Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law, “It will be good for you, my daughter, to go with the women who work for him, because in someone else’s field you might be harmed. (Ruth 2.22)

This Time It’s Personal

In Leviticus 19, God instructs Moses to assemble the people for a refresher course on its obligations. Most of the Ten Commandments are reinforced nearly intact. But, no doubt, the Jews are surprised to find the original 10 now multiplied by three. Six of the 30 concern the sort of taboos Leviticus is notorious for (sex with slaves, selling daughters into prostitution, eating rare meat, wearing blended fabrics, hair-styling, and occult practices). The remaining edicts are also odd, though for a different reason. They set civic, agricultural, and mercantile policy that applies to a settled community—which Israel plainly is not—by addressing social welfare, treatment of foreigners, farming procedures, and commercial ethics. They anticipate nationhood. Is God jumping the gun here? Not at all.

Purpose for advancing these statutes is two-fold. One, it defines precedents, so Israel will know what God expects when the need arises. Two, it provides time to contemplate principles the new laws uphold—because that’s what God desires most: a principled people committed to justice and compassion. The first law defines the objective: “Be holy, because I, the LORD your God, am holy.” (v2) And the governing idea that filters through the new edicts surfaces in verse 18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Prior to now, the Ten Commandments served as Israel’s common code—its means of achieving national character. Leviticus 19 represents a groundbreaking shift in perspective. This time it’s personal.

Fringe Benefits

One of the new laws is an ingenious farming proviso that offsets material need afflicting underprivileged and disenfranchised residents. Verses 9 and 10 read:

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. 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.

For all practical purposes, it’s a tax to fund entitlements—two bugaboos currently making the rounds in legislatures and political debates. And before a believer hops on the anti-tax, anti-entitlement bandwagon (ironically fueled by parties that allegedly advocate “Judeo-Christian values”), he/she would be wise to revisit this edict. Entitling the less fortunate to reap the fringe benefits of our largesse is a sacred duty. It’s a non-negotiable, unconditional tenet in keeping with loving our neighbors as ourselves. It’s a personal responsibility that meets God’s standard of holiness. And it’s the precedent for a three-pronged social agenda that flows through the Old Testament, Gospels, and Epistles: provide for widows, care for orphans, and welcome strangers. Beyond the financial aspect, there’s an equally brilliant social dynamic at work. Entitling the poor and foreign-born to glean outer fields and excess harvest places them in close proximity to their benefactors. They are not invisible. Their physical condition is not ignored. Their struggles are not removed from sight. It makes their needs very real.

We see how this works by flashing forward from Leviticus to Ruth. While her story unfolds in four short chapters, Ruth stands as a central figure in Scripture by embodying all three social disadvantages. The Moabite wife of a deceased Jew, she severs ties to her own family and relocates with her mother-in-law, Naomi, in Bethlehem. Ruth is a widow, an orphan, and a stranger. After her husband dies, Naomi urges Ruth to remain in Moab, where she has family support and marital prospects. Yet Ruth—overtly foreshadowing Christ—voluntarily quits the comforts of home, abdicates its advantages, and lowers herself as a stranger in a strange land on her mother-in-law’s behalf.

In Bethlehem, she avails herself to the gleaners’ rights set forth in Leviticus. She locates fields owned by Boaz, her husband’s nearest kin. Without announcing herself as a family insider, her presence among the gleaners still draws his attention. He discovers who she is and instructs his managers to leave more than usual behind so Ruth and Naomi will be sufficiently cared for. He invites Ruth to venture beyond the fringes and join paid workers who gather the harvest. He encourages her to enjoy their privileges and notifies her bosses that no one is to mistreat her. When Ruth returns, her arms overflowing with provision, Naomi asks where she gleaned. Ruth informs Naomi Boaz found her, welcomed her like any worker, and insisted she be treated as their equals. Now, let’s listen very closely to Naomi’s advice, because her words bear uncanny relevance for every believer (or would-be believer) who’s been left alone, orphaned, and/or alienated by faith traditions. “Boaz’s field is where you should work,” she says. “Because in someone else’s field you might be harmed.

Beyond the Fringe

We all enter the faith as gleaners. Whether loss, abandonment, or alienation drive us to seek Christ’s sustenance, we come humbly, hoping to glean what we need to survive. As widows, orphans, and strangers, we’re entitled to fringe benefits from the harvests of advantaged believers and faith communities. Providing for our welfare is a fundamental principle set forth by The Law and fulfilled by Christ’s sacrificial provision of grace. But our introduction to Christ’s bounty as gleaners is simply that—an introduction. By right of relationship, we accept Christ’s invitation to venture beyond the fringe, joining other laborers in the field proper, where there’s equal provision, opportunity, privileges, and protection. Scripture equips us with written proof that those overseeing Christ’s harvest have been explicitly instructed to accept, respect, and protect us.

But what does Naomi tell us? Not every field is safe. Not every overseer is welcoming. Not every worker is accommodating. And then what does Ruth show us? We locate the right field for us, where we’ll be noticed, welcomed, cared for, called from the fringe to work like any other worker. These fields exist all around us. They can be found. We don’t have to settle for gleaners’ lives, hanging on the outside, subsisting on leftovers. We enter the fringe to be seen and then called beyond it. Fields that honor Christ’s instructions are where we want to be. Hanging around where we're ignored and left to scavenge the fringes gets us nowhere but in harm’s way.

We enter the faith as gleaners on the fringe. Then Christ calls us beyond the fringe, to work as equals in the field. If we’re stuck on the fringe, we’re in the wrong field.

Personal Postscript: Good News and Gratitude

To everyone who's upheld my mom in prayer since we learned she would undergo cancer surgery, I'm thrilled to report the operation was successful, she's resting and recovering, and we're extremely optimistic about her prognosis. I can't adequately express my gratitude for your concern and support. The strength we drew from prayers offered around the world for her is beyond measure. On her behalf, as well as Walt's and mine, we thank God and each of you with all of our hearts.


Anonymous said...

I am breathless. This is amazing and eye opening.
Entitlements? What an analogy!
You are precious. Thank you.
And I'm so glad to hear your mother is recovering well. God bless her.

Tim said...

Missy, I've been mulling over Leviticus 19 since Sunday's reading and marveling at the ingenuity of its gleaning statute. And then opening today's text from Ruth, I was astounded to see how it's really supposed to work. It's exactly what we're told is wrong, both in the Church and our governments. That view explains why we live in the wealthiest time in history, yet struggle with disenfranchisement and poverty (in both places) at all-time highs.

Clearly, we've lost our way. And I believe the only way we'll correct our course is for those of us who've accepted fringe-dwelling to muster the courage to leave fringes where we're ignored and move to places where the fringes are as they're intended to be--gateways to better things. I realize there are pragmatic and emotional/sentimental issues we have to overcome. Yet until we break the present system by evacuating favorite fringes for unfamiliar fields, we remain part of the problem.

It's a stunning realization--completely new to me and, thus, one I'm still struggling a bit to work out. Yet what we see in Ruth suggests it's what God intended and expects. Opening our eyes is often an unsettling experience, yet exhilarating too!

Thank you, dear friend, for your comment and your prayers for Mom. And, always, always, it's a joy to hear from you!


Sherry said...

Oh Tim, you just have such a brilliant way of bringing such disparate parts of the bible into such focus. This is lovely in every way.

I so agree with what you have set out. We are all too often in the wrong field.

So glad to hear your mother is doing well. My prayers will continue for the month. :)

Blessings my dear friend.

Tim said...

Sherry, one the reasons these passages resonated so strongly with me, I think, is that we have so many LGBT believers living in the fringes of communities that don't honor their making or minister to their needs. My friend, Bishop Yvette Flunder calls this "living in the shadows," and both images reflect the dangers in settling for this kind of existence.

I also love Ruth, though, because she's a woman and a minority--and today we find many communities where women and minorities are also sidelined by patriarchies and ethnically-skewed traditions. (During Advent I read a sad story about a congregation that split in two when their pastor purchased a crêche with multi-ethnic figures.) What makes Ruth's story richest, I think, is we have two foreshadows of Christ: Ruth and Boaz. She sacrifices her advantages for Naomi's benefit, by loving her mother-in-law as herself and becoming one of "her people," while Boaz ignores social convention and welcomes her to work as an equal to his Jewish laborers.

I grieve for LGBT, women, and minority members of discriminatory communities who accept their marginalization as the status quo. I'm not saying they need to reject their traditions, necessarily; but they should expect to be seen and called to work like others around them. If there's nowhere they can serve and no way their making will be honored, they're clearly in the wrong the field.

Thank you so much for keeping my mom in your prayers. And speaking of her, I've no doubt I've inherited my sensitivity to this "fringe" issue from her. As a woman pastor, she bumped into this issue quite often. In the early phase of her ministry, our church withheld ordination for women; they could be "licensed" to minister--i.e., preach, teach, counsel, etc. But they couldn't administer the sacraments or voice their opinions in ecclesiastical matters. Mom and dad answered the call to underprivileged (and thus under-served) neighborhoods, where they founded churches and toiled among the people. And she upset quite a few apple carts when she called her overseer and told him, "I'm their pastor and shepherd. It's my responsibility to serve them Communion, baptize them, etc." It was a bold political move steeped in common sense. My parents' churches always grew, were always sound, and always contributed more than their share to the denomination and its message endeavors. Denying her ordination would probably result in the congregation voting to leave the denomination. Guess what? She was "quietly" ordained!

As Solomon says, our gifts make room for us. Those of us who resign ourselves to fringes do ourselves a great service by not allowing our gifts to come to light.

And now I've gone on too long, as usual. But I'm ever grateful for your thoughts, Sherry, because they always press me to think further and push farther in the posts' explorations.

Many blessings to you as well, dearest friend,

Anonymous said...

Gone on too long?! Oh, nay-nay!!! Your comments, along with Missy and Sherry's, just make this post all that much better!

For one thing, your reflection on your mother's struggles with church politics (I typically refuse to use the word polity in any situation. Let's not "pretty up" the truth.) is a stunning reminder of just how recently the Church has been "wrong" and changed.

It's important to remember that we don't have to look back to Martin Luther nailing into the door - Progressive leaders who refuse to settle for "Tradition" are STILL banging on doors!

Our faith becomes stagnant when we close off outlets! It's important to be fed, but it's equally important that we allow what we receive to flow back out!

(Now I've done went and forgot what I was originally going to say when I clicked on the comment link...)

I absolutely love this post! I feel there are two big, core messages here (for me, at least), and the postscript with the good news about your Mom is just icing on the cake!

Super-duper-big-hugs across the frigid farmland to you, Sir!!!

Tim said...

Jake, you're spot-on. We have to keep pressing for change, to open doors and make ways for God's Spirit to use all of us to our fullest capacity!

It does my heart good to hear how this post and discussion have blessed you. You have started my day with a beaming smile!

Many hugs across the tundra to you, too!

Much peace, joy, and love,