I was under the impression that ancient Israel never actually practiced a Year of Jubilee, but I think I just had one. It was the first year of my retirement. After over 40 years of pastoral ministry, a friend suggested that I not jump into any new commitments. I imagined boredom, but I found that the tasks of the Year of Jubilee described in Leviticus 25 overlapped remarkably with the transition to retirement.
The first time I heard the popular concept of life in thirds was from Leonard Sweet at a conference at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in 2016. The first third of life is growing up. Adult children may come home. Marriage and career goals finally settle in around age 30. The second third of life is adulthood, when you make your mark on the world with career and relationships. You contribute. Then you enter your 60s and you have another third of your life ahead. I suggest that before you jump in, consider a Year of Jubilee.
Leviticus 25 gives the most detailed description of that 50th year when Jubilee, the ram’s horn, is blown and “…you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty…” (25:10). It was intended to be a time of restoration and freedom. Debts were to be canceled. People returned to their ancestral homes. You rested from the work, not to be idle but to be holy. Consider how those tasks correspond with a transition to retirement.
In Leviticus 25, we learn that all debts were forgiven. It might be nice to be financially debt free in retirement, but we may carry debts we owe to spouses, families, and even ourselves.
I saw my doctor not long after retiring, and I teased that maybe I should go back to work because I didn’t seem to have these health problems when I was employed. He gently suggested that maybe my work was covering up symptoms I was ignoring. I had health debts to address.
There are spiritual, emotional, and professional debts. My career and work seemed unfinished when I retired. It felt like I had run the race but not completed the course. It took a year of Jubilee to work on getting free of that debt, reviewing and celebrating my life’s journey.
In “The Gift of Years,” Joan Chittister wrote “…Regret is a temptation. It entices us to lust for what never was in the past rather than to bring new energy to our changing present. It is a misuse of the aging process. One of the functions—one of the gifts—of aging is to become comfortable with the self we are, rather than to mourn what we are not.”[i]
During Jubilee, I had to let go of stuff, too. Books needed to go even though I could tell you the story and people connected to each one. I have a cross that a child made for me, a record player that doesn’t work with scores of Christian records that kept my faith alive. Others see junk, but those things are my life. I realized I held on to some of them out of a sense of indebtedness to those who gave them. I can choose to let go of them and do it with respect. M. Craig Barnes, in “A Diary of a Pastor’s Soul,” described creating a Wall of Witnesses, pictures of family and influencers in his Christian life.[ii] There are also pictures of stuff on my wall, now.
The Year of Jubilee was a time to reconnect with your roots. “…you shall return, every one of you to your family.” (25:10) The Hebrew people would unite with family members and share family stories that needed to be passed down, especially from those advanced in years. The act of returning to the ancestral home inevitably would have created times for questions.
Retirement meant I was the repository of the family history. I recorded stories, especially those that told of God’s faithfulness. I asked questions, especially of the elders. And maybe more importantly, the Year of Jubilee was a time to record my story.
It was a year for the land to rest (25:4), and consequently, for the people too. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible’s note on Jubilee says, “The Lord frees his people not for unbroken idleness, but for the redirection of life towards [God’s self].”[iii]
Rest may involve keeping a journal for your thoughts, reading, spending time outdoors, trying new things, meeting new people, if and when you want. Better yet, listen to what God wants to tell you rather than what others want you to do. Not doing is a way for the new to enter in.
People in Jubilee also had to depend on the Lord to provide what they needed to live, “…to eat only what the field itself produces” (25:12). The year was a test of faith, for both the Hebrews and me. Parker Palmer refers to functional atheism as “the belief that the ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us.”[iv] Spiritual renewal begins with rejecting that lie. More religious activity had become a way to appear spiritual and avoid God.
I allowed God to speak in someone else’s sermon. My wife and I started waking up to Father Mike’s Bible in a Year podcast, listening to Scripture in new ways. I posted questions for meditation, like Jesus’ healing question: “What do you want me [Jesus] to do for you?” (Mark 10:51). As the year went on, I could finally hear God telling me again what I had heard so personally, so long ago: “I know your name and I love you.” It was how my faith began.
A fresh start
When people ask me about retirement now, I tell them I finished my year of Jubilee and I am open for new things. For the Hebrews, the year was not meant to be a long planning session for the future, nor a long break only to return to the past. It was to make them holy (25:12). They were different. Their world was different. When retirement comes, take a Year of Jubilee.
Rev. Dr. Paul Bailey retired a year ago from the Eastwood Baptist Church in Syracuse, NY. In addition to over 40 years of pastoral ministry, he was an adjunct instructor in Communications at Onondaga Community College for 15 years.
[i] Chittister, Joan. The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully. New York: BlueBridge, 2008, p. 3.
[ii] Barnes, M. Craig. Diary of a Pastor’s Soul: The Holy Moments in a Life of Ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2020, pp. 72-73.
[iii] Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, Volume 2 (J-Z). Walter A. Elwell, general editor. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988, p. 1226.
[iv] Palmer, Parker J. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000, p. 88.
Photo by Ankush Minda on Unsplash