A few months ago, I was filling the bird feeder with some beautiful shiny black sunflower seeds, when I remembered a weedy bare spot behind our back fence. I grabbed a trowel from the shed and dug eight Frisbee sized plots. Rabbits mowed down many shoots, but four sunflowers persevered growing tall. Everyday, an 18 month old child waves to the sunflowers from their stroller on their family’s quarantine walk . These days my sunflowers are looking rough. Their once proud heads hang low. Their verdant green coats grow pale. The seed pods seem to mysteriously disappear. Monday, I paused to watch a Downy Woodpecker perching, even upside down, to feast on the ripe seeds!
The Creator created a miraculous cycle. “Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single seed, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) Resurrection is designed into our cosmos. (Richard Rohr: The Universal Christ) The tiniest acorn holds within its DNA a re-creative miracle. After winter’s Sabbath, the seed pushes forth: roots, sprout, shoot, leaves, buds, branches, pollen, and fruit. The seed contains a 100 foot tall oak to house and feed the birds of the air and the squirrels, whose great, great, great ancestors buried an acorn 70 years before. The Scriptures tell us that Sabbath, seed, soil, seasons, showers, sun, snow, and we human beings with shovels and pruning shears are all sacred. Richard Rohr reminds us all creation is Incarnational: made in the image of God and especially beloved are people.
At my first church, I met with our finance chair inside the cab of his tractor. The harvest and finance campaign came together each fall. One evening, I drove out to meet Mike at the edge of a field. We sat in silent reverence on a tailgate watching the fading sun light the fields with a golden glow. Mike said, “Farming is an act of faith. You put seeds in the ground, trusting God to bring a crop.”
Up on Sinai, I wonder, did the Creator thunder like a whirlwind or whisper on the breeze? To a proud people God speaks, “The Land is mine! You are just immigrants and foreign guests of mine.” Take a sabbath every 7 days. Let the land rest. Every 50 years reset the whole economy. Proclaim freedom.
Scholars debate if these laws came down the mountain with Moses or if the ancient Israelites ever obeyed these laws. What is clear is these are national laws. And this Biblical vision for a nation deeply challenges capitalism. Listen for yourself.
- Make the Sabbath Holy! Rest each week. Everyone rests. Even your tractor rests.
- In the seventh year every field takes a break- do not even prune the vineyards.
- In the fiftieth year, proclaim freedom throughout the land to all its inhabitants.
- In that Jubilee Year, tear up the deeds and return all land to its original inhabitants.
- Never charge the poor interest when you lend them money.
- Do not try to make a profit when you sell food.
Leviticus 25 calls out our idolatrous affair with capitalism. Idolatry keeps us from worshiping God in truth and love. The Bible legislates special protections for the land and for people who are poor. God calls us to make laws to break the cycles of systemic and generational poverty. God’s Jubilee Proclamation envisions that every 50 years the tables get flipped over so everyone can become a homeowner. God reminds us that we are all tenants on God’s Land. The Land is Mine- and thereby sacred. Any Nation under God provides affordable food, adequate shelter, and special protections for the environment and people who are poor people. Should we mention that Jesus added free healthcare to the economic mix?
In the New Testament James thunders, “My dear brothers and sisters, listen! You dishonor the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who arrest you? Aren’t they the ones who insult God’s name spoken over you at your baptism? (James 2) Pay attention, you wealthy people! Weep and moan over the miseries coming upon you. Your riches will rot. Moths will eat your clothes. Your gold and silver will rust. The rust will cling to your fingerprints like evidence. Consider the treasure you hoard… Listen! Do you hear the workers crying out for living wages? (With so much wealth, why did you make people work in a pandemic without healthcare? How can you allow people to lose healthcare when they lose their jobs?) You stole from your workers so that you might enjoy luxury. The cries of the workers have reached the ears of the Lord. Be prepared for the coming judgment!” (James 5 adapted)
Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:24) Full stop.
Could we dream that American Christians might unite behind a Biblical vision standing together for environmental protections, immigrant rights, living wages, adequate affordable healthcare, ensuring home-ownership, low interest loans, inexpensive