Earth. God’s creation. The source of life that sustains us. The fruit of the land, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea. Earth’s bounty. Abundance. Enough for everyone. God gives us enough for our needs but not our greed.
Throughout the Bible, God demonstrates time and time again that there is indeed enough for everyone. But with that gift of abundance comes responsibility. We are told over and over to practice good stewardship: take only what we need and use it with dutiful restraint so that there is enough to go around—for all creatures who dwell on our planet now and for generations to come.
Modern economics tell a different story. We are told that there is not enough for everyone, so we need to compete with each other in a dog-eat-dog existence to gobble up what we can. It tells us that we can always have (and should want) more. It creates an unlimited appetite for accumulation. The system teaches scarcity and greed.
But perhaps these economics are not so modern.
In the parable of the vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-16), the landowner is often interpreted as being overly generous with his day laborers. Many read the story and assume the landowner is a stand-in for God. But some scholars offer a different interpretation: The landowner is not God. The landowner is plain and simple a landowner—and one who has the upper hand in a system of exploiting both the land and the workers.
In first century Palestine, it would take four or five years of preparation before a vineyard would turn a profit. This would necessitate the acquisition of multiple tracts of land so that as one vineyard was coming online, others were being prepared with younger vines. How would a landowner amass multiple tracts of land? By foreclosing on subsistence farmers too indebted to make their payments.
This system of indebtedness benefits the landowner in yet another practical way. As subsistence farmers are pushed off their land, they line up as day laborers and are sitting ducks for exploitation. Conditions for them are even worse than if they were enslaved. (The landowner treats his enslaved people better than the day laborers because he needs them to stay healthy to work again tomorrow and next week and next year.) But aren’t the workers at least being paid? Barely. There is nothing generous about the one denarius (“the usual daily wage”) paid to the workers. This is not a living wage; it is just enough to keep a poor person alive from one day to the next. So what if the workers get sick from heat exhaustion or complain too much about the low wages? Tomorrow there will be plenty more waiting in line for a day’s work. And if they complain, making their case for a fairer hourly wage (“these last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us”), the landowner reminds them that he, not they, is in charge: “Take what is yours and go.” He calls the shots.
Here we see how the system makes people suffer. But Earth herself is also put in jeopardy by this system of exploitation.
In today’s global economy, those who already own land are incentivized to accumulate more and more. A driving force of human migration is that poor people across the globe are constantly being pushed off their subsistence farms. In places like Honduras, large landholders get rid of poor peasants by burning their crops and bulldozing their homes—and assassinating those who dare to resist. Land use is switched from producing food to sustain human life to producing export crops to grow the bank accounts of investors. Biodiverse forests—which provide homes for birds, insects, fruit, and nuts—are cleared to grow cash crops: palm trees for palm oil, bananas, sugar cane, soy and other money-makers for the owners. Growing crops in the full sun requires tons of herbicides, fertilizers and insecticides, which contaminate the soil, waterways, and the people working in the fields.
Jubilee. We need a jubilee. People need a jubilee. The land needs a jubilee. All of God’s creation needs a jubilee.
Jubilee is not so much a “rest” as it is a way of clearing the slate, resetting the clocks, and starting over. Jubilee is a way of atoning for having gone astray and calling us back to the way that God sets out for us. Jubilee is about restoring right and just relationships: humans to each other, humans to Mother Earth, humans to our loving and beneficent God.
As we mark this Season of Creation, let us be mindful of our duty and responsibility to care for one another and for our common home.
[Credits: Much of the reflection on the Gospel reading is a synthesis of ideas from Biblical scholars Rev. Dr. Janet Trisk, Rev. Obery Hendricks, Ched Myers, and Tommy Airey.]
Get connected with an organization (local, national, international) working to protect Earth’s land, air, waterways, and creatures for generations to come.