Expert on Old Testament Jubilee speaks at Land Center luncheon
John Bergsma, associate professor of theology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, spoke at Southwestern Seminary’s first Land Center luncheon of the semester, Sept. 17. A leading theologian on the Old Testament Jubilee—a 50-year cycle of economic liberation prescribed in the Book of Leviticus—Bergsma discussed the spiritual and economic significance of the Jubilee for Christians in both biblical and present times. The lecture was part of a Land Center colloquium focusing on work and economics in the Old Testament that took place Sept. 17-18.
Spiritual liberation always preceded economic liberation in the Jubilee tradition, Bergsma said. The Jubilee, which came every 50 years, must be considered as “part of the cycle of worship.” He explained, “Every seven days was the Sabbath, which was a day of rest and worship. But then, on a larger scale of every seven years, was a Sabbatical year. ... And then the Jubilee itself was set up on a cycle of weeks of years [that is, seven sabbatical cycles].”
Bergsma said it was significant that the Jubilee was proclaimed on the Day of Atonement, which was the holiest day of the Israelite liturgical calendar wherein the high priest would go into the Most Holy Place to atone for the sins of the people. “As an expression of this spiritual liberation that had been affected for the people of God,” Bergsma continued, “economic freedom was proclaimed throughout the land through the Jubilee.” Applied to Christian life, Bergsma stressed that the proclamation of the Gospel must preface economic liberation for a true liberation of the soul, body and economy.
Bergsma noted that Marxists misappropriated the concept of the Jubilee to justify their own ideology of land redistribution and communal lifestyle. The Marxist scheme, however, could not work for two crucial reasons. One was the elimination of worship, and the other was the emphasis on direct communication between the state and the individual without the intermediary institution of the family.
This latter mistake, Bergsma said, is still being made today. “A lot of the socioeconomic interventions that we attempt in modern culture ignore the reality of the family and try to deal immediately with the individual,” he noted. But the family was a crucial unit in the Jubilee system. Every 50 years, the Jubilee reset the socioeconomic conditions of Israel by returning people to their familial property. Scattered family members reunited on this day and repossessed their ancestral land. The Jubilee thus ensured the preservation of familial history and identity through familial landownership.
Bergsma concluded his lecture by asking the audience, “What happens to the Jubilee when we get into the era of the church?” Although many think that it was no longer observed, Bergsma finds that the early church in Jerusalem “did not go backward in the sense of not observing the Jubilee.” Rather, “they went forward in terms of observing practices that alleviated poverty even more quickly and even more immediately than the Old Testament law.”
If the Jewish liturgical calendar decreed the alleviation of poverty every 7 and 50 years, Bergsma explained, then the early church tackled poverty even more aggressively by taking collections and redistributing property every week. “Oftentimes, we can have very crass attitudes about the taking of the collection in Christian worship,” Bergsma said. “But it’s really a sacred act. The passing of the plate and the giving of our excess for the support of the church and the alleviation of the poor has been part of our worship since apostolic times, and it’s really an expression of the Jubilee.”