July 05, 2004

One of the interesting things about John Howard Yoder is that he makes the case for Christian pacifism without shrinking from the God of the Old Testament. In fact, he makes the case in a number of ways for the Jewishness of Jesus and the continuity of the Old and New Testaments.

One of these, a novel argument to me, is how he sees the sayings of Jesus in the context of the jubilee or sabbath year. Every seventh year, Jews were supposed to let their fields lie fallow; every 49 years, they were also to forgive all debts, free all slaves, and return family property back to its owner. Even in a Mediterranean agriculture that doesn't depend totally on annual crops, that's a big ask. So apparently by the time of Jesus people were finding workarounds from the jubilee, getting the government to collect their debts for them and so on. But Jesus was having none of it, and is, in fact, declaring a much bigger jubilee.

Yoder sees jubilation, so to speak, in what I think of as the most Zen passage of Jesus, Matthew 25-34: "Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them" etc. Yoder reads this in the context of the Old Testament's assurances that if Jews work hard and keep the laws for six years, God will provide in the seventh.

Yoder also sees this theme in Jesus' sayings about debt. Apparently the non-repayment of debts was one of the toughest parts of the jubilee, both because it left lenders out of money and because it made them reluctant to lend at all when the jubilee was coming up. The original wording of the Lord's Prayer, as it is sometimes translated, was "forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors," and various parables of Jesus reinforce this. Jesus also advises to simply give without any expectation of repayment.

Yoder finds the fourth provision of jubilee in Jesus' commands for the "redistribution of capital," i.e. selling what you own and giving the money to the poor. Yoder notes that churches have traditionally dealth with these saying by regarding certain people, such as priests and monks, as called to abandon property, but the rest of Christians simply give part of their income to charity. But the latter runs against Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees for tithing and leaving it at that.

But how do those sayings apply to Christians today? Yoder is maddeningly unclear. He sees Jesus making a distinction between giving away income and giving away capital, only the latter of which satisfies the jubilee requirement. But he also doesn't believe Jesus is endorsing anything like socialism. Clearly you cannot sell your capital if you have not built it up, but Christians don't normally follow a cycle of building it up and then giving it away. It sounds like Yoder would like to bring the jubilee cycle back, but he's really not explicit about what he means.

Anyway, things get even more interesting when Yoder deals with the relation between the wars in the OT and Jesus' pacifism, but I'll get to that in the next post.

Posted by Camassia at July 05, 2004 02:42 PM | TrackBack

I love that you are doing this so faithfully! And I am with you on the "maddeningly unclear" aspect of JHY as well...


Posted by: Hugo on July 6, 2004 03:08 PM

Anyway, things get even more interesting when Yoder deals with the relation between the wars in the OT and Jesus' pacifism, but I'll get to that in the next post.

I'm particularly interested in reading his take on this!

Much appreciation for chronically your study of this book. I've thought of reading it before, but the stack of OTHER unread books continues to beckon me thataway. Thanks.

Posted by: Joe Guada on July 6, 2004 05:16 PM

Just found your blog, and it looks great. I'm looking forward to spending a bit more time here.

If you're interested, I wrote a short paper on Jubilee after reading Trocme a while back (whom JHY depends a great deal on). I think it's still on next-wave somewhere, but I can email you a copy if you like.

Posted by: graham on December 6, 2004 12:22 PM
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