The New Year of Trees: Tu Bishvat (Deuteronomy 14:28-29)

sycomore-fruitIt’s cold. It’s cold and it’s winter and tomorrow I fully expect to see frost on the ground. Rumours have been going around work that we’re expecting snow overnight. It seems a funny time to think of trees and fruit and harvest, and yet that’s what today is: Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year of Trees,

But trees in winter are naked silhouettes in the dark – the harvest is a promise at the moment, the almost primordial promise that seedtime and harvest and summer and winter will endure. And maybe that’s a good thing – start thinking about the harvest before anything has even been planted. Hold on to the promise.

That promise isn’t just for those who work the earth – far from it. The harvest is inseparable from justice; the edges of fields are set aside for the poor, tithes are given for foreigners and orphans and widows as well as for God. Harvest is a gift of grace.

It’s a gift we often take for granted. Sustainability is a sign of weakness in some quarters and so we race to despoil the earth, to fill oceans and landfills with toxic leftovers. There’s a perverse ecological eschatology behind this – why worry about the earth when God’s just going to burn it up anyway? – but that’s flawed and twisted and confuses stewardship with profit. And it ignores the human cost, the poor and the vulnerable who God expects to share in the harvest.

It’s hard to know how to square that with the theory that deforestation in Africa has forced bats and humans into closer proximity, contributing to the Ebola outbreak that’s claimed so many lives. Harm the earth, harm ourselves, not in some apocalyptic future in which the climate is changed beyond recognition, but here and now, real people in real communities. This isn’t hypothetical anymore.

We’re slowly emerging from winter – days are getting longer, spring starts to make its presence felt. The promise of the New Year of Trees begins to be fulfilled, and it’s a promise of hope and justice. But it’s not aimed at our greed and our rapaciousness; it’s aimed at the poor, the refugee, the dispossessed. Because it’s the promise of the harvest, and harvest is justice.

(You can help Oxfam plant trees and provide training in forest management here.)

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The Edges of the Harvest (Leviticus 19:9-10)

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And so we enter into harvest season; we hold festivals and bring tins of baked beans or our prize winning parsnip to the front of church and thank God for another year of his provision and blessings. And yet harvest isn’t just a gift, it’s a responsibility.

We see this back in Leviticus 19. Among various laws concerning lying, stealing and idolatry we come across what to do with the edges of your harvest:

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

At its heart, this is a law of compassion, but one with far-reaching implications. After all, this law lead to the first meeting of Ruth and Boaz, who went onto become ancestors of King David and, by extension, Jesus himself: justice for a poverty-stricken immigrant is at the root of Israel’s royal line. When you help alleviate poverty, it’s always wise to listen for the echoes.

But the reason there are echoes is because some laws are also acts of remembrance. Deuteronomy 24:19:22 gives a bit more context for this: God helped the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt, therefore they should help others in need. Yeah, sure, you may have planted the seeds and tended the fields, you may want to glean every last bit of profit from your labours, but ultimately the reason you’re there in the first place is because of God, and if you’re blessed you better make sure you’re blessing others.

This is the relevance of harvest to an increasingly urbanised population. Figures from the Trussell Trust note there has been a 163% increase in the use of food banks over the last financial year, although the number of food banks themselves has only risen by 45%. There are needs out there, and while one-off donations are fine, there’s a more systemic element to this; people can’t be left to starve. There’s a reason we’re talking about Old Testament laws rather than suggestions. This stuff needs to be woven into our day-to-day lives; Israel was called to be a nation that protected orphans, widows and immigrants, to proclaim a Jubilee every 50 years to prevent generational poverty. It’s in the job description.

(So maybe, as Pastor Abe Johnson points out, the story of the widow’s offering isn’t just a celebration of a woman’s faith, but a condemnation of the attitudes that lead to her being so poor in the first place – you can’t divorce Mark 12:41-44 from verses 38-40.)

This isn’t about charity, this is about justice. Our harvest – literal or metaphorical – isn’t entirely ours, not in God’s eyes, and everything, from groceries to rainforests, are called upon to ensure fairness for the poor and oppressed. God has a call on our lives – our souls, our principles and the edges of our harvest.

Epic Monarchy Fail: Solomon and how not to be a king (Deuteronomy 17:14-20)

So, let’s talk about King Solomon.

Solomon’s an ambiguous figure. Known for his wisdom and for being the guy that built the Temple in Jerusalem, he also sent his kingdom down a path that would result in division and idolatry. As track records go, he’s all over the place.

Frankly, he has no excuse for his failings. The fact is, Deuteronomy lays down some rules for kings , so obviously Israel’s monarchs would be eager to follow them, right? After all, they’re not that complicated. Any idiot should be able to follow rules like “The king must not have lots of horses, or buy them from Egypt”.

Um…

“He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray.”

Err…

“He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.”

Oh dear.

This is the irony of Solomon’s story – early on he asks God for wisdom to run the kingdom, but while he recives this – historically it’s his USP – he still manages to mess up, and this is despite his initial faithfulness to God (he built the Temple, after all). His actions lead to the kingdom being ripped in two, with two royal lines made up of largely hopeless kings. Both monarchies, Israel and Judah end in disaster as the Jews are carted off in exile to Babylon, one of their great national catastrophes.

And effectively it’s all down to one man, the man renowned for his wisdom. That’s a sobering thought. He couldn’t blag a successful monarchy based on his talents; it all came down to where his heart was, and it wasn’t with God.

Now that’s a sobering thought. Deuteronomy warned against kings falling prey to power, sex and money, and yet it happened almost immediately. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised – it’s easy to trust in our own abilities or resources. Sometimes that’s hubris, sometimes its just the struggle with the way in which God’s plans are often invisible right up to the moment they unfold. Either way, there’s a need to trust in God, and the more responsibility and power you have, the greater that need for trust.

But then Solomon’s story is also one of compromise. He doesn’t have one or two big disasters like his father; rather he just seems to break the laws set down for kings almost by mistake. He falls in love easily, marries women from a different religion, and before we know it, he’s setting up altars to at least three other gods. I don’t actually think he did this on purpose, but somewhere along the line his moral compass has got out of whack.

Now that’s bad enough, but look at what he’s squandering. He’s been given a phenomenal gift of wisdom by God and yet he’s wasting it by going off the rails. The scary thing is, he’s still making a name for himself. The guy’s a celebrity, visited by dignitaries the world over, but he’s losing it, and all the wealth, power and fame in the world won’t save his kingdom. Jesus told a parable about wasting your talents by burying them in a hole in the ground; Solomon may as well have thrown his talents in the Mariana Trench.

So I guess the question is, are we squandering what God has given us?

And would we recognise it if we were?