Healthy Lives (Leviticus 25:8-21,23-24)
Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (July 13, 2009)
One of the most basic, simplest and yet extraordinarily challenging beliefs for Old Testament people was the confession that ultimately the Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it (Psalm 24:1). This includes — at the heart of ancient Israelite life —the land.
Genesis begins with the story of creation. The land comes from God and is good. God intends the land to be used for the sake of life, human beings serving as stewards of creation’s fruitfulness. When brokenness enters the world, this involves alienation from the land and alienation in human relationships. Later on, this alienation finds clear expression in the enslavement and oppression of the Hebrew people within the Egyptian empire.
God’s action frees those slaves and establishes them as a community meant to know God and to witness to that knowledge in a way that will bless all the families of the Earth (Gen. 12:3; Ex. 19:6). The books of the Law (Torah) give details for how this knowledge might be embodied in ways that provide for the well-being of all in the community — a sharp contrast with the exploitation practiced in Egypt.
Leviticus in particular may be read as a set of instructions meant to guide Israel in its life as a contrast society in relation both to oppressive societies from their past (Egypt) and present (the Canaanite kingdoms). We see this quite clearly at two places in particular, chapters 19 and 25.
Chapter 19 defines holiness, and at its core we read these powerful words: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18). This includes widows, orphans and the “alien” (the non-Israelite living in Israel). The love for the alien stems directly from God’s love for the Hebrews while they “were aliens in the land of Egypt” (19:34). Holiness equals love of neighbor, the vulnerable neighbor, even the non-Israelite neighbor.
Then in chapter 25, we encounter the teaching on Jubilee, a teaching that inspired Jesus himself (see Luke 4:14-20 and the helpful discussion in Donald Kraybill’s The Upside-Down Kingdom). The Jubilee laws require Israelites every 50 years to return the land to its original inhabitants.
Such an act cuts to the heart of the dynamics that drove people off the land and into poverty. With the Jubilee there will be no division of Israel into a small wealthy class and a large landless, poverty-stricken, vulnerable class. That is, with the Jubilee there will be no return to Egypt and its injustices.
To understand the intent of the Jubilee laws and their relevance for us, we need to link them with both creation and with exodus. God’s intentions in creating the world and in freeing the Hebrew people from slavery dovetail. God wants partners in cultivating creation. God wants us to live in wholeness in relation to nature and with fellow human beings. The basic word is “it is good,” just as God is good.
Life is a gift from God, based on God’s generosity. The Jubilee reminds us that we are called to be stewards of all that God gives us —and that our stewardship must include a fundamental awareness of and concern for vulnerable people around us. To have healthy lives, we must respond to God’s generosity with generosity of our own.
Since these dynamics of generosity, stewardship and responsibility exist as part of the creative intent of God, we should not be surprised that when human beings disregard them, negative consequences ensue. It’s simple. When we don’t follow life-giving practices, our lives will not be full of health.
Ted Grimsrud teaches theology and peace studies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.