Slavery in America: The Year of Jubilee

On the way to church this morning, my mom and brother and I were talking about how our world would be so different today if we still practiced Jubilee. We talked about how great it would feel to have our debt wiped away and the opportunities we’d be given if only it were still practiced today.

Directly after the service, I ran into a friend of mine who I traveled with to Malawi a couple years ago. It’d been a few months since we’d run into each other. It was great to see him. He shared with us that he had been in our neck of the woods earlier in the week and had thought of me while nearby. He drew out the night and day differences between the area where I live and the area where we were attending church this morning. He asked, “Why aren’t we hanging out with the people who live in your neighborhood more?”

Every morning, I walk through my condo complex, onto the main street and walk about 5 minutes to my families’ house in order to borrow a car to drive to work. On my way, I walk under a freeway overpass, wearing my business work attire and carrying my lunch and my purse at my side. There are two homeless people living under that overpass, one on each side of the street. I walk briskly, hand tightly on the straps of my purse and lunch bag and I try not to inhale the urine stench lurking in the air. After about five minutes, I reach the car I borrow and drive off to work in one of Orange County’s wealthiest cities.

Last weekend I had a conversation with a woman named Cathy. Cathy and I are working on a blog about American Slavery and Prostitution for the Slavery in America series here on Cathy defined social justice in a way that really made sense to me. Cathy said social justice is removing barriers. Every morning, this past week, I thought about that as I walked under the overpass holding my breath and clutching my purse. What are the barriers that exist for the people sleeping under this stinky overpass?

On the way home from church, we talked about all the privileges we have as Americans. We were driving in a car; there’s one privilege that sets us apart from so many in our world. We have wireless internet in our homes and multiple computers just among the three of us. We can turn any faucet on in our homes and be assured it will spout out water until we deem it enough and turn the faucet off.

We talked about Isaiah 58. In the first part of the chapter, the people are grumbling at God because they fast and don’t think God sees their efforts. They humble themselves but wonder if God notices. The footnote for this passage in my Archeological Study Bible says, they were going through the motions of religion – specifically fasting – for the same reason the pagans participated in their rituals: in an attempt to manipulate God to act in their favor.

God responds in verses 6-7 with his purpose and design for fasting; the kind of fasting that is pleasing and acceptable to God. He says this:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

After taking a delightful Sunday afternoon nap, I wanted to look at Isaiah 58 a bit further. I pulled out a favorite book of mine off my bookshelf and searched the scripture index for Isaiah 58. I didn’t realize until I opened up to page 300 that the author, Christopher J. H. Wright correlates Isaiah 58 to the Hebrew Jubilee tradition. He says this about Jubilee:

It [Jubilee] set a temporal limit on unjust social relations – they would not last forever. The jubilee brought hope for change. The Jubilee had two major thrusts: release/liberty, and return/restoration. That is, these economic terms of hope and longing for the future, and thus entered into prophetic eschatology.

You can’t talk about the year of Jubilee and loosening the chains of injustice without talking about Jesus. Jesus’ words in Luke 4:18-19 present us with a personal mission statement about what he set out to do in his earthly ministry. Jesus’ mission is exactly God’s mission found in Isaiah with the Jubilee. Check this out:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Jesus is quoting Isaiah 61, which was strongly influenced by Jubilee concepts. Jesus fulfilled his Jubilee natured mission statement as proclaimed and enacted, spiritual and physical, for Israel and the nations, and in both present and eschatological terms.

There is another time where Jesus refers to Jubilee like actions when he encounters the Samaritan woman at the well. The woman talks about where she worships compared to where the Jews worship. She referred to worship as a place and Jesus replies to her by saying that true worshippers worship in both spirit and truth. Jesus says that God is spirit and therefore we must worship him in both spirit and in truth.

Going back to Isaiah 58, the kind of worship the people were practicing, was worship in a temple, one day a week. The kind of worship God desires is the kind that gets us out of the walls of our churches and into the communities where we live. God desires that we worship him by removing barriers that bind people in a state of bondage and oppression.

No matter where you live, you don’t have to go far to see injustice and people in great need. For my friend I saw at church today, he went about 15 miles. For me, I simply walk just a few minutes before I am approached with injustice.

I’ve been writing a lot lately on the problem of human trafficking in America. Human trafficking is a secondary problem of many deeply rooted problems of injustice. Human trafficking exists because in many places there is an absence of the rule of law that would serve to protect the poor and the vulnerable, most of who are women and children. It exists because there is a demand for sex by a people who are broken and searching for satisfaction that only God can bring. It exists because we are an ignorant people when it comes to how our food, clothing and cell phones are made and distributed to us. It exists because kids are fleeing broken homes and ending up in the arms of strangers who take advantage of them. It exists because America’s immigration system is so screwed up and people so desperate for a better life that many end up in dangerous situations and in corrupt hands. And is exists because people like me walk right by need daily, holding our breath from the raw stench and dirt, ignoring the problems that lay awake in our backyards in this country.

Isaiah 58 ends with powerful promises made by the Lord for those who choose to leave the comfort of their church pew and worship him in spirit and in truth. He says your light will rise in the darkness; your night will become like noonday. He will always guide you, you will be satisfied in the midst of great need and you will be known. You will be like a well-watered garden; like a spring whose waters never fail. You will rebuild and will be called repairer of broken walls, restorer of streets with dwellings. You will find your joy in the Lord.

This human trafficking problem is much bigger than I first thought it would be. The ways of the Lord are much mightier still! Our hope is found in Jesus, the one who releases and restores! May we be people who practice Jubilee today, beginning with me.

*Originally posted as part of a series on Slavery in America posted on


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