We read this morning from Deuteronomy, chapter 24: “When you reap your harvest in your field, and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back and get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. And when you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.”
In that ancient culture, of course, there was no social safety net anything like what exists for us today. There was no tax-funded medical system with hospitals; there was no framework of employment insurance for when you got laid off; there weren’t non-governmental organizations providing skills training; there were no pension benefits for the elderly. In that ancient culture if there was any kind of social safety net, it was simply your family. It was through your immediate and your extended family that you had a home and property and protection and food and work. And so if you didn’t have a family, you were profoundly vulnerable – you were at risk. If you didn’t have a family you were without protection and without support and almost invariably without a livelihood.
When God instructs his people in the shape of their common life – when God’s law is given to the people as recorded in Deuteronomy – one of the features of that law is a kind of protection for those who didn’t have a family to protect and support them. When you harvest the grain don’t take everything into your barns – leave something behind in the fields for those who are at risk – those who don’t have a family. When you harvesting your olives don’t pull every last one off the tree, leave some on the trees for those who have no family, and therefore no protection – the orphan, the refugee, the widow.
In the giving of the law, God commands compassion and protection for those who are vulnerable – he commands compassion and protection for those who may be hungry or without resources. The shape of their collective life must be such that the most vulnerable are provided for. Leave something behind for the vulnerable; don’t take everything for yourself; don’t claim every last olive for your own storehouse; don’t claim every last sheaf for your barn. Show compassion; provide for the needs of the vulnerable.
Why? Why not claim every last bit of grain for yourself? Why not claim every last olive for the wellbeing of your parents and your sisters and your children and your aunts and uncles? Why not claim your time and energy and resources for your own wellbeing, first and last.
Of course across various cultures different answers may be given for any such impulse of compassion and protection. If the common life of a society is going to include such an impulse, deep reasons must invariably be given. But here is the reason offered in Deuteronomy 24: “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there, therefore I am commanding you to do this.”
This was expressed only slightly differently in the video we just watched. “Why do you do this, Re? Why do you come down here to work at this inner-city shelter?” Re answers: “Well that’s a long story. Well, maybe not so long. I used to eat here. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It was a hard season. No home. No money.” Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord redeemed you from there. Remember, and show compassion.
There are at least two ways that we can think about all of this invitation to compassion and generosity. In the first place we can think about it from below, if you will. In this sense, we hardly need to be told how we should live – we hardly need to be told that we should live compassionately and generously toward those who are vulnerable. We have a strong memory of our past experience of vulnerability and need – we have a strong memory of that time when we were dispossessed and without resources – and so love and compassion flow naturally from us to those who now suffer in this way. We were homeless. We were impoverished. We were broken. We were without support. We won’t ever forget was that was like. And we want those who now suffer in a similar way to experience the freedom and new life that we finally experienced.
So we can understand Deuteronomy 24 from below: “I used to eat here. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It was a hard season. No home. No money.” Such an experience may drive us, direct us, animate us, motivate us, in extending compassion and love and resources to those who are now in need. We don’t need to be told.
But there is another way to think about all of this. If not from below, then we may think of it also from above, if you will. Sometimes we need to be told, don’t we? Sometimes we need to be reminded. Sometimes we need a command of God to direct us and animate us. Sometimes we need a voice from above instructing us.
So very quickly we forget our own experiences of marginalization or brokenness. So very quickly we forget that the generosity of others has made us who we are. So very quickly we forget how wonderful it was to experience freedom after bondage, to experience new life after lingering so long in the shadows of death. And in our forgetfulness, we may also forget compassion and mercy– forget that we may be a resource for others as they move from shadows to daylight; from a restricted, confined existence to freedom.
So in this case we need a law, we need a command, we need a strong word from above, we need a framework of justice and mercy – not unlike that first given in Deuteronomy 24. “When you bring in the harvest of olives, leave some on the trees for those who are in need. When you bring in the grain, leave some out in the field for the orphan, the widow, the refugee.” I command it. I demand it. I have provided for you, now you provide for others. I have shown mercy, now you must show mercy.
From below – the way of compassion and service makes sense to us because we are so profoundly in touch with our own need and freedom God has given. We hardly need to be told. By the Spirit compassion springs alive in us.
From above – the way of compassion and service becomes clear to us on account of a command, a requirement of obedience, a strong word that reminds us of who we are and how we are to live. The Spirit brings the command of alive God in mind and heart.
This morning we have shared in the sacrament of baptism. And in doing so we have been reminded of our baptism. Our baptism into Jesus Christ is a baptism into the death of Christ – a bearing away all of our shame and our wrong-headed living and our sin. And our baptism into Jesus Christ is a baptism into his resurrection life – into a new path of joy and love and service with him.
Through our baptism, then, we experience the call to compassion and generosity – baptism gives us a vocation for life. As we have received mercy and grace, we extend mercy and grace to others. For some of us the reminder of our own baptism meets us as from below. Seeing what God has done for us Christ; seeing the beautiful and meaningful life he now shares with us, we are animated to generosity and love toward the most vulnerable. We hardly need to be told.
For others of us perhaps the reminder of our own baptism meets us as from above. There is a command that accompanies baptism. There is a voice that calls. There is a strong word that is been spoken, if we need to hear that strong word. You have been redeemed; you have experienced new life; the death-dealing ways that formerly defined you life have been defeated; you have received compassion – therefore you shall live in the justice and the compassion and the service of Christ.
Whether we are moved toward generosity and mercy as from below, today, or as from above – may the Holy Spirit go with us, shaping us in our baptismal vocation – leading us in support of the most vulnerable. “I used to eat here. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It was a hard season. No home. No money.”