“The land is Mine” (the importance of Leviticus 25:23)

Last night, as I was looking at the passage about the year of jubilee in Leviticus, this amazing line in Leviticus 25:23 jumped out at me. It’s the justification God gives His people for redistributing all their property and freeing all their slaves every 50 years: The land is Mine, and you reside in My land as foreigners and strangers. I believe that this sentence is a paradigm for understanding the whole gospel and a potential foundation from which we should consider every social issue we face in our world.

First, in a metaphorical sense, this sentence captures the gospel, because in the kingdom of God, we are illegal aliens granted amnesty by the blood of Christ. We have absolutely no right to inhabit God’s kingdom; we deserve for God to leave us in the outer darkness so that we won’t contaminate the perfect holy, peaceful place to live that God has created. But God wants us to live in His holy peace as aliens who are both naturalized and reminded of our complete dependency on grace by the mark of Jesus’ cross on our hearts. It is only as naturalized aliens that we can avoid contaminating God’s holy peace. We could not inhabit God’s kingdom as un-alien citizens without trying to make His kingdom ours, tailoring our moral/ethical systems to affirm and justify what is already our natural way of being as well as condemn whatever “other” we define ourselves against, and then building apartheid walls to keep the “other” out. (Oh wait a minute, that’s exactly what many of us do already, because we see Jesus’ sacrifice as our entitlement rather than our gift!)

It requires constant meditation on the gift of the cross not to forget our eternal status as naturalized aliens and live in the perpetually humble reverence of the gift that rebukes every sense of entitlement which rises up in our hearts. Once we are grounded in this basic understanding of our eternal condition, there is no reason that Leviticus 25:23 doesn’t also apply to all of our daily life circumstances as well, which is of course the context in which it appears in the jubilee passage. God, what do we do if one of our neighbors has a drinking problem and loses all his money so that he has to sell his family into slavery? Do they get freed in the year of jubilee? The land is Mine, and you reside in My land as foreigners and strangers. What about if I buy my neighbor’s tent and flip it for a 100% profit? Does he get it back when jubilee comes? The land is Mine, and you reside in My land as foreigners and strangers.

Verses 35-37 are remarkable in their prohibition of economic practices that we take for granted as being just part of how the economy works: “If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you. Do not take interest or any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you. You must not lend them money at interest or sell them food at a profit.” Zero-percent interest loans, selling food at cost? Are you kidding me? The land is Mine, and you reside in My land as foreigners and strangers.

Imagine if our attitudes about the issues facing us today were grounded in this basic presumption of who the Earth belongs to. What would be our attitude about the environment knowing that the land is God’s? How would we talk about illegal immigrants knowing that we too are foreigners and strangers in God’s land? What about intellectual property right disputes when scientists discover how to manipulate the natural processes for which God deserves the patent?

So much of how our world is currently constructed draws on a view of reality in which the land does not belong to God. It belongs to whoever has the money to buy it or the family that has always owned it. The absence of God’s name from the title of our property is definitively what makes us a secular world. Obviously, the sinfulness of human nature causes our society to need walls and locked doors in order for us to live safely. And we need a border patrol too. As Robert Frost wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.” But part of being Christian in a secular world requires perpetually resisting the privatization of our consciousness. How can we live in such a way that we constantly bear witness to the truth that this world belongs to God and we are mere foreigners within it granted passage only by His grace? The degree to which we live by that truth is the degree to which we inhabit God’s kingdom instead of the fallen world He has called us to rise beyond.


5 thoughts on ““The land is Mine” (the importance of Leviticus 25:23)

  1. Brother United Methodist pastor. Do you know me? Have we met? You “imagine” what I would have to say about a number of things I didn’t mention at all. I thought I was simply offering another perspective on the text, but I don’t think the comments were welcome. Never mind, I won’t bother you again.

    • I was unnecessarily defensive and presumptuous about your views. Please accept my apology. It should be about searching for truth together and not polemicizing with an agenda. I forget sometimes.

  2. I think the historical context of the text deserves greater consideration. In this passage, which “land is mine”? A specific tract of land, taken from the Canaanites by miltary conquest at a particular point in history and divided among the tribes and clans of Israel as a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. The Books of Moses see the specific boundaries of each familiy’s plot of land set by God by the people casting lots for it. The boundaries established by lot were never to be moved. The land was not to be sold in perpetuity even if you wanted to sell it. You only got this land because I gave it to you, God said, and it’s not yours to do with as you please. Each plot of land belonged a specific family forever because God said so. Whether it was a good piece of land or a not-so-good piece didn’t matter. This piece of land – this plot of dirt – was literally your “lot” in life. The jubilee was part of an economic system built on farming one piece of land for generation after generation. There was no deciding to do something else with one’s life. There was no going off to learn or create or live an adventure. Jubiliee was to be practiced by the people of God so that the covenant people could stay on the piece of dirt God gave them; it wasn’t a general rule for all time and all humanity. Since I don’t think God’s covenant for this genertion is based on God giving me a plot of land for me and all my descdendats to farm forever whether they want to or not, I can’t just take the jubilee structures and make them a prescription for 21st century secular economics. It’s not possible, and I don’t think it’s what God intended.

    I wrote more here: http://wp.me/p1TyRp-yE.

    • Would you also say that the boundaries of sexual behavior set by the book of Leviticus are likewise historically contextualized as a code for the Levites and not necessarily prescriptive across all places and time? I imagine that there are parts of Leviticus you would like to universalize. I don’t think that just because this passage has a historical application means that it’s inappropriate as a model for living under God’s reign on any piece of land. If you’re going to play the historical context card, then you have to play it throughout the Biblical text and I have a feeling you’re only willing to play it selectively. With your interpretation of Leviticus as being applicable specifically to the physical land of Israel, would you say then that the current inhabitants of Israel are bound by Torah in order to be treated as God’s covenantal people? Would that mean that they earn another exile if they don’t practice Jubilee?

      In my perspective, the Bible is not a flat, literalist “owner’s manual” so much as the story of how God has worked through His people throughout time. What God says to Noah or Ahab helps me discover God’s character and what I’m supposed to do in response to Him even if I don’t literally do exactly what God told Noah or Ahab to do because my historical context is different. There’s an overarching principle at stake in the historical context of the jubilee passage, which is still at stake today: divine providence. Capitalism has no respect for divine providence because it depends upon an ethos of meritocratic individual responsibility which is inherently atheistic. Capitalism only becomes capable of being a tolerable economic system when its players refuse to be defined by ethos and stubbornly act charitable and compassionate against the grain of profit-driven, meritocratic reality.

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