in Jesus’ fulfilment of the jubilee through his life and death.
In Luke 4, Jesus reads from the scroll in the temple and declares that the scripture which reads:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
…has been fulfilled by his presence. The jubilee liberation (the ‘year of the Lord’s favour), seen before only as a temporary solution in cycles of seven years, has now been ultimately fulfilled by Jesus’ incarnation. Through Jesus’ incarnation, God has sought to set into right-relationship all people with one another, and with Godself, once again.
Not only in his incarnation but in his death does Jesus work through this ultimate jubilee liberation. The cross is the ultimate jubilee – where debts are forgiven rather than paid, and we are set free rather than temporarily eased of our burden.6
In turn, as we are liberated from our debt and brought into right-relationship with God, we are invited to extend this to one another. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus articulates this in what we have come to know as the Lord’s prayer:
“And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
In reflection of the right-relationship we are offered by God, our economic (and therefore relational) transactions with one another become tools to seek right-relationship with one another.
Underlying all of this is grace. From the first liberation from Egypt to the liberation of the cross, God demonstrates grace. This is embedded within the principles and practices of lending and borrowing explored across the Bible.
These principles are not ones of fairness – that, in being deserving enough, a debtor might be treated as they have earned. Instead, those in need are offered provision because of their inherent worth, instilled foremost by God in an act of Grace towards creation. The practical rules of jubilee mean that regardless of circumstance, there are inbuilt structures by which all may be liberated.
A debt free world is one of grace. Where worth is recognised by God’s standard, not our own, and value is protected in the way we relate to one another.
Theology from the report
“In the Old Testament, Jubilee meant a resetting of debts and obligations, allowing relationships to be rebuilt, communities to be re-balanced, and people’s dignity to be restored.”
Resetting the Debt
At the heart of debt is a relationship between lender and borrower. When a person’s debt becomes unsustainable or unpayable, they end up in what Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, describes as a “spiral of asymmetry”. The ever-widening gap means the person in debt is left powerless against the demands of the lender.
Jubilee is an ancient idea intended to address this imbalance. The biblical principle of periodically resetting debt means these relationships are never allowed to spiral out of control. Jubilee seeks to ensure that everyone – lender and debtor – is brought into right-relationship with one another, as is reflective of their dignity as human beings.
And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.Leviticus 25:10
Jubilee is an ancient idea. The Bible sets out how it originated as a way of ensuring a just society where no one was trapped in poverty or bondage because of the debts or obligations they accrued. According to Jubilee, on a regular basis land was to be returned to people, resources shared, slaves freed, land rested, debts forgiven. Jubilee offered a way of life for God’s people, founded in liberation.
As Christians, we see Jubilee as being about more than just economics. The Jubilee year allowed relationships to be reset, communities to be re-balanced, and people’s dignity to be restored. It was a way of enabling the injustices and fractures in society to be repaired, so that all of God’s people could flourish. The Jubilee principle embodies the fairness, well-being and freedom that God desires for all people.
Today, jubilee offers more than a technical solution to the household debt problem created by the lockdown. Covid-19 has shown us that we are all far more reliant on each other than we had previously acknowledged. Yet, without a debt Jubilee, those who are least able to bear it will continue to carry the heaviest financial burden as we move forward.
Jubilee offers a vision of what a flourishing community might look like. A community where people are not trapped in endless spirals of debt. Where children’s mental health is not damaged through fear of eviction. Where everyone has a safe place to call home. Where the rich and poor do not spiral away from each other in increasing inequality. Where fairness is restored.
Jubilee alone will not create such a society, however it would be a powerful and practical start to the process. It offers a picture of a just and compassionate community that recognises the needs of the most disadvantaged in society and prioritises them.
Jubilee is about relationship and community. Moving forward from the pandemic is about community , bringing everyone along together in change. “common life”
About how we see and treat one another with dignity – faith imperative
The jubilee principle starts with lived experience (people of Israel in Egypt). We have to start from this place of experience.
Poverty and inequality-busting tool
Jubilee is a tool to make sure that poverty is always addressed within the community. It purposefully targets those who are at risk of marginalisation, and puts structures in place to ensure that everyone’s voices and needs are responded to. As we build back from the pandemic, we can make choices that ensure this happens too, and dealing with lockdown debt is one of those.