Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Edges of the Field

“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 alien: I am the Lord your God.”  Leviticus 19:9-10

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
Epiphany 7A – February 19, 2017

         St. Francis famously said:  “Preach the gospel always; use words if you must.” At the heart of this saying is the insight that what we do matters every bit as much as what we say, if not more so.  Long before Christianity became an institutionalized religion with creeds and confessional statements, the faith was known simply as “the Way,” and its followers were known primarily for how they lived, not just what they believed.  The early church was organized around a commitment to Jesus Christ as the divine embodiment of a new humanity and a new model for human community.
         In the early Church, what differentiated Christians from others in the Empire were primarily practices that pointed to the in-breaking of God’s reign:  early Christians cared for the sick; established communities without regard to class, social status, privilege or gender; repented of their sins with humility, and sought and extended forgiveness; exercised an unrelenting ministry of reconciliation; and they prayed for others and for the world with regularity.
         But there was another set of key practices that marked the life of the early Church too – how Christians related to property. The earliest Christians were known for sharing their resources without a sense of possessiveness, giving to the poor, and extending hospitality to strangers.  We hear this message, of course, in Jesus’ words today, in which he urges us to give to anyone who asks, to lend to those who need to borrow, and to give up not only our coats but our cloaks as well.
         This notion that our lives should be grounded in generosity, freed from undue to attachment to the things we own, has deep roots in the Bible that we can trace back to our first lesson from the Book of Leviticus. God is describing what it means for his people to be holy, and notice what the very first item on God’s list is.  God says: “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 alien: I am the Lord your God.”  (Leviticus 19:9-10)
         I used to think that this holiness commandment, like many others from Leviticus, was an antiquated, if charming, holdover from an agrarian society that has little relevance to us today.  But I was convinced otherwise – and here, you may be surprised – by a member of the faculty at the Harvard Law School, Joseph Singer.  Joe is a distinguished property law professor, the husband of Dean Martha Minow, and an observant Jew.  Joe is also the author of a gem of a book entitled, The Edges of the Field: Lessons on the Obligations of Ownership,[1] in which he seeks to demonstrate the enduring relevance of these two verses from Leviticus 19 to modern property law and American capitalism. And he does in a mere 136 pages in plain English that any layperson can understand.
         And like any good rabbi, Joe organizes his book around a story:
         Just before Christmas 1995, the Malden Mills textile factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, suffered a devastating fire. When the flames finally died down, three of the nine buildings were in ruins. The next day, the owner, Aaron Feuerstein, assembled the workers in the high school gymnasium. They feared the worst. Most of the textile mills in New England had long ago moved to other parts of the country, other parts of the world. Aaron was seventy years old and might be ready to call it a day. The workers wondered if he would collect the insurance money and retire. What was going to happen to them? More than three thousand people worked for Malden Mills and their prospects looked bleak.
         Then Aaron got up to speak.  To their astonishment, Aaron announced that he would rebuild the factory and that he would rehire every worker who wanted a job. He would continue to pay their wages for the next month and they would each receive their expected $275 Christmas bonus on time. Pandemonium broke out in the gymnasium.  It is reported that “grown men cried, and in the several languages of the largely immigrant workforce – Portuguese, Spanish, and others – prayers of thanksgiving were said.”
         Aaron Feuerstein made good on his promises.  Not only that:  He continued to pay his workers’ salaries for several months, until he could no longer afford to do so.  He had no legal obligation to pay these salaries or to help his employees get through the down time.  Ultimately, the factory was rebuilt.  As of 1998, almost all the workers had been rehired.
         When asked why he did it, Aaron replied simply that he had a moral obligation to do so.  “The workers are depending upon me,” he explained.  “There was no way I was going to take 3,000 workers and throw them into the street, and there was no way I was going to send the city of Lawrence into economic oblivion.”
         In his book, Joe Singer explains that, as an orthodox Jew, Aaron relied upon traditional Jewish teachings about the moral obligations of property owners, whether they be farmers (as in the days of Leviticus) or factory owners (as in Aaron’s time). At the foundation of such teaching is the conviction that human beings are not the ultimate owners of their property and labors, but that God is.  In the words of the Psalmist:  “‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.’ Ps 24:1.  Stated differently, because the land and its fruits and our labors are all divine gifts, human beings are merely stewards of these gifts.  Through our time, talent, and effort we may well earn the right to exercise responsibility over property and labor, but within the Torah these property rights are only qualified rights.  And because God intends for the fruits of the land and our labors to be enjoyed by all God’s people, such fruits cannot be withheld from those who need them.
         And so, as we see in our lesson from Leviticus, God commands individual owners of property to set aside a portion of what they own for the poor. Property holders are commanded not to reap to the edges of the field, not to pick up grain or grapes that have been dropped in the course of harvesting, and not to return to the field to retrieve ‘forgotten sheaves.’ This portion of the fruits of the land is in fact owned by the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor – those who have no access to land of their own or whose family ties have been shattered. To preserve such fruits is, on this view, not a matter of charity and does not constitute a transfer from the landowner to the dispossessed. Rather, the fruits at edges of the field are the share of God’s bounty belonging to the landless.” (Singer, 49)
         Aaron Feuerstein recognized that his family’s success in the textile business was made possible only by God’s grace and with the support of the community.  And so, in a time of crisis, Aaron recognized his own responsibility to care for those who made his business the success that it was.  
         The biblical notion of titheing – of giving away ten percent of one’s income – likewise has its roots in this biblical concept of stewardship.  The admonition to tithe is not fundamentally an exercise in charity so much as it is an exercise in humility and gratitude, acknowledging that what we have was made possible only through God’s grace.  We give away ten percent not because we’re altruistic but because we are acknowledging that at least ten percent of what we have properly belongs to God in the first place and should be used for the benefit of others.  St. Augustine had a beautiful way of expressing this:  “Find out how much God has given you,” Augustine writes, “and from it take what you need; always remembering that the remainder is needed by others.”
         These biblical practices of good stewardship, responsible ownership, and generous giving are, I am sad to say, increasingly at odds with the American spirit of private enterprise, self-reliance, and maximizing shareholder value.  But it needn’t be so.  I don’t have time here to summarize all of Joe Singer’s argument as to how America property law might be transformed to more humanely reflect the compassionate spirit of Leviticus 19.  But I will leave you with this observation of his: “Contrary to what some believe and others fear, the protection of property rights does not commit us to the view that gross inequality is a necessary fact of life or that individuals have no legitimate claim to lean on other people. Property is not merely an individual right, and it is not based solely on the notion of self-interest or self-reliance.  It is, in fact, an intensely social institution. And ownership, far from being an absolute right, is a curious blend of security and vulnerability between owner and non-owner.  The manner in which property shapes social relations of power is as important as ownership rights.”
         We Christians have a lot to learn from the Aaron Feuersteins of the world about what responsible and generous ownership looks like.  Faithful Christians and Jews, it seems to me, can work together to re-orient our perspectives on property and how we relate to it based on a prayerful appreciation for our shared sacred texts. 
         As you think about what you have, and what you may do with your talents and treasure in the future, I’d invite you to remember that all of these things are gifts that ultimately belong to God.  God is counting on you to use these gifts wisely and generously to care not just for yourself, but for all of God’s creatures and all of His wonderful creation.  Listen again to the words of St. Augustine:  “Find out how much God has given you, and from it take what you need; yet always remember that the remainder is needed by others.”

            [1] Joseph William Singer, The Edges of the Field: Lessons on the Obligations of Ownership, Boston:  Beacon Press, 2000.

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