This week I’m in Guatemala with a service team from my church. We’re beginning work on a multi-year sanitation system for a Maya community, Chuicutama, in the Highlands. Our reflections for the week center on the theme of Jubilee, the biblical commandment mandates forgiveness of debts and economic restoration as part of God’s New Creation.
Jubilee is what Jesus announces as his Gospel in his first sermon in Nazareth in Lk 4; one of the implications of the Jubilee, according to the Torah, is that the Jubilee year be marked by letting fields lie fallow. The land itself rests on the Sabbath year, which itself is an act of faithful trust that in that year the Lord will provide.
To complement this theme, I’ve asked Laina Schneider, a friend and college student at Virginia Tech to post her thoughts on Jubilee. Laina studies agriculture at Tech and has served as Aldersgate’s mission intern in both Guatemala and Cambodia. Perhaps more importantly, as a college student her wrestling with questions of faith and life are just what the Church needs to hear. I’d encourage you to subscribe to Laina’s blog here.
Food unifies us. Humans, animals, plants. All life requires sustenance. Food is many different things to many different people. To some it is a cheeseburger, to others a bag of chips, and to many more a portion of grain. Our culture is one, which for some decades has widened the gap between food and dirt. Yet soil is the source of life. It is that blackish brown stuff you walk on everyday, literally supports our world, and is the medium in which all food is grown. Yet many people seem to think that the interaction of food and dirt, literally and associatively, is “gross”.
This separation is a symbolic representation of the disconnect apparent in our industrialized commercial food system. How many people know where their food comes from? Or the conditions or methods used to produce it? How about the energy required to process and ship it? Most people don’t know any of those things. Even in the middle-upper class movement towards “organic” or “local” food, most people shop based on assumptions of standards behind labels, which are often misleading. Not all countries operate this way however.
There are many cultures, like those you may encounter in Guatemala or Cambodia, comprised of people whose lives are centered on growing food for themselves, their families, and their neighbors. This life is, all at once exhausting, infuriating, exciting and rewarding. It is necessary and systematic, a physical and emotional struggle to ensure the existence of those you love. In our society, the breadwinner in a family provides the money to purchase prepared foods in a grocery store down the street, but in an agrarian lifestyle, the name is a bit more literal. Try to imagine the crushing realization that the rains are late, and your store of rice will run out long before the next harvest comes in. Imagine having to look at your children and knowing that you cannot give them the nourishment they need, and that your hands are supposed to provide.
Christ’s idea of jubilee is directly related to farming.
Biblical stories are constantly using agricultural metaphors or themes: sowing seeds, grape vines, harvesting, gleaning, the list is endless. But the stories were written this way, because it was relevant. Everyone could relate to those stories, because they were all growing food and understood the fundamentals of agriculture. Jubilee was a time to rest and let the fields lie fallow. In fact, they were supposed to let the fields lie fallow every seventh year. This means that no new crop could be sowed, the fields could not be plowed, and that everyone would have to eat only what was in their store. This is an impossible request. Imagine being asked to not go to the grocery store for a year. You could eat whatever was in your pantry, but could not buy anything new.
Maybe God asked this because he had an intricate understanding of soil chemistry and fertility and wanted the land to build up some organic matter to recharge the humus layer of nutrients….maybe. Or maybe God commanded this so there would be a year of rest, for people to take a break, and appreciate the beautiful blessing that is His creation.
As usual, what God wants isn’t easy, but we can identify how hard it is for us to sometimes do what God commands, with this idea of the fallow fields.