Margins: Leave the Corners

Leviticus 19:9-10

The book of Leviticus often gets a bad rap.  It is most famous for laws that probably seem irrelevant to many of us today: Don’t eat animals with cloven hooves who don’t chew their cud (11:7).  Don’t wear clothing made out of two different kinds of fabric (19:19). Don’t touch dead lizards (11:31). There are certainly people – mostly Jews of various levels of orthodoxy – who do still follow these laws (or some of them) today, but I imagine most of us here, if we had questions about what kind of meat to eat or what to do if we suspected that we had contracted a skin disease, would probably seek out a different source for our answers.

But Leviticus does also have some good pretty good stuff, some laws that many of us would probably agree are not only applicable to our lives today but even central to our faith.  You must not steal or deceive or lie to each other.  That’s from chapter 19 (v. 11).  Do not show favoritism to the poor or deference to the great; you must judge fairly (19:15).  Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens (19:34).  Love your neighbor as yourself (19:18).

Leviticus also contains the first mention of the law we talked about last week, the command to tithe, or to give 10% of that which we produce back to God.  For the people of the early Hebrew Bible that meant 10% of the grain from your fields, 10% of the fruit from your trees, and later 10% of your livestock as well.  That 10% would then go to supporting Temple worship and the priests and Levites who made that happen, as well as to feed the poorest and most vulnerable people in the community – the immigrants, widows, orphans, and anyone who didn’t have the means to produce food for themselves.

As I said last week, we may have some differing opinions over whether this is still a good and relevant law for us today.  We are no longer a primarily agricultural society, though of course we can still easily translate a principle of giving 10% to our modern paychecks.  Even so, nowhere in the New Testament are we commanded to give a fixed proportion of our income. And yet I would (and did) argue that there is something holy and good about creating margins in our lives, in setting aside a fixed amount of what we have in thanksgiving to God and for investment in God’s work.  Even if 10% isn’t realistic for you at the moment, you can still commit to this practice of setting some aside to give back to God – the practice itself is more important than the number, especially to start.

But this command to tithe isn’t the only law about giving and generosity in Leviticus that I think it might be worth coming back to.  If we go back to chapter 19 again, we’ll also find this one: When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather up every remaining bit of your harvest.  Also do not pick your vineyard clean or gather up all the grapes that have fallen there.  Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God.

We hear it again in Deuteronomy 24: Whenever you are reaping the harvest of your field and you leave some grain in the field, don’t go back and get it.  Let it go to the immigrants, the orphans and the widows so that the Lord God blesses you in all that you do.  Similarly, when you beat the olives off your olive trees, don’t go back over them twice.  Let the leftovers go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows.  Again, when you pick the grapes of your vineyard, don’t pick them over twice.  Let the leftovers go to the immigrants, the orphans and the widows.  Remember how you were a slave in Egypt.  That’s why I’m commanding you to do this.

In Jewish teaching this is called pe’ah, the practice of leaving the edges or the corners.

How many of you have ever been gleaning?  The practice of gleaning comes from this biblical command.  Some farmers will let organizations and volunteers come in once the fields and trees have been harvested to collect what’s left over.  You may find apples still on the trees or on the ground that are still good to eat.  I’ve gotten to dig for sweet potatoes before, the ones that were missed the first time around.  Instead of becoming food waste, this food goes to local food pantries and organizations to feed those who might not otherwise have access to fresh produce.

When it comes to applying a law like this to our lives more generally, though, it may once again seem like a relic of the past.  Again, most of us don’t have fields or grapes or olives anymore.  When it comes to tithing, it’s pretty easy to translate into a non-agricultural context: instead of 10% of our grapes we give 10% of our paychecks back to God and to God’s work.  But when it comes to leaving the corners, it may be harder to translate.  What does it mean for us modern urbanites to leave the corners or not go back over our fields a second time?

Just like the law of the tithe asks us to create a margin in our lives to live within and set a certain amount aside, the law of pe’ah, of leaving the corners, asks us to create a margin – to leave room in our wallets and our budgets to help those in need.  It asks us to leave room to be able to live generously in community with others.

I usually listen to the news on the radio while I drive into work in the morning, and for a long time off and on, I’ve been hearing about the civil war going on in Yemen.  It’s been going long enough that it often gets eclipsed by the other news of the day, and yet every once in a while it will make its way back to the top of the news cycle and I’ll be reminded people are calling it the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.  The war has brought widespread famine and starvation and people don’t have access to basic healthcare.  After the most recent time I heard this, I thought that I should maybe give some money toward aid work in Yemen.

