I was quite surprised when I looked in my Bible to see if it had anything to say about Jubilees! As you may have gathered from our first reading, it most certainly does. The ancient Israelites were told to make every seventh year a special year, when their fields were to lie fallow, and their slaves were to be freed - and, incidentally, if they wanted to set up on their own, they were to be given enough capital to enable this to happen. And every fiftieth year, after seven times seven years, they were to have a serious Jubilee, a golden Jubilee, if you like.
The Jubilee year, for them, was very special. It was a holy year. All leases dated from the Jubilee year, and were of greater or lesser value, depending on how near the Jubilee was. All people returned home - there was no way they could build up huge empires, because at the Jubilee, everything reverted to its original owners. You couldn’t build up vast hordes of slaves, either, because again, they were freed to go home. And it might be you who were impoverished, this time around, and had to sell yourself into slavery. It was, basically, a time when all the social structures were renewed – a practice the Roman Catholic Church still keeps today when it holds a Year of Jubilee and encourages its disciples to make a pilgrimage to Rome and to renew themselves spiritually.
Obviously, as Jubilees came around only every 50 years, most people would only ever experience one, or at the most two, in their lifetimes, so they were very special events, and well worthy of celebration.
What I don’t know is for how long these Jubilees lasted. The book of Leviticus was written down rather a long time after the laws it contains came into use, so it’s not very clear whether the practice of Jubilee was kept or not. It may well have been one of those things they did from time to time, but then forgot about fifty years down the line.
Certainly, the word today has a very different interpretation. For us it is a celebration of longevity. Our Queen has managed to stay alive for fifty years since ascending the throne back in 1952. Which, some folk might say isn’t exactly clever of her! On the other hand, it’s not so very long since the monarch was expected to be first into battle and last out of it, actively leading his or her people – and, as Aslan reminds Peter when he is made King in Narnia, to be the most deprived one in time of famine, but to laugh more heartily over empty plates than anyone else in the kingdom. I can’t find my copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to give you the exact quote, but it is something like that. Being the monarch wasn’t at all about living a life of luxury and ease. Being the monarch was – and to a certain extent still is – about leading the people.
I know there are plenty of folk about who wonder why an accident of birth should qualify someone to lead the nation, and they may have a point. However, as a system, it seems to work as well as any other, and enormously better than some! I’d rather live in a democratic monarchy than in a dictatorship, I think, especially a dictatorship where the dictator is only interested in his own power.
So, whatever, this weekend we celebrate the fifty years that the Queen has been on the throne. It is a time that has seen the most enormous changes in our country – I need scarcely detail them, as the newspapers have been full of it all recently. I have seen a letter my father wrote to my mother in 1952, when he was sent on a course in London very shortly after they had become engaged, and he really was writing about a different era. He wrote, among other things, that he and the aunt with whom he was staying had gone out “far too early – before the post came” to queue up to pay their respects to the body of George VI, lying in state at Westminster Hall. Fifty years later, those who went to pay their respects to the Queen Mother wouldn’t have expected to be home when the post arrived, even if they hadn’t gone out early! He also comments that London “is not very gay”, which would have a totally different meaning today. And he wished that my mother was “on the phone”; apparently back then things were still a bit chaotic even eight years after the end of the second world war, and things like telephones took a long time to be fitted, and my mother and grandmother had only recently settled into their then new home.
And when you did have a telephone, it was only really useful for local calls; if you wanted to ring anybody outside your immediate area, you had to go through an operator, and it was incredibly expensive. If you had told my parents back then that fifty years on you could keep a telephone in your handbag and ring anybody all over the world for less than it cost back then to ring someone living thirty miles away, I’m sure they wouldn’t have believed you. And I’m quite sure my mother, who back in 1952 was a student at Oxford, would not, in her wildest dreams, have thought that fifty years on she would still be studying – this time doing a computer course and simply loving it!
My parents lives are wildly different now than they were in 1952. Some changes were probably predictable – but back in the days of the Cold War, who would have thought we would actually be still here in 2002 – and, alas, still living under the threat of nuclear war?
And so we celebrate fifty years of the Queen’s reign. But does it mean anything, apart from a good excuse for a party?
Back in the days of Moses, a Jubilee was a safeguard. It stopped people getting too powerful – one man couldn’t buy up all the surrounding land and then dominate all the surrounding people. At least he could, but it would scarcely be worth his while since it was all going to revert to its original owners within a few years. There is nothing wrong in riches, but the Bible reminds us that the love of money is the root of all evil – riches can be a terrific force for good, but, wrongly used, they can be a terrific force for evil, too. And the Biblical jubilee was a good safeguard against that happening.
We have no such safeguards. But we do have one safeguard, and that is the one that Jesus outlined in our Gospel reading this morning:
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
We know that if we belong to Jesus, we are firmly and securely rooted in the Rock of Salvation. There may be those who seize our property, maybe even destroy our bodies, but they cannot destroy that part of us which matters.
If we are to believe her Christmas broadcasts, our present Queen knows this, and acts upon it. It would seem that she, too, bases her life on the Rock of Salvation. We could do worse, a very great deal worse, than to follow her example! Amen.