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.

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God vs Defensive Architecture (Leviticus 23:22)

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Urban spaces are more complex than we give them credit for. I guess we’ve all had the experience of wondering why a public bench is so uncomfortable, or why we’re stumbling over humps in the pavement. The answer, quite often, is that someone’s trying to manipulate our behaviour.

“Defensive Architecture” or “Aggressive Design” or whatever you want to call it went viral over the weekend. Photos of nasty looking spikes embedded in a doorway to deter rough sleeps hit Twitter, raising questions of how compassionate the design of our public spaces should be.

In one sense it sounds ridiculous to say that spaces can have a moral quality like compassion. But we build our cities, our civil structures, our open structures. They are designed and created and funded by us, and so spikes in a pavement can sometimes say as much about a society as our greatest cathedral. Sidewalk or sanctuary, there can be something intimately spiritual about public design.

There’s a command, way back in Leviticus, that talks about landowners not harvesting the edges of their fields – the produce there was to be left for the destitute and refugees. Now that’s predominantly an economic command, but there’s something symbolic about it – it reflects God’s heart for the poor and the marginalised, it forces an interaction between haves and have nots (the outcome of the Book of Ruth ties in to this passage) and it forces us to consider how we ‘re using the spaces around us.

This consideration is vital because, as Matthew 25 implies, it’s the things we do for God when we’re not actually thinking about God that can be the real test of our character. How we create spaces for ourselves is evidence of how we feel about other people.

So yeah, homeless spikes send a message. But so does a lack of funding for hostels, or demonising food banks, and a thousand other things beyond rough sleeping – public toilets, wheelchair access, transport networks, benches, all of these have a moral dimension. They all take our spiritual temperature.

There’s an opportunity here for Christians though. Think about all the land owned by our churches: do we need a revolution in ecclesiastical design? Are there ways in which we can transform our public spaces, develop missional architecture, reflect God’s heart for the world around through surrounding our sanctuaries with community gardens or libraries or art galleries or debt counselling, not to replace the heart of our faith, but to recognise that it expands into every corner of human experience. God cares about what we do with the edges of our fields; he cares about our church car parks too.

How do we respond to that?

Jubilee (Leviticus 25)

Over the last few days, the UK has been commemorating the Queen’s diamond jubilee, leading to street parties, concerts and furious tweets from republicans. But amid all the celebrations and protests, there’s another angle on the concept of jubilee that I haven’t seen mentioned. It’s worth a look.

In Leviticus 25, Israel is commanded to observe a ‘Year of Sabbath’ every seven years, during which the land should remain fallow; in addition to the agricultural benefits of this, it’s also part of a narrative chronology – the rhythms of life in Israel all pointed to the importance of remembering God and his fundamental involvement in the world, to the extent that even fields and soil got their day of rest.

But the policy didn’t stop there. Every seventh Year of Sabbath was a jubilee year, and this was a massive deal. See, every fifty years, land that had been sold was to be returned to its original owners. Debts were to be forgiven. Indentured servants were to be released. In effect, the chains of poverty were to be broken.

(It’s interesting that this was to take place on the Day of Atonement, which was the day on which sacrifices were offered for the sins of the nation. There’s a concept here of sin-as-debt, and jubilee as an act of grace. Which ties in nicely with ideas of how Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection work on a theological level.)

The idea of jubilee is rooted in the idea of God as provider – fields can be left fallow because God will provide food, and property can be returned to its original owners because, ultimately, God owns the land, not the people, and he gets to allocate it.

(And if you think I’m getting into how that works with the situation in the Middle East today, then you’re crazy.)

There’s a powerful idea here of how people who find themselves poverty-stricken should be helped and supported, not exploited – there was even a prohibition on charging interest, which could push those needing a loan into poverty. The poor are to be helped, not treated as an easily exploitable form of labour or income, and poverty should always be a nasty but temporary situation, not an ongoing cycle.

It’s interesting how all this isn’t mentioned nearly as much as some of Leviticus’s other laws, like those against homosexuality, when the concept of jubilee has so much to say about how our culture treats money and the poor – it’s ironic that staffing the Queen’s jubilee celebrations gave rise to this news story. Leviticus 25 is still relevant.

(PS. And yet there’s an elephant in the room – alongside these laws, which are fundamentally anti-poverty, lies laws making provision for slavery. I don’t know what to do with that, but it’s a tension that anyone reading Leviticus has to face. Depending on which side of the belief fence you fall, there are easy ways to get around this (dismiss the individual laws or dismiss the whole Bible), but I’m not sure either approach is all that conclusive. And I take some comfort in that the New Testament puts slave trading on the same level as murder, but I’d be lying if I said that this makes the questions go away…)

Is The Cheque Really In The Post? (Leviticus 19:35-36)

Following on from yesterday’s post, one of the places in which our actions can have drastic consequences is at work.

Leviticus is a collection of laws and rules given to the priests of Israel as well as to the general public. There’s a temptation to look at this as archaic, but then you stumble over passages like chapter 19, verses 35 and 36:

‘Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity. 36 Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt.

Thrown in amongst laws on religious ceremonies, theft and the treatment of outsiders is this rule that basically says “Don’t rip people off.”

It doesn’t end there – hundreds of years later, when the prophets were crying out against the sins of the people, guess what one of their themes was?

“The merchant uses dishonest scales and loves to defraud,” bemoaned Hosea.

“Shall I aquit someone with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights?” asked Micah.

“By your many sins and dishonest trade you have desecrated your sanctuaries,” cried Ezekiel.

Ever get the feeling that God takes this stuff seriously? And rightly so – how many times have we heard “The cheque’s in the post” or “There was a computer error” or “My manager can’t see you right now, he’s in a meeting”? We’ve all done it, and those of us who haven’t have been tempted to, because in times of stress and busyness, it’s easy to excuse a little white lie to make life a bit easier.

But where does that leave our integrity?

See, how we treat people is a mark of what’s in our heart. The prophet Amos makes this point, talking about those who can’t wait for the Sabbath to be over so they can start selling stuff again – “Skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales.” The fact that they’re cheating is bad enough, but it’s almost a symptom of how they relate to both other people and to God; it’s the same sort of attitude that leads to companies paying atrocious wages, treating staff and customers with contempt, and using sweatshop labour.

(Note, for instance, the controversy over conditions faced by workers assembling Apple products.)

(I note also that I’m writing this on an iPhone.)

And God speaks out against all this. It’s not a hot button issue but that should make us even more aware of it – it’s not something we can afford to forget. How we treat people at work, how we conduct ourselves in our job, is important to God – skip forward a Testament and you find Paul saying “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not human masters.”

For me, this is best summed up by a story I heard – a manager asks his secretary to lie to a client, but she flat-out refuses. He starts berating her until she comes out with a line that stops him in his tracks:

“If I can lie for you, I can lie to you.”

It’s a line that’s stuck with me, and reminds me that whatever job you’re doing – even if it’s unrewarding, even if you hate every moment of it, even if it offers great opportunities for profit as long as you turn off your conscience – we’re doing our jobs for God. He’s our boss.

So, is the cheque really in the mail?