1. General Christian

Poverty: Jesus, Jubilee, and Reparations

Jesus is many things to many people. The Good Shepherd, the Great Physician, the Light of the world. The Alpha and Omega, the Lion and the Lamb, the crucified and risen Savior. If you study Luke’s Gospel, you might notice that among all these images and titles, one specific picture of Jesus rises to the fore: he is the one whom God has sent to the poor.

This isn’t something we need to deduce from the pattern of his many interactions with sex workers or leprous outcasts. It’s actually an explicit message in Jesus’ own words, often uttered at crucial moments. For example, after his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus begins his Galilean ministry in the synagogue. He reads aloud from Isaiah 61 and then says he is the fulfillment of the prophet’s words:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:11-12)

From the very outset, Jesus tells us who he is here for: the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. In another powerful episode, an imprisoned John the Baptist sends two of his followers to ask Jesus if he’s really the one for whom they’ve been waiting. Rather than give a straightforward and static, “Yes,” Jesus instead tells the messengers to point John to Jesus’ actions: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (7:22). 

Jesus’ identity is inextricably linked to proclaiming good news to the poor.

Why is this the case? Why the poor? After all, as so many have been litigating on social media this year, isn’t it true that all lives matter? To understand God’s deep concern for those trapped in cycles of poverty, it might help to look again at the first example above, when Jesus reads from Isaiah. The final line reads: “[God has sent me] to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The ancient Jews who read Isaiah and listened to Jesus would have known right away that “the year of the Lord’s favor” meant a practice we now look back on as “the year of Jubilee.”

The year of Jubilee was one of several important pillars of economic policy enshrined in Old Testament Law. Let’s try to get the big picture of this economic system (with the help of pastor and community organizer Robert Linthicum’s “The Least of These: The War on Poverty by Israel and the Church” in the New Urban World Journal). Once we catch God’s view of poverty, Jesus’ words might take on exciting new meaning.

In Deuteronomy 15:4, God looks ahead to the people’s life in the promised land and declares, “There need be” (literally: there will be) “no poor people among you,” but just seven verses later, the text concedes, “There will always be poor people in the land.” What gives? Will there or won’t there be poor people? In this tension lies the tragic reality of human society: there does not need to be poverty, but because of the greed that causes and maintains wealth gaps and systems of oppression, there always will be.

The text of Deuteronomy 15 then provides an immediate takeaway: “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” But the crucial thing to see here is that the fight against poverty was not simply a moral command to be carried out by individuals or families. It was codified in the social policies that governed the economic system itself. These policies in Leviticus and Deuteronomy are fascinating ideals that seem to be millennia ahead of their time. 

Just consider four features of the Law that were designed to work together to end poverty: (1) money lenders were not allowed to charge interest, (2) regular tithes were mandatory to provide for not only the Levites, but also the immigrants, widows, and orphans, (3) every seven years all debts were forgiven, and (4) every fifty years (on the Year of Jubilee), all land—the cornerstone of wealth then as it is now—was returned to its ancestral owners. 

Right off the bat, we can safely conclude that God does not want poverty to exist, and to that end, God desires both radical personal generosity and laws and systems that continually pull people out of poverty. As Dr. Linthicum observes, these ancient statutes were instated “so that wealth and power could not accrue among a favored few at the expense of everyone else;” instead, resources were to be “intentionally and systematically redistributed to the people.”

I was reminded of Dr. Linthicum’s article when this winter, about five years late to the party, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s revelatory article, “The Case for Reparations,” in The Atlantic. The piece, which explains the history of housing discrimination within a much larger web of racist American systems, actually begins with a quotation from Deuteronomy. 

The parallels between the Year of Jubilee and reparations for Black Americans quickly become apparent. Both seem “unfair” to our capitalist sensibilities: why should I, a hard-working White American, have to give up resources to help people whose ancestors suffered from historical injustices I had nothing to do with? (There are many easy rebuttals to this, but this question is here for the sake of argument.) But we might as easily ask, why should the ancient hard-working Jewish landowner have had to give up resources to help people whose grandfathers had squandered their family wealth or had been invaded by foreign enemies?

God clearly was not concerned with capitalist sensibilities. God’s sense of justice was not constrained by the laws of the free market or Friedman’s shareholder theory. What is fair and right and just in God’s eyes is for no one to live in poverty—no matter how they got there. Linthicum explains, “The pointed message of Deuteronomy is that it is irrelevant whether one’s poverty is the result of a reversal in a nation’s economy, a family calamity or generational poverty, or an individual’s bad choices, laziness, or unfortunate circumstances. However the persons or families got into these circumstances, they are now poor and vulnerable, and it is the responsibility of each Israelite and the political and economic systems of Israel to resolve the situation.”

In today’s America, we actually know why there is such an immense wealth gap between Black and White Americans. We don’t need to speculate about calamities or bad choices. There is a well-documented history of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, redlining, mass incarceration—and many more racist systems. Ancient Israel, had it followed this part of God’s Law, could never have inflicted this kind of generational poverty on any of God’s beloved children, because everyone would “begin every fifty-first year with an economically ‘level playing field.’”

Of course, American law doesn’t have a Year of Jubilee. But there’s a more insidious issue, isn’t there? At the end of the day, most of us don’t really want to repair the four hundred years of financial damage wreaked on Black Americans. To demonstrate this, Coates points to House bill HR 40. At the time of his writing in 2014, the bill had been sponsored every single year by Representative John Conyers since 1989—and in 25 years, it had failed to make it even once to the House floor. This is especially damning given that so many White Americans, even progressive ones, cite pragmatic and logistical problems as why they don’t favor reparations. This bill would simply form a commission to closely study the issue and make recommendations—recommendations that would address these complex pragmatic and logistical problems.

Imagine the Jubilee if we joined with God’s desire to end poverty! If we embraced the painful and costly work of not only rejecting but undoing systemic racial inequality. If we committed to follow, in Linthicum’s words, “the Jubilee Jesus, the Jesus who came to proclaim Jubilee to the people… and to call the Jewish political, economic, and religious systems to accountability for refusing to practice the full Jubilee.”

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