Jesus made his reputation as a Jewish economist, one with very strong opinions about wealth and property, about the relationship between the rich and the poor.
He also was intensely religious and loved nothing more than debating the meaning of the law of God or Torah. For instance, he is presented in the Gospel of Luke as being a precocious 12-year-old boy absorbed in debating religious leaders about the meaning of Torah.
Jesus as the Good Shepherd, in stained-glass depiction by Alfred Handel. (Photo credit: Toby Hudson)
From early childhood he must have understood that he was seen as a brash, pushy kid from a small town in Northern Palestine, an area without religious leadership and an unemployment rate well over 50 percent.
Whether by divine wisdom or genius insight, Jesus figured out what wealthy and powerful people were doing to the poor, illiterate people with whom he lived. Primarily through his teaching and storytelling, he became identified as a populist teacher with a good deal of influence. He was good news to the poor and bad news for those who clung to their riches.
Clearly Jesus was fascinated by Torah and its application to everyday life. Luke’s gospel reports that a lettered leader of the religious community approached Jesus and asked how to attain eternal life. Jesus responded with two questions of his own: What does Torah say? How do you read it? The first question is easy to answer. The second question is the real test.
Jesus knew what Torah said, and he had strong opinions about how Torah should be read. Jesus had come to his own understanding of the property codes in the book of Leviticus. These codes are credited to Moses, but more probably come from the massive rewrite of Israelite traditions during the years of Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE.
Torah is very straightforward. Land and ultimately all wealth belong to God, who places property in the control of human beings, not as owners but as stewards who must share it and return it to God every 49 years for redistribution.
For Israelites, time was divided into blocks of seven years. Land was not tilled in the seventh year. After a series of seven, seven-year blocks of time, a Year of Jubilee was declared. During the Year of Jubilee, all land was to be returned to the control of the priests, who, in the name of God, were to make a new and fresh distribution of all land.
In other words, the wealthy were supposed to surrender their stewardship and the poorest of the poor were given land with the encouragement to be productive for God and their fellow Israelites. All slaves were set free and all debts were canceled.
At the time when the Israelite system of Sabbaths and a Jubilee was codified, the economic and political structures may have accommodated such radical economic and social changes in a one-year observance of Jubilee.
Hundreds of years later, however, when Jesus lived and taught, the combination of Roman rule, compliant fat-cats and religious elites made the observance of Jubilee impossible. So, almost every Israelite knew what Torah said, but the prescription had not been followed in anyone’s memory. The poor had given up on the idea of a Year of Jubilee, but apparently not Jesus.
According to Luke’s gospel, early in the public ministry of Jesus, he went to a synagogue gathering and read a passage from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. God has sent me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release of captives and liberty to the oppressed. This is the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Everyone in his hearing understood what he was saying. Israelites had gone too long without a Year of Jubilee. It was time for the wealthy to turn loose what they had accumulated. It was time for the poor to receive their full stewardship.
But most poor people had taken on the understanding of life that their oppressors presented and taught. It was true then; it is still true today. So, the Year of Jubilee code was regarded as impractical. However, the principles of the ownership of God, the end of slavery, and economic justice still were possible.
The Israelites who held wealth and power knew what was in Torah, but they were not interested in reading it with new eyes of compassion and justice. (When Jesus finally took his message to Jerusalem – riding in on a donkey to mock the rich who favored horses and turning over the money tables at the Temple to protest religious corruption – he was deemed an insurrectionist and was executed.)
Jesus died almost 2,000 years ago, but the laws of Sabbaths and Jubilees are still on the books today. Torah still has a powerful message, especially since the evils of greed and mindless ownership are with us in ever growing magnitude. Resulting inequities and injustices surround us.
We Americans live in a secular society, but Christians have a responsibility to influence and to train the conscience of our fellow citizens. Here in election season, Jesus appears on the scene and asks the same two questions: “What does Torah say? How do you read it?”
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.