Earlier in this series I described justice as the right balance between competing rights and obligations. I wrote that there are at least three aspects of economic justice:
- Distributive Justice –Addresses how capital and goods are distributed throughout the society.
- Commutative Justice – Addresses the truthfulness of parties to an economic exchange.
- Remedial Justice – Addresses just compensation and punitive action when there has been malicious or careless damage done to life, liberty or property.
In my last post, I wrote about the Jubilee Code. The Jubilee Code is central for a couple of reasons. First, it gives us considerable insight into God’s vision of a just society. Second, Jesus makes direct reference to the jubilee in the announcement of his ministry at Nazareth in Luke 4.
The Jubilee Code has frequently been characterized as debt cancellation, release from slavery, and wealth redistribution. However, as we saw in the last post, this is not an accurate characterization. Both land and labor could be leased by the rightful owner for the period of time extending from the transaction until the next jubilee. The lease amount was calculated based on the estimated number of the crops to be harvested over the lease period. Thus, when the jubilee came, there was no debt cancellation or emancipation of slaves. No wealth was redistributed. There was the expiration of lease agreements. Land and labor was returned to its rightful owners.
Central to the Jubilee Code seems to be the idea of each person with access to the means of economic production. God desired for each person to have an ownership stake in the economy and in society. While all porperty ultimately belonged to God, there seems to be a desire on God’s part for each person to be responsible for some portion of creation. He wanted stewards. Without ownership of productive resources (land, labor and capital) one can not be a steward, only a consumer. At the apex of God’s economic justice is a desire for his eikons to be genuine stewards, expressing their creative and productive qualities. Anything short of this is dehumanizing, or de-eikonizing, in God’s eyes.
We will turn more fully to the New Testament shortly but I think it is important to highlight how Jesus described the nature of his own call in Luke 4:18-19:
"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 favor." (NRSV)
“The year of the Lord’s favor” is a euphemism for the jubilee. Jesus was reading from Isaiah 61:1-2 which was in turn referring back to the Jubilee Code. Isaiah was looking for delivery from Babylon but Jesus appropriates the passage to announce delivery from bondage to the consequences of sin itself. The key here is that a world without sin apparently includes people free from economic servitude and everyone living as stewards of God’s creation, just like during the Jubilee.
Another key aspect to the jubilee and sabbath codes is that they offered tangible ways to acknowledge our dependence on the true owner of creation. Periodically ceasing labor made a powerful statement. God also ensured that those who could not be fully productive participants in the economy would be cared for in a dignified way. There was private property but ownership had obligations. God’s vision of community entailed two qualities that exist in tension: Private ownership and care for the whole community. Either of these qualities emphasized to the exclusion of the other is a distortion of a just society.
As we read through the rest of the Old Testament beyond the Pentateuch we see little new in regard to economic thinking. When economic issues emerge (and they emerge often) they usually are related to prophetic denunciations of the people’s refusal to live according to economic justice as described in the Law. Along with denunciations are also promises of a day of restoration when economic justice will be a reality. The Jubilee Code is a window into that reality.