“You shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall give you forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month. On the Day of Atonement you shall sound the trumpet throughout all your land. And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of itself nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you. You may eat the produce of the field.
“In this year of jubilee each of you shall return to his property. And if you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. You shall pay your neighbor according to the number of years after the jubilee, and he shall sell to you according to the number of years for crops. If the years are many, you shall increase the price, and if the years are few, you shall reduce the price, for it is the number of the crops that he is selling to you. You shall not wrong one another, but you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 25:8-17)
“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me. And in all the country you possess, you shall allow a redemption of the land. (Lev. 25:23-4)
“If a man sells a dwelling house in a walled city, he may redeem it within a year of its sale. For a full year he shall have the right of redemption. If it is not redeemed within a full year, then the house in the walled city shall belong in perpetuity to the buyer, throughout his generations; it shall not be released in the jubilee. But the houses of the villages that have no wall around them shall be classified with the fields of the land. They may be redeemed, and they shall be released in the jubilee. As for the cities of the Levites, the Levites may redeem at any time the houses in the cities they possess. (Lev. 25:29-32)
What is justice? The current notion in vogue, "social justice," has been used in the sense of restorative justice, which is the notion that justice is all about restoring the offender to right relation to society. Whatever the merits of understanding justice in a restorative sense, the key point we want to notice is that such is not the biblical notion of justice. "Justice" in the biblical sense is God-ward in nature. The only "restorative" element is to restore a person's relationship to God. In a horizontal sense, "justice" in the Bible is about punishing evildoers because they violate God's law and God's commands, His statutes and decrees. Those who do good will have life, while those who do evil will face justice (c.f. Deut. 28, 6:1-3). "Justice" in Old Testament Israel encompasses both what we would call "civil" as well as "religious" aspects, and those those who violate Israel's ceremonial code were to be severely punished as well (c.f. Lev. 18:5, 19:7-8). The law as given to Israel did not differentiate between civil and religious infractions (as we understand them), and therefore those who wish to claim biblical support for supposed welfare programs should do well to note that, as if one could adopt unquestionably the supposed welfare programs of ancient Israel without simultaneously adopting Israel's religious laws as well.
Understanding Israel's law as a single whole in the context of ancient Israel should inform us of how we are to make sense of its supposed welfare aspects. To put it bluntly, to claim that Israel had elements of a modern welfare state is anachronistic. Ancient Israel was not just a nation but a theocratic nation, a fusion of Church and State. As such, laws concerning the taking care of the least in society were made in the context of Israel as the Old Testament church, where people were to take care of the disadvantaged in the Church.
As a Church-State, Israel's religious laws were also civil laws. Thus, the mere establishing of such laws for that entire nation tells us nothing about whether any other country ought to implement such or similar laws. But once this law of Israel was established, any infraction of that law is injustice in the sense of a violation of what God had commanded, and therefore any punishment is retributive in nature, not "restorative."
But just as the nature of the law (positive religious) has nothing to do with the civil enforcement of that law (retributive), so likewise those who would claim the mantle of "social justice" fail to adequately understand what this law is and what it is not. The law concerning Jubilee (a religious not civil concept) is not a law calling for the redistribution of wealth. It is rather a law given to protect people from becoming destitute. But just as it prevents a person from becoming destitute by calling for the return of ancestral land to its original owners at the next Jubilee, likewise it prohibits those desperate for money to fully leverage on what they own. In verses 15-16, we note that the price of the land to be sold is to be pegged to the number of years remaining until the next Jubilee. Thus, what is actually being sold is a leasehold, not freehold. The owner of that ancestral land is prohibited by law from selling his entire right to his ancestral land, but is only to sell a leasehold to that land. Therefore, if there is only one year left until the Jubilee, the seller is NOT to ask for a high price for a one-year leasehold to that land.
Likewise, the Jubilee does not prevent anyone from becoming rich and owning lots of properties. In verses 29-30, we see that properties that are not ancestral plots of land, but are within cities, will be permanently transferred to the buyer if the seller does not redeem the property within a year of sale. Thus, any property that is not an ancestral plot of land could be permanently sold and the buyer could become very wealthy, without any "reset" of society after every 50 years. The Jubilee is therefore not a blueprint for a socialist redistribution program, but rather a law regulating the sale of property, both protecting and limiting the extent to which property can be sold and bought. If the potential seller is desperate for cash, he is prohibited by law from selling away the right to his ancestral home, just as the buyer is prohibited by law from buying that right to that ancestral home.
The point of looking at the Jubilee in the context of discussion of "justice" is to note that any appeal to the Old Testament for calls for a more "holistic" idea of "justice" is sorely mistaken. As stated, the Jubilee does not teach wealth distribution or even debt forgiveness, but rather it is a law regulating the sale of property. Therefore, arguing from the major to the minor, any Old Testament laws concerning the call to justice has nothing to do with what many today would put under the umbrella of "social justice." Biblical justice is concerned with retribution for wrongs done, not restoration. Restoration in the Bible is a matter of grace, not law, and thus restoration comes through Israel's sacrificial system, not Israel's courts.
The Jubilee in its civil implementation is legal, and regulates the sale of properties. The Jubilee in its place in Israel's religion however is gracious, and it points towards the forgiveness of debts that Christ brings to us. But we know that it is only in Christ that forgiveness comes, not through the law. And therefore, using the Jubilee as an example for "social justice" is to confuse Law and Gospel. The lesson for Christians today from the Jubilee is to point out to us the grace of Christ in forgiving our sins, as portrayed in the return of the ancestral land to its original owner. That is the goal of the Jubilee for us who believe, and may we never misuse this great religious event in Old Testament Israel in any other way as support for the world's misguided social programs.