Do you remember the Joseph story of Genesis? Maybe you can at least recall Donny Osmond belting, “Give me my colored coat! My amazing color coat!” in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Andrew Lloyd Weber certainly made the story memorable.
In Weber’s rendition and in the story I learned in Sunday school, Joseph is the hero of his own novella. Sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, Joseph rises through the ranks of Egyptian society until he is the assistant to Pharoah when a famine causes his brothers to come to Egypt and (ironically) beg for their lives. Joseph saves his brothers, which allows the tribes of Israel to emerge and the Israelites continue for another generation.
The less celebrated underside of Joseph’s story is that his plan to save his family from starvation enslaves them to Pharaoh. In the opening sentences of Exodus, the book immediately following Genesis, we learn that a Pharaoh has risen to power who does not remember Joseph. This is ominous. The Israelite slaves received decent treatment so long as Joseph’s legacy was remembered. Absent that memory, they were just as disposable as any low-class member of society.
Leviticus is a law book for a settled, landed people. A future-oriented book, Leviticus is about the process of becoming holy, or “going on to perfection,” as we say in Methodist circles. Holiness or perfection is always on the horizon. The laws in Leviticus use the memory of slavery in Egypt as a catalyst for a more merciful, just society in the Promised Land. Leviticus 25 institutes laws for a year of jubilee, extending the principles of the weekly sabbath to a sabbatical rest set for every seven years for the land, and also a “year of jubilee” in seven seven year cycles, ensuring that once every generation wealth would be restored to families. Once in a lifetime, debt would be erased, monopolies would be dissolved, and property would be restored to its owner.
If there had been a year of jubilee in Egypt, all those baby boys would not have been murdered, there would have been no plagues to endure, and Egyptian lives would not have been lost in the Red Sea. The Israelites would not have been forced to wander for 40 years (a whole generation!), subsisting on little more than manna.
Leviticus admonishes the community to support the impoverished, but not to extort them. Poverty makes people desperate and in desperation people may sell their bodies or their children or their freedom to provide for their families. We have a responsibility to help the poorest people in our community, but we cannot allow their desperation to swallow their identity as beloved children of God.
COVID-19 has turned all of our lives inside out. Many have become seriously ill, some have lost their lives, millions have lost their jobs, food banks are overwhelmed, untold numbers risk eviction or foreclosure, and we haven’t even yet estimated the medical debt with which many grieving families will be saddled. People are desperate and desperate people will chain themselves to the upper millstones of capitalism so that their children can eat.
It was so easy to celebrate Joseph for creating a system that saved his family from starvation but enslaved them for generations. The benevolence of a disowned brother feeding his unworthy brothers!
As a community, it will be very easy for us to offer merciful aid and celebrate our success at this. We will bring our non-perishable, shelf-stable items to the food pantry and we should. We will make sandwiches by the hundreds and we must. It will be easy for us to meet the needs of the body during this season. It will be tempting to congratulate ourselves for solving these basic needs.
We have a responsibility to do much more. We are called to untie the millstones and rescue bodies from the constant churn of the systems that oppress them. We are called to let those oppressive systems dry up and lay fallow for a season so that we can reimagine something more just. This will look like advocating for new laws. It will look like creating sustainable and enduring financial resources for those most impacted. It will look like creative ingenuity that returns homes to the homeless and gives fair wages for honest work to women and men. Perhaps this is our year of jubilee.