Dear Brothers and Sisters, good morning and a good Lenten journey!
It is good and also significant to have this Audience precisely on this Ash Wednesday. We begin our Lenten journey and today we pause on the ancient institution of the “jubilee”; it is an ancient thing, attested in Sacred Scripture. We find it in particular in the Book of Leviticus, which presents it as a culminating moment of the religious and social life of the people of Israel.
Every 50 years, “on the day of expiation” (Leviticus 25:9), when the Lord’s mercy was invoked upon all the people, the sound of the horn proclaimed a great event of liberation. In fact we read in the Book of Leviticus: “And you shall hallow 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 family […] In this year of jubilee each of you shall return to his property” (25:10.13). According to these dispositions, if some one was constrained to sell his land or his house, during the jubilee he could repossess it; and if some one had contracted debts and, unable to pay them, was constrained to put himself at the service of the creditor, he could return free to his family and regain all his property.
It was a sort of “general amnesty,” which permitted all to return to their original situation, with the cancellation of all debts, the restitution of land, and the possibility to enjoy freedom again as members of the People of God. A “holy” people, where prescriptions such as that of the jubilee served to combat poverty and inequality, guaranteeing a worthy life for all and a fair distribution of the land on which to dwell and from which to draw sustenance. The central idea is that the land belongs originally to God and has been entrusted to men (Cf. Genesis 1:28-29), therefore no one can arrogate to himself its exclusive possession, creating situations of inequality. We can think and rethink of this today; each one should think in his heart if he has too many things. But why not leave them to those who have nothing? Ten per cent, fifty per cent … I say: may the Holy Spirit inspire each one of you.
With the jubilee, whoever had become poor had again what was necessary to live, and whoever had become rich restored to the poor man what he had taken from him. The aim was a society based in equality and solidarity, where liberty, land and money became a good for all and not only for some, as happens now. If I’m not mistaken … more or less, the numbers aren’t certain, but 80% of the riches of humanity are in the hands of less than 20% of the population. It is a jubilee – and I say this recalling the history of our salvation – to be converted, so that our heart becomes larger, more generous, more a child of God, with more love. I’ll tell you something: if this desire, if the jubilee doesn’t reach pockets, it isn’t a jubilee. Have you understood? And this is in the Bible! This Pope doesn’t invent it: it’s in the Bible. The aim – as I said – was a society based on equality and solidarity, where liberty, land and money were to be a good for all, not for some. In fact, the jubilee had the function of helping the people to live a concrete fraternity, made up of mutual help. We can say that the biblical jubilee was a “jubilee of mercy,” because it was lived in the sincere search for the good of the needy brother.
In the same line, other institutions and other laws also governed the life of the People of God, so that they could experience the Lord’s mercy through that of men. For instance, the biblical law prescribed the giving of the “tithe” which was allocated to the Levites, in charge of worship, who were without land, and to the poor, the orphans, the widows (Cf. Deuteronomy 14:22-29). It provided, namely, that a tenth of what was harvested, or which stemmed from other activities, be given to those who were without protection and in a state of need, thus fostering conditions of relative equality within a people in which all should behave as brothers.
There was also the law concerning the “first fruits.” What is this? The first part of the harvest, the most precious part, was to be shared with the Levites and with strangers (Cf. Deuteronomy 18:4-5; 26:1-11), who didn’t have fields, so that for them also land would be the source of nutrition and life. “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me,” says the Lord (Leviticus 25:234). We are all guests of the Lord, in expectation of our heavenly homeland (Cf. Hebrews 11:13-16; 1 Peter 2:11), called to render the world, which receives us, habitable and human. And how many “first fruits” one who is fortunate could give one who is in difficulty! How many first fruits! First fruits not only of fields but of every product of labor, of wages, of savings, of so many things that are possessed and that sometimes are wasted. This also happens today. So many letters arrive at the Apostolic Charities with a bit of money: “This is part of my salary to help others.” And this is beautiful; to help others, welfare institutions, hospitals, rest homes ..; to give also to foreigners, those who are strangers and are passing by. Jesus was passing by in Egypt.
And, in fact, thinking of this, Sacred Scripture exhorts with insistence to respond generously to the request for loans, without mean calculations and without taking impossible interest: “And if your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall maintain him; as a stranger and a sojourner he shall live with you. Take no interest from him or increase” (Leviticus 25:35-37). This teaching is always timely. How many families are on the street, victims of usury! Please, let us pray that during this Jubilee the Lord take from all our hearts the desire to have more — usury. That we return to be generous, great. How many situations of usury we are constrained to see and how much suffering and anguish they bring families! And so often, in despair, how many men end in suicide because they can’t make ends meet and have no hope, they don’t have the extended hand to help them; only the hand that comes to make them pay the interest. Usury is a grave sin; it is a sin that cries out to God. The Lord, instead, has promised His blessing to him who opens his hand to give with largesse (Cf. Deuteronomy 15:10). He will give you twofold, perhaps not in money but in other things, but the Lord will always give you twofold.
Dear brothers and sisters, the biblical message is very clear: to open oneself with courage to sharing, and this is mercy! And if we want mercy from God, we must begin to practice it. It is this: we begin to practice it between fellow citizens, between families, between peoples, between continents. Contribute to bring about a land without poor means to build a society without discriminations, based on solidarity that leads to sharing what one has, in a distribution of resources founded on brotherhood and justice. Thank you.