Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am YHWH, your God.” (Lev 19.9-10)
By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson
More than any other biblical text, the book of Leviticus claims to express the direct voice of YHWH. Of the 160 uses of the phrase, “I am YHWH” in the Hebrew Bible, 49 uses are in Leviticus. And yet, the book may be among the least respected or understood scriptural texts. It is to this very chapter in Leviticus that Jesus turns when asked about the greatest commandments. Just a few verses down from the quote above we find: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Lev 19.18; cf. Mk 12.31). Indeed, not only Jesus, but also Paul and James—made into opponents of each other in the post-Reformation culture wars—cite Lev 19.9 as central to discipleship (Rom 13.9; Gal 5.14; James 2.8).
Leviticus can certainly be a challenge to modern ears, given its detailed concerns over ritual and sacrifice. And tragically, most of its powerfully liberating, earth-centered message has been drowned out by the use of a single verse taken out of context in our own culture wars over marriage equality (Lev 18.22). Heard through the lens of its original cultural context, however, our passage today offers a powerful call to food and earth justice.
Leviticus is most likely a product of the Babylonian Exile, during which Jerusalem’s elite sought to explain the people’s greatest disaster. While a “religion of empire” text such as Ezra blames the Exile on the wiles of foreign wives who have polluted the “holy seed” of Israelite men (Ezra 9.2), other voices offer different explanations. Among the most radical responses are the religion-of-creation texts, Genesis and Leviticus. The Bible’s opening book puts the blame directly on the powerful lure of cities—the locus of ancient empire—calling for a return to an earth-based, migratory lifeway that mimics that of the rest of creation (e.g., Gen 4.17; 10.8-12). Leviticus shapes its own response via a complex dance of communal worship and ethical imperative, culminating in the grand call to Jubilee (Lev 25).
Mary Douglas has brilliantly revealed that the book is shaped to show parallels between three key symbols of Israelite identity: Mt. Sinai, a sacrificial animal, and the moveable wilderness shrine known as the Mishkan, aka the “ark of the covenant” (see M. Douglas, Jacob’s Tears: The Priestly Work of Reconciliation [Oxford Univ. Press, 2005] and discussion in “Come Out, My People!:” God’s Call Out of Empire In the Bible and Beyond, p. 275-76). In that structure, three sets of chapters can be seen as “solemn triads” (Douglas’ term) that are the nodes around which the rest of the book is shaped: Lev 8-10 (on the people’s participation in communal worship), 18-20 (on loving neighbor and stranger as oneself) and 25-27 (on Jubilee).
This week’s lectionary piece is thus part of the central solemn triad. It commands practical actions as expressions of neighbor-love: allowing the poor and stranger to feed themselves from your grain and grape harvests. But a closer engagement with Leviticus shows that the command does not call for wealthy landowners to save a few scraps for the destitute. Rather, we must hear our passage in light of the wider Levitical view on land. In the context of Jubilee, YHWH proclaims: “the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants” (Lev 25.23). The call of Lev 19.9-10, then, is not for landowners to practice charity, but for the community as a whole to embody earthy solidarity. Both rich and poor alike are “but aliens and tenants.” And if the Jubilee is to be practiced, the very categories of “rich” and “poor” would be wiped out altogether.
Leviticus’ insistence that the land belongs to YHWH is of a piece with other “religion of creation” texts, such as Genesis 2 (the Garden) and Exodus 16 (the manna). The very elements involved in this week’s passage—grain and grapes—become the central symbols of the great liberation feast of Passover, as celebrated at Jesus’ Last Supper. Jesus’ claim to be the Passover bread and wine deeply identifies him and his God with not only the elements themselves, but with the entire anti-imperial scriptural tradition.
The paired elements express two aspects of YHWH’s provision of food: necessity and delight. Grain is the great staple, the foundational food that enables life to exist at all outside the Garden (cf. Gen 2.16; 3.19). Grapes, though, are not “necessary,” but embody the divine gifts of sweetness and respite from the struggle (e.g., Amos 9.13; Isa 65.8; see esp. John 2.1-11). This divine offer of the fruits of the earth that not only satiate hunger but also bring gladness is central to religion of creation texts in both Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament.
Such a view, of course, is antithetical to empire, which claims its own power to control the earth and humanity. At the end of the biblical canon, we hear Jesus, the Lamb, crack open the seals that empire has put over the Word of God (Rev 6). The opening of the third seal reveals this word: “A quart of wheat for a day’s pay, and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay, but do no injustice to the olive oil and the wine!” Grain, oil and wine were and remain basic Mediterranean staples. The third seal uncovers the empire’s effort to control the growth and distribution of these fruit of the earth. In the Roman Empire, wealthy landowners sought long-term profits via tremendous orchards of olives and vineyards of grapes. The emperor, however, depended on the provision of grain for the annona, the imperial “dole” given to citizens as an expression of imperial beneficence. In times of drought or other factors beyond their control, the emperor and oligarchy would face off over control of grain on the one hand and olives and grapes on the other. The broken seal lays bare the lie at the heart of empire’s claim to provide for its people. It is the Creator, not the emperor, who truly controls the food supply.
Today, the food supply is not so much under the control of kings as corporations. Rather than honoring seeds and harvest as part of the Creator’s provision, global giants such as Monsanto and DuPont sell GMO seeds alongside toxic chemicals, claiming patent control over life itself. Planting a garden or a farm is thus a deep question of faith: in what source of life do we put our trust? Permaculture and similar programs invite us to relearn the ancient wisdom of working in harmony with the Creator to coax forth life from the earth. As spring and the time of planting seeds approaches, we might respond to God’s invitation to collaborate with creation with the words of the ancient Jewish blessings over bread and wine on our lips, as an act of resistance to empire:
Baruch atah, Adonai Elohenu, melach ha’olam, ha’motze lechem min ha’eretz:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.
Baruch atah, Adonai Elohenu, melach ha’olam, boray pre hagafen:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.
Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson collaborate in the ministry, Abide in Me, from their home in the Issaquah Creek Watershed in Western Washington. Sue is a spiritual director of individuals and couples and Wes teaches theology at Seattle University. Together, they seek to integrate the inner and outer journeys with the Creator.