2008 was a tough year for everyone financially. Wall Street had faltered, global markets took a tumble and nearly everyone felt the pinch. It was pretty much an accepted fact that there would be a long, tough, uphill battle to get back on track… not just in the United States, but globally as well.
Just one year later, when they had barely begun to recover, Greece admitted that they were a bit over-extended. The country had been “understating its deficit figures for years”[i] and they were having a really tough time getting back on their feet.
Just as measures were being announced to tighten the belt and get back on track, investors lost confidence in Greece, and in 2010, there was a huge pull of money out of the country. 8-10 billion euro worth of money. Some of this was from outside investors, but it also represents the wealthy of the nation who took their money out of the Greek system. As one analyst put it in February of 2010 – “If indeed the money rush out of Greece has commenced, then it is too late to save the country…”[ii]
This moment of crisis led to the first of two… and maybe now three bailouts by the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the Eurpoean Commission… bailouts that have come with conditions like budget cuts and tax increases that are the center of today’s controversy.
Since the beginning of the crisis, Greece’s economy has shrunk by a quarter. Unemployment is over 25%. Almost 2/3 of Greece’s debt today is now owed to the Eurozone bailout… money it doesn’t have to start paying back until 2023…. But also money in its current situation it is not likely to be able to pay back.
When I look to the scriptures for a word about debt and finances, one of the first places I turn is to Leviticus and the idea of the Jubilee.
Jubilee springs out of the idea of Sabbath or rest.
Just like every seventh day we are called to rest, every seventh year, was a Sabbath year. It was a call to let the land lie fallow, release the slaves and cancel outstanding debts.
And Leviticus chapter 25 lays out a vision for us of the Jubilee, that every seventh Sabbath year was a clean slate. Every fifty years, or once in every lifetime, a person would witness restoration. Debt would not last forever. “Economic relationships are never to be allowed to make life hopeless.”[iii]
Biblical scholars today aren’t sure that the Jubilee practice was every fully lived out or realized. But the vision of Jubilee is proclaimed by psalmists and prophets and echoed by Jesus Christ himself.
As our gospel reading this morning reminds us, Jesus began his ministry in Nazareth, with a reading from the prophet Isaiah..
“He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The year of the Lord’s favor is the year of Jubilee.
So, how might we apply this concept of Jubilee to our lives today? What is God saying in the midst of not only the debt crisis in Greece, but in the midst of a global debt crisis, where the world’s developing countries are shackled by foreign debt they could never hope to repay?
First, debt is sometimes necessary and it can be sustainable.
As much as we might wish to live in a world without debt at all, it is part of our economic reality.
Sometimes debt is the extension of credit or the planned payment of something… like our home mortgages, car loans, or like when our congregation took on some debt when we put on the Faith Hall expansion. This debt comes from knowing that we could pay for the project, but we need some time to do so.
Sometimes debt is the result of falling behind. Even the ancient Israelites understood that one might fall into debt as a result of bad crops or poor decisions…
In our insert on the social principals, the very first thing we note as United Methodists is that some deficits, even as nations, are necessary.
But those debts need to be sustainable.
One fascinating aspect of the Jubilee system is that the amount of debt one could take on was proportional to the time left until the next Sabbath or Jubilee year, rather than based on your status or credit. Your debt was repaid by participating in the harvests to come, so if you had six harvests worth of work to give, your debt was greater than if only one remained.
We must ask ourselves if we are carrying sustainable debts and as we loan to others, we must be careful not to lend more than the other can bear.
I wonder, as the negotiations with Greece continue, what sustainability looks like and how the conditions that are put upon the debt help to create opportunity, or take the country farther from hope.
The second lesson of the Jubilee is that debt cripples families and communities. The Jubilee is necessary because without it, all hope would be lost for those who are caught up in the snowball of debt and repayment.
When the prophets and Jesus describe the year of Jubilee, words like release and oppression and liberation are uttered because debt has the power to destroy our ability to get out of it.
Our social principles and scriptures call us to have compassion on those in financial trouble, to reduce interest rates or to lend without interest at all so that our fellow human beings can survive among us.
This is not only a concern for those of today, but it is a concern for future generations. The Jubilee year was to be a guarantee that children would not suffer based upon the troubles of their parents or grandparents.
Our Social Principles call us to recognize that this is not simply a financial issue, but an issue of justice for those yet to be born… that future generations can by shackled… there is that language of imprisonment again… shackled by the burden of public debts.
One of the ways that we allow people and companies to be set free, today, from the burden of debt, is through the practice of bankruptcy. We allow them to wipe the slate clean and start over. We have now see it happen as well with cities.
One of the more fascinating questions in the air right now is what that bankruptcy would look like on a national scale and how it might help allow for a release from burdens. The Jubilee movement today, calls for the cancelation of debts of many developing countries that simply will never be able to repay their burdens.
Limited debt relief has been provided to some nations and places like Tanzania and Uganda have used the resources to double school enrollment, and Mozambique and Burkina Faso have used resources to meet basic needs and provide health care.
Lastly, there is an underlying economic principle that must be understood in order to make sense of the idea of Jubilee.
Nothing belongs to us.
This is contrary to everything we have been taught and the very structure of the world economy today, but it is the foundation of God’s economy…
Nothing belongs to us.
It’s all God’s.
Everything that is, was created by God.
And our use of the land, our relationships with one another… it is all a gift.
We are not owners of this planet… we are stewards and caretakers.
The vision of Jubilee was a call to remember that nothing we have belongs to us.
We might work the land, we might benefit from it, we might experience a measure of success, but our very presence in this place itself was a gift.
The ancient Israelites knew this first hand, because they had just escaped slavery in Egypt. They knew how precious the gift of land and blessings were. And in all things, they were called to remember that God had made them, God had saved them, and they were to share that gift with others.
In our Lord’s prayer, we pray for God to forgive our debts. To set us free from our mistakes, our sins, our failings, and our financial woes. We ask God to forgive us… as we have forgiven others.
God’s blessings and abundance are meant to be shared. God’s forgiveness and grace are meant to be shared. And as people of faith, when we face the world and its people, may the idea of Jubilee… the joyous good news for those struggling in economic trouble… guide how we reach out and work with those with the greatest need.
Amen and Amen.
[iii] Jubilee 2000, Sermon Helps, http://www.jubileeusa.org/faith/faith-and-worship-resources.html