The Readings: Leviticus 25:1-24; James 1:2-8, 16-18; Luke 12:13-21
Note: The Lectionary ends the Leviticus reading at v.17. I’ve extended the reading to v.24 to include its statement of the principle undergirding the chapter: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants” (v.23).
The Jubilee (vv.8ff) has received sustained attention since late in the last century as a model for dealing with third-world debt (e.g., United States Catholic Conference 1999), and at least one economist is urging it as a model for avoiding a depression in this country (Michael Hudson, here and here).
Or we could take v.23 as the starting point for meditation on our use of the words ‘my’ and ‘mine’. Here part of Letter XXI in C. S. Lewis’ imaginary correspondence from a senior to junior devil (The Screwtape Letters) may prove helpful. (We might notice that v.23 is also intimately related to the other two readings: James’ vision of everything as gift, Jesus’ assumption that the Owner can properly set limits on the actions of the tenants.)
MY DEAR WORMWOOD,
Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient can be induced to make, the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered. Now you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal unexpectedly taken from him. It is the unexpected visitor (when he looked forward to a quiet evening), or the friend’s talkative wife (turning up when he looked forward to a tête-à-tête with the friend), that throw him out of gear. Now he is not yet so uncharitable or slothful that these small demands on his courtesy are in themselves too much for it. They anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption “My time is my own”. Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties. But what he must never be permitted to doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some mysterious sense, his own personal birthright.
You have here a delicate task. The assumption which you want him to go on making is so absurd that, if once it is questioned, even we cannot find a shred of argument in its defence. The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon as his chattels. He is also, in theory, committed to a total service of the Enemy; and if the Enemy appeared to him in bodily form and demanded that total service for even one day, he would not refuse. He would be greatly relieved if that one day involved nothing harder than listening to the conversation of a foolish woman; and he would be relieved almost to the pitch of disappointment if for one half-hour in that day the Enemy said “Now you may go and amuse yourself”. Now if he thinks about his assumption for a moment, even he is bound to realise that he is actually in this situation every day. When I speak of preserving this assumption in his mind, therefore, the last thing I mean you to do is to furnish him with arguments in its defence. There aren’t any. Your task is purely negative. Don’t let his thoughts come anywhere near it. Wrap a darkness about it, and in the centre of that darkness let his sense of ownership-in-Time lie silent, uninspected, and operative.
The sense of ownership in general is always to be encouraged. The humans are always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and in Hell and we must keep them doing so. Much of the modern resistance to chastity comes from men’s belief that they “own” their bodies-those vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure of Another! It is as if a royal child whom his father has placed, for love’s sake, in titular command of some great province, under the real rule of wise counsellors, should come to fancy he really owns the cities, the forests, and the corn, in the same way as he owns the bricks on the nursery floor.
We produce this sense of ownership not only by pride but by confusion. We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun-the finely graded differences that run from “my boots” through “my dog”, “my servant”, “my wife”, “my father”, “my master” and “my country”, to “my God”. They can be taught to reduce all these senses to that of “my boots”, the “my” of ownership. Even in the nursery a child can be taught to mean by “my Teddy-bear” not the old imagined recipient of affection to whom it stands in a special relation (for that is what the Enemy will teach them to mean if we are not careful) but “the bear I can pull to pieces if I like”. And at the other end of the scale, we have taught men to say “My God” in a sense not really very different from “My boots”, meaning “The God on whom I have a claim for my distinguished services and whom I exploit from the pulpit—the God I have done a corner in”.
And all the time the joke is that the word “Mine” in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything. In the long run either Our Father or the Enemy will say “Mine” of each thing that exists, and specially of each man. They will find out in the end, never fear, to whom their time, their souls, and their bodies really belong-certainly not to them, whatever happens. At present the Enemy says “Mine” of everything on the pedantic, legalistic ground that He made it: Our Father hopes in the end to say “Mine” of all things on the more realistic and dynamic ground of conquest,
Your affectionate uncle