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Catholic Social Teaching: Rooted in Leviticus?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 05, 2017

There is not as much about social justice in Leviticus as there is about sexual morality. Or is there? We ought to be more aware, after all, that sexuality lies at the very root of the social order. This means that sexual morality, including its focus on the family, is pretty much the sine qua non of a healthy community life. It is just this that gives the lie to so many modern ideas and programs which seek social success in a relational vacuum. But it is not my purpose here to state the obvious.

Surprisingly, there are actually other important clues to Catholic social teaching in Leviticus, clues that are closely linked to a very important financial question that had already been settled in chapter 30 of Exodus. The LORD had told Moses that when he takes a census, each of the sons of Israel will give a ransom for himself as an offering to the LORD. This is to redeem a life that is, in some sense, forfeit owing to sin. The ransom price is half of a shekel (which is ten gerahs, if you must know), and the social implications are clear in God’s instructions:

Every one who is numbered in the census, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the LORD’s offering. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you give the LORD’s offering to make atonement for yourselves. And you shall take the atonement money from the sons of Israel, and shall appoint it for the service of the tent of meeting; that it may bring the sons of Israel to remembrance before the LORD, so as to make atonement for yourselves. [Ex 30:13-16]

There are two things to note here. First we notice a relational principle even more important than the sexual morality I mentioned in the introduction. For all “culture” depends first and foremost on “cult”. A society which forsakes its gratitude to and dependence on God is socially doomed. If you are reading this, I suspect you have already hazarded a “wild guess” about the prospects of the modern West.

But there is also a second point: “The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less.” We might think this is rather hard on the poor and easy on the rich, but if so we miss the point, which is simply this: To God, all of us are absolutely equal in value. The rich are not worth more, nor the poor less. The redemption price is the same for all. Moreover, it is not that all of us are equally worthless in God’s sight. If that were true, there would be no redemption price at all. Rather, we are all equally precious to Him.

We now know how high the price of our redemption proved to be. It boggles the mind that those who claim to be Christian can ever have thought otherwise. We judge some noble and others common only at our extreme spiritual peril: Catholic Social Teaching 101.

On to Leviticus

Today, most people at least pay lip service to equality. But it is in Leviticus that we come to something completely foreign to our way of thinking. I mean the Jubilee Year. The Mosaic Law stipulates that, after seven weeks of years (i.e., forty-nine years), the next year is to be observed as a Jubilee Year. This is vital to God’s conception of a just society because it derives from another major principle: In an ultimate sense, the human person never “owns” property. He merely has the use of it from the real owner, God. Thus when one man “sold” his land to another, the price was to be computed based on the annual value of the use of the land to the “buyer”. This would be “full value” if it were “sold” beginning with the first year following a Jubilee, or a pro-rated value based on the number of years left before the next Jubilee.

The price for buying something back (called “redeeming”) was computed the same way, not only for land but for persons who, owing to economic misfortune, had to sell themselves to others. Such a transaction was to be rooted in the awareness that the voluntary slave was really selling his devoted service as the only way he had of surviving. The price the “buyer” had to pay likewise depended on the number of years between the initiation of the contract and the next Jubilee. Moreover, the slave could be “redeemed” by his kin, according to Jubilee-based financial calculations.

But what explains this method of valuation according to the timing of the Jubilee? It is this: In the Jubilee year, all land that had been alienated from a family’s ancestral heritage reverted to that family. And anyone in servitude—whether man, woman, or child—became free again at the next Jubilee.

This concept of “ownership” is very hard for our culture to grasp, given our diverse theories of personal or state ownership of property. But it effectively underscores the foundation of all economic law, which is the knowledge of who God is and who we are, and that we are not God. Taken in what we might call its socio-economic sense, this foundation is essential to sustaining a just society and a just economy.

In conclusion, let us review:

  • FOR LAND: “In this year of jubilee each of you shall return to his property.... The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me. And in all the country you possess, you shall grant a redemption of the land” (Lev 25:13,23-24)
  • FOR PERSONS: “As a servant hired year by year shall he be with him; he shall not rule with harshness over him in your sight. And if he is not redeemed...then he shall be released in the year of the jubilee, he and his children with him” (Lev 25:53-54)

The reason given for the provision regarding persons is similar to that which limits human control over land. As His creatures, even human persons belong to God: “For to me the sons of Israel are servants, they are my servants who I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Lev 25:55).

The point here is not that something akin to the Jubilee Year is morally required for all societies. The point is that the socio-economic system God ordained for Israel was profoundly centered not on some ideology of wealth or the power of the State, but on the human person in the context of the family. As we reflect on such things, found of all places in the Book of Leviticus, we begin to grasp what it means to form a social order appropriate to the children of God.


Scripture Series
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Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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