Thanksgiving. Cooking turkey and dressing. Visiting family. Watching football. Shopping on Friday. Volunteering. Donating. Giving thanks. This holiday season is overlaid with multiple meanings. It can be difficult to keep them all straight. We are invited to donate at the stores where we are shopping – often by people wearing Santa hats. Spending time with extended family can be both a source of joy and of stress. We may be grateful to have them in our lives, and also grateful that they don’t live any closer.
Exodus 23 briefly summarizes three festivals – the festival of unleavened bread, ending in the celebration of the Passover meal, the Spring harvest of first fruits at Pentecost (the name, 50, representing the number of days after Passover), and the fall harvest festival, the festival of booths or tabernacles. These instructions are presented to Israel in the early days of their journey to the promised land, not long after they left slavery in Egypt. They are people on a journey, not people planting and tending crops. The instruction assumes that a day will come in their future when things will be different, more settled, better. At that time, then, they will be able to look back on this instruction and remember what the Lord had instructed them on how to give thanks for the harvest.
Have you ever received or given instructions that would only be useful sometime in the future? Did your parents ever say to you, “Now, when you get there… remember…”? Moses repeatedly told the people on God’s behalf, “When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you… remember…” (NUM15; DEUT26) “When you get to school, remember…” “When you get to camp, remember…” “When you get to that party, remember who you are…” “When you get to college, remember what we taught you…” Most of our education is precisely this – equipping us with knowledge, skills, understanding and wisdom for a future day when we will need it. We know how important this is. We also know how easy it is to ignore, to tune out, to think, “When am I ever going to need this…?” I wonder if that happened to the Israelites.
Our other text from Deuteronomy 24 specifically discusses how to harvest. By the time this teaching is given, the original generation of adults has died in the wilderness because they refused to trust God and go forward into an uncertain and scary future. The people wandered aimlessly for 40 years in the wilderness, gathering manna and eating quail and livestock and whatever wild plants they could gather. Now, finally, they have again come to the Jordan River and are given another opportunity by God to step into the dream and promise of their blessed future. All the instructions in Deuteronomy are presented as a single monologue by Moses, rehearsing and reinforcing the teachings of the past 40 years. They are close to being able to plant and reap their first harvests, so it becomes more important to give specific instructions.
Moses gives a wide variety of instructions here on how to establish a settled community that is peaceful, righteous and just. In the midst of these rules on worship, marriage and divorce, punishment, handling a corpse… We have this refrain: Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this. The instructions on how to harvest have embedded within them provision for the poor, the stranger, and the foreigner in our midst, because we were once as they are. In our harvesting, and in our thanksgiving, we must remember those who are where we have been. And this we is generational. It is not just where you personally have been. It is about where we as a people have been. We were slaves in Egypt, and foreigners in a strange land. We were the poor and downtrodden. We were the vulnerable and the oppressed. And because this is true, we must treat with honor and respect those who are currently so.
“What does it mean for us to leave gleanings in the field?”
Are you someone who has financial resources? You are commanded by God to share with those who do not, as an act of thanksgiving in your own receiving. This shows that you realize that what you have is not only by your own making or doing.
How else might we apply this principle?
Consider Sandra, who has healthy relationships? How might she bless others who are less fortunate? What would it mean for her to leave a gleaning in the field of relationships? Sandra gives others the benefit of the doubt if they offend her or act foolishly. She is quick to forgive and refuses to harbor resentment. She offers offer mercy and grace because she at one time needed mercy and grace from another.
What about Jack, who has real talent and ability? How might he leave sheaves in the field? He has extra patience with those less competent? He gives some of his time to teach others what he knows. He donates his ability to those who cannot afford to pay and are not able to learn and do what comes easily to him.
Jackie is someone with a deep and humble faith. The grace of God flow through her so that she have an abiding faith and trust that guards her heart and mind from anxiety and worry and fear? How can she leave some fruit of the Spirit on the vine of her life so that others may take and eat and be nourished? She is praying for others to also find the peace that passes understanding? She is offering encouragement to others so that they might hear God’s voice? She is not busy trying to convince others that she is right about what God wants them to do. Rather, she allows room for the Holy Spirit to work in them as it does in her. She is not impatient to fix others, for God is patient with her.
Sarah is someone who has a good head for numbers and is skilled at managing finances. At the same time that she is prospering she seeks to bless those who do not have the same innate talent or learned abilities? Sarah mentors others in business and family finances. She teaches budgeting classes and makes micro venture loans to people trying to start small businesses. She guides young adults and those recently divorced or widowed who have never learned financial management.
Again, the question is: “What does it mean for us to leave gleanings in the field?” Few of us actually have fields or vineyards or olive trees that produce a livelihood. We are being asked to leave a gleaning from our life’s work. What labor supports your household? What skills and abilities enable you to earn a living and support yourself and those who depend upon you? The commandment we receive is to leave the gleaning from our labors so that those who lack access to skill, knowledge, training or the means of production may feed themselves.