But, you know, I’m trying to stick to a budget.  And there was just some other stuff going on this month.  I needed some new orthotic inserts for my shoes to help me run better.  I decided it was time to buy some new clothes.  I bought a gift for a friend who was having a baby.  So then there wasn’t really a lot left over.  I thought, maybe next month.  Of course, next month it’s time to start buying Christmas presents.  So maybe Yemen will have to wait until the new year.  Maybe in January?  Well, that’s when my car insurance auto-renews, so…

This past week, after I preached about tithing and as I started to think about this practice of leaving the corners, I finally made a donation to an organization that is doing aid work in Yemen.  Because what I want to do is to live and spend in such a way that there is room in my life and budget for things like this – to live generously in respect to those who are vulnerable or suffering in the world around me.  If my whole field is harvested – if all my money is accounted for with other expenditures – then I’m not going to be able to do this.

For better or worse, it’s never specified how much room you’re supposed to leave.  When we’re talking about tithing, it’s pretty clear: 10% is 10%.  We can ask about things like before tax and after tax or what the loopholes are, but we at least have a good, solid guideline for what God expects from us.  But if we are talking about pe’ah, leaving the corners and edges of our field unharvested so the poor and hungry can come and be fed, just how wide are we supposed to make those corners, anyway?  Rabbinic commentators debated this, and came up with different answers that they disagreed on.[1]  There is no one definite answer to that, which, depending on your personality, maybe drives you crazy or maybe you appreciate the flexibility.

Personally it drives me crazy.  I really like to know when I’ve checked the box.  But when it comes to loving and caring for your neighbor, there’s really no box to check.  Maybe you can leave bigger corners this year than you did last.  That’s what we Methodists call sanctification, growing in love and holiness throughout the course of our lives as God gives us grace.

Some of you might be saying, oh man, last week you told us we were supposed to tithe, and now you’re telling us that’s not even enough?  And yeah, I guess that’s right.  Someone once told me that stewardship begins with the 90%.  10% (or at least that portion that we have committed to set aside) goes back to God, and we are entrusted with living faithfully and generously with that which is left to us – which is the meaning of stewardship. Let’s face it, if you place your check in the offering each week but don’t have any left over to buy lunch for someone who needs it, that’s probably not what God intended.  If you tithe faithfully but have to wait three months to donate to Yemen because you spent your whole budget on new clothes you didn’t strictly need, that’s probably not what God intended either.  (See, sometimes I am preaching to myself.)

In the end I believe these two commands are meant to be lived together.  One asks us to set aside a fixed amount of what we have and one asks us to leave enough room to be generous with the rest.  Both ask us in different ways to create margins in our lives, to set some of what we have aside for God, for our world, and for our neighbors in need.

Both commands challenge this dangerous idea we have that everything we have belongs to us.  After all, we might say, we’ve worked hard for these crops – or for this paycheck, this lifestyle.  We’ve plowed and sown and watered and tended our fields and our trees.  We’ve worked long hours, sacrificed time with friends and family, put everything we had into that project, or stood on our feet until we could barely walk.  Surely we have a right to that which our work yields.  And yet it’s God to whom the field belongs first, God who gives the growth, God who gives us the gifts and ability to work and earn a living and have enough to share.

When we set aside a portion of our harvest to tithe, we are reminded of these truths, and reminded even to leave some more room to let others in.  Because God also tells us that some of what we have belongs to others.  Not just that we can give some if we’re feeling particularly generous.  But that it belongs to them.

You know that enclosed in your bulletin you can find a Commitment to Giving card.  I hope that you will take this home, pray about the margins God is calling you to create in your life and what portion God is calling you to set aside.  And then I hope that you will bring it back next week so we can celebrate our commitments for 2019 as we give thanks for all God has done for us.

You heard Sarah talk earlier about the welcome she found here at Arlington Temple and why she decided to make this her church home.  This is part of God’s work that you are investing in when you make that commitment to setting some aside.  You’re investing in worship that not only brings us together each week but also welcomes visitors from all over the world and provides a spiritual home away from home.  You’re investing in opportunities for each of us to grow in our relationship with God through prayer, music, and Bible study, so that we can go out to be God’s people in the world.  You’re investing in this space which welcomes our neighbors who come each weekday for something to eat, to get warm or cool off, or simply to find community.  You’re investing in our surrounding community through the bag lunches we pack, produce we bag, and backpacks we fill with school supplies.  And you’re investing in our future as we make plans for the renovation of this space in a couple years and think about the opportunities for ministry that that might open up.  God is doing good things here and I believe God wants to do even more.  So I do hope you will fill out this card.

But I also hope this card will be just the beginning.  That as you make this commitment, and each time you fulfill it, you will be reminded of all that God has given you, reminded of your neighbors who God loves, and reminded of God’s call on your whole life – including your fields.  And your paychecks.  And I hope then you will make some extra room, and go out there and live generously as God’s people in the world.




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