In this year the land was to revert to the original family owners. But if you look at the text carefully, that’s not the way the chapter itself talks about it. The text actually speaks not of the land returning to the people but of the people returning to the land. Now that must be important because it’s said five times over (see vv. 10, 13, 27, 28, and 41). The point seems to be that God is more concerned with the people than the land. We usually think the other way around. We are glad to manipulate people or get rid of people as long as we can accumulate our holdings. Now today, of course, it’s not generally land so much as it is bank accounts and stocks and so forth. But we manipulate people in order to have things. God says what’s important is the people, not the things.
What this meant is that the people went back to their original land holdings. During the course of the decades, as time went by, a family would get scattered for various reasons. Land could also be lost through poverty if it needed to be sold. What we are told here is that there is to be a time in which the families re-gather and reestablish in their original land. God established families as the basis of any society. And one of the great strengths of the Jewish people over the many, many centuries of their existence has been this solidity of their families. It’s one way in which they’ve been able to stand against all the persecutions that they have endured.
Somebody might ask at this point whether this Jubilee principle was ever put into effect. You might say that it was impractical and wonder if it could ever be pulled off? It’s an interesting question, because there is no indication anywhere in the Old Testament that it was. You don’t find any reference to land going back to the original families or families going back to the original land, so we don’t know for sure whether it was ever actually done.
Sometimes people appeal to the Jubilee as justification for forcibly taking property or money from those who own it or have it and redistributing it to people who are poor. Now that’s not what was involved. If somebody owns something and you take it away forcibly and give it to somebody else, that’s stealing, and the Bible says, “Thou shalt not steal.” The Bible is not encouraging anything like that. People are to work, and what they work for belongs to them. The Bible from beginning to end recognizes the right of private property. Verses 14-17 of this chapter tell us that the sale (actually the rent) of the land was to be proportionate to the number of years remaining before the Jubilee. The principle here is that God is the ultimate owner of the land, and that He has given it to the families of Israel to be tenants of it.
Therefore, in this particular case, the land could not actually be sold. Now it’s true that sometimes that word “sale” is used for the transaction. An impoverished family might “sell” the land to a neighbor who had more money, in order to survive in hard times. But because the land couldn’t actually be sold, it was to revert to the original families at the Jubilee year. What was involved was actually a rental.
This is made very clear when it talks about the price. The price for the land is not to be determined by whether it had a nice view of the Mediterranean or whether it was located near a walled city which you can get into and be safe. No, the land was valued in terms of the crops that would be produced, and the price paid was based proportionately upon the number of years that remained until the Year of Jubilee. For example, if Jubilee was twenty years off, you would pay ten times as much for the land as you would if Jubilee was only two years off.
Now that is very far removed from any attitude of resentment for those who are well off. There is a great deal of resentment against those who prosper, and that has been used by angry people—
Karl Marx was an example—to justify taking wealth away from them and giving it to somebody else. What you have here in this chapter is not communism or socialism, but something quite different. But on the other hand, this law does not justify a system in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, either. It actually becomes very compassionate legislation that’s designed to protect and prosper everybody.
In verse 23 we come to the principle that lies at the basis of everything, and this is that the land is God’s. Even the original families were not owners of the land. They only hold it in trust, and therefore they couldn’t sell it, and neither could anybody else buy it. It had to be handled according to the laws of God, who is the ultimate owner.
A system like that can only operate within a theocracy, which is a form of government in which God rules directly through prophets. In this case, Moses spoke the word of God for how things were to be done. We don’t have that today. As a matter of fact, in all of history, no true theocracy has ever existed except the theocracy of Israel. Nevertheless, this principle does have bearing upon Christians. Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all that dwell therein.” So we recognize that God owns everything and therefore everything we personally hold from God, we hold as His stewards. So that means we are responsible to Him for what we do with it.
That’s why we can’t make the accumulation of wealth an end in itself. There’s nothing wrong with money in and of itself, and if God prospers us that’s wonderful. But we’re stewards of the wealth. It’s our responsibility to see that it is used in a responsible way to help other people and, above all, to advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, money tends to corrupt us. We sometimes think that the rich are generous because, from time to time, they can give large sums of money. If the most you could ever give at one time is a hundred dollars, and then there is a need in the church and somebody gives ten thousand dollars, the larger giver seems very, very generous. But if that person has lots of money, their ten thousand dollars might mean a whole lot less for them than your hundred means to you. Jesus expressed this when he spoke about the widow and her mites (see Mark 12:41-44). Statistics have shown that the rich are not very generous. I often say that God would give us more money than we have if He could trust it with us, but He knows what it would do to us. Generally speaking, that is why many of us don’t have more.