Dignity through work: An equally important principle within this commandment is that those receiving must be given an opportunity to labor as a way to maintain their dignity. The story of Ruth is a wonderful example of how this teaching was lived out. Ruth was a poor young widow, and a non-Jewish foreigner. Her mother-in-law Naomi, also a widow, sent her to the fields of Boaz to glean. Boaz was a kinsman, so Naomi hoped that they would receive some extra measure of grace in his eyes. The fact that this was even necessary may indicate that the commandments from Deuteronomy 24 were not uniformly obeyed. Regardless, Ruth did find favor in Boaz’s sight. She had shown herself faithful, and so he extended extra favor on her beyond the commandment as a reward for her goodness.
Limited control: Another principle embedded in this commandment is that who receives and how much they receive is our of our control, even though the resources are under our stewardship. At times this may be difficult for us to understand or accept. There is no guidance given for setting exclusionary limits on the gleaners – i.e. to curtail people from taking advantage. We might want there to be some. We might even decide to implement some. But God did not see fit to suggest any such boundaries. Remember the underlying premise – we do this because we were once also slaves, poor, vulnerable, oppressed. We also once had no control over the means of production. Those who own the land and the resources and the tools control who gets what. To be poor is to lack sufficient access and control over the resources of production.
This is the very definition of a “company town”. An area is so isolated that one family, group or company controls the entire economy. When this happens, others are excluded by this very structure. The Israelites were about to take over land and distribute it among tribes and families, according to the people in each tribe as described in the book of Numbers. But not all people are skilled farmers. Not all people are financially responsible. Not all people stay healthy so that they can work. Not all people _________. Fill in the blank. Some people need a helping hand – just as the Israelites did when they were slaves in Egypt. They had not become slaves by some inadequacy, fault or failure. It happened subtly, slowly, over time – similar to the Nazi pogroms against the Jews leading up to the Holocaust. But once they were in that situation, they needed rescuing. Once the Jews were slaves, they needed rescuing. When people lack the basic resources for life, they need help. And we are commanded to help them because we once needed help.
Initiative AND Assistance: Now, I don’t want to get deeply into the “We built this,” “You didn’t build that,” political debate. I will simply say this, “YES.” Yes, people built businesses, and Yes they had help from lots of other people, including societal resources like public infrastructure and education. Great. The same would have been true for Israel. They had some resources to start with, and some people made better use of them than others. Jesus taught that this would be so, “Some yielded thirty, some sixty, and some one hundred fold.” (MK4) Some are apparently naturally better at business and finance: “To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, each according to their ability.” (MT25) Acknowledging this is true, we still return to the command that those who have are to share with those who have not. This rests on the fact that at some point each of us needed help from others.
A human baby cannot raise itself to healthy adulthood. It will starve unless another being cares for it, feeds it, cleans it, protects it from harm. We have heard rare stories of wild children being raised by wolves or apes. Even these usually got through their early years with humans supporting them. And when they returned to civilization they required a great deal of assistance. We cannot learn language on our own. We do not learn survival skills on our own. We do not learn the math we need for financial management on our own. We were once slaves to ignorance and weakness and someone provided for us and instructed us and led us out. As children and adolescents (and sometimes as adults) we have been aliens in the adult world of society. The behaviors and attitudes and customs, the expectations and assumptions of others are strange and unknown to us. We are foreigners, aliens, strangers in a strange land. Every one of us who live in North America came from somewhere else, or our ancestors did. All of us are immigrants here, just as the Israelites were. So might we still be under the same commandment to treat the alien among us with compassion and justice, for we were once like them?
Saved by grace: Finally, and most importantly, we were once enslaved to sin (RM7; GAL4) but now have been set free (RM6:18) as Pauls says: 17 But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, 18 and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification. 20 When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Remember again our teaching from Deuteronomy – we are to leave gleanings from our abundant harvest so that those without the benefits we have may take their fill and be nourished. “What does it mean for us to leave gleanings in the field?” What does this mean spiritually? It means that we who have found peace with God through Jesus Christ are to treat those who lack such peace with overwhelming compassion and tender mercy. Remember that you were once slaves to sin and aliens to God. Your salvation is entirely the work of God. (EPH2). Christ restores the relationship between God and Humanity. With the coming of Jesus the reign of God was ushered into human history in a new way. This is the Gospel for which we are to prepare ourselves through repentance and in which we are to live here and now. Not all have heard or received this Good News. Ours is not to judge why. Ours is simply to go and share what we have received.
The Commandment we have been given is to show compassion, justice and love to those who are as we were. We should live our faith so that others are nourished. Does your spiritual life with God produce enough good, rich, nourishing fruit of righteousness (HEB12) so that you can feast and also provide for others? Or is your field, your vineyard barely giving enough for you to eek out a meal now and then. Are you spiritually malnourished because you have not been tending your spiritual gardens? How can you let your spiritual life nourish and feed others? If you are dwelling with Christ in prayer and study, if you are serving others in humility, if you are loving neighbor and enemy as you love yourself and God with all you are and have, then your life will bear the Fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (GAL5). When these are abundantly present in your life, then others can glean and be nourished until their own spiritual gardens and vineyards begin producing the fruit of righteousness.
We give thanks for what we have, whether material, relational, emotional, mental or spiritual, by sharing with those who lack. This is not about handouts – it is about giving free access to what we have received so that others might work out their own salvation. God commands us to do this while we enjoy the fruit of our lives and the bounty we have received. Godly gratitude includes allowing others to be nourished by our lives and not to assume that everything we have is for our own enjoyment. Freely you have received. Freely give. (MT10)