On November 1, 1751, a committee of the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly, in ordering a bell for the tower of the new State House, instructed that these words from the Old Testament be inscribed on it: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” The Liberty Bell, tradition tells us, heralded the signing of the Declaration of Independence twenty-five years later.

This Scripture verse is from a section of Leviticus that announced to the people of Israel the “year of jubilee.” We read, “You shall hallow the … year and proclaim liberation in the land for all its inhabitants. You shall make this your year of jubilee.” (Lev. 25:10).

The year was to be celebrated not through pageantry but through concrete acts that flowed from a deeper commitment to God’s justice. The jubilee year proclaimed liberation for the poor and the oppressed. The disinherited were to be restored to their own land. Debts were to be repaid and forgiven, so that those who were bound in economic servitude to others would be free. In short, the jubilee year was a striking course of action and law that helped the dispossessed, insured the just stewardship of wealth and resources, and expressed God’s passion for justice.

It was not the imposition of self-righteous kingly power but the faithfulness of the people to their God that would imbue the whole society with this vision. Yet the history of this ancient people reveals that they continually turned to idols and gods of their own making, trusting in their own self-sufficiency, forsaking the weightier demands of justice and mercy, and being confronted with God’s judgment.

When Jesus Christ entered human history, his ministry was inaugurated with the same prophetic call for justice ...

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