On Asparagus and being a neighbor

A sermon at St Mark’s Church in the Bowery, February 23, 2014

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.

-Leviticus 19:9-10

The lesson from Leviticus today is from what scholars call the “Holiness Code.” It’s a set of instructions of how the people of Israel are to be a holy people, dedicated to God. There are paragraphs that talk about right worship and ritual purity, but just as much, the commands of God about being a holy people are about ordinary everyday things. Things that were not special to the Israelites, but were simply things that were expected of upstanding people: “You shall not defraud your neighbor, you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until the morning,” for instance.

The text I quoted is one of those. It defines gleaning. In our urban context, we might not be familiar with it, or, if we know about it, we might be inclined to romanticize it or think it’s a particularly religious thing. I grew up in Idaho, prosperous farming country. For over forty years, my father sold insurance to farmers, mostly to cover their farming business. When I was very little, my earliest memories are of living in a little house in the countryside. My parents were young and just starting out, and they were renting what had been a “hired-man’s house” from a prosperous farmer down the road. Sometimes I would walk with my mom along the country road. The banks of the irrigation ditches were allowed to grow wild, with sunflowers and weeds and grass.

AsparagusBirds would take shelter there and sometimes build their nests. The ditch banks belonged to the farmers’ fields, but nobody particularly cared what you did on the ditch banks as long as you didn’t divert the water. One of the things that we did, even long after we moved to town, was to hunt for wild asparagus on the ditch banks. This was a kind of gleaning, you didn’t have to be poor or on the margins of society. In the spring, lots of people would drive slowly along country roads until they spied a little colony of the vegetable. It was fun, it was good to eat, and commercially grown asparagus was almost unknown in Idaho at that time. The thing is, the boundaries of the fields were more or less necessary waste space. You couldn’t efficiently harvest crops out to the very edges, and those margins became in effect part of the commons which people could share, if they followed the unwritten rules. Allowing this and other kinds of gleaning wasn’t seen as particularly virtuous or holy, it was simply being part of being relaxed neighbors.

So what’s the deal in the Leviticus passage? The most important part of being holy is leading a decent, common-sense, human life. But there’s always someone who wants to game that—to scrape just a little closer to the edge of the field; or even to enhance their relative position by making someone else’s life just a little harder, even if there is no positive gain in doing that. Why send your slaves out to rake up all the loose grapes that have fallen to the ground? It nets little or nothing. Certainly not compared to the benefit of being a good neighbor.
Jesus was teaching in a different historical period—a thousand years or more after the time depicted in the Leviticus passage. In those days of Roman occupation people could be compelled to carry burdens for the army, for instance, and society was more complex with more towns and cities. But Jesus’ concern is the same – he didn’t want people to try to establish rights over others just to assert some kind of advantage over them. Jesus uses extreme imagery of radical non-resistance and absolute generosity, but that’s not to establish a new game with higher stakes—some sort of all or nothing game. Jesus is challenging us to give up on self-justification based on playing around with rules and rights, and to pay attention and become real neighbors.

Neighbors are people that you share things with, and that you have to get along with in order to have a functioning life. It doesn’t mean that they are people you like, or agree with or even share tastes or cultural preferences. The more complex the society, the more complex is the question of our neighbors.

One response to this complexity is to define more clearly and tightly who neighbors might be. Corporations have always existed for the benefit of their owners, the stockholders, but in the past couple of decades this has been pushed to its logical and most efficient limit (as philosophers would say, its reductio ad absurdam)—no neighborly action is justified unless it can be demonstrated that it enhances shareholder profit. Some try to limit the complexity of who they deal with, based on culture, ethnicity, visa status, or political allegiance. And this is not true of only one end of the political spectrum. It is easy to seek out enclaves of like-minded friends, and to shut out and ignore those that one assumes might think or say things that would make you uncomfortable.

But Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…”

It takes great courage to take Jesus at his word and to face our complex society with openness and generosity of spirit. It can be costly, as it was for Jesus, to love those who aren’t your sisters and brothers but it is really the only way to healing and holiness. As the passage from Leviticus ends: “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.”

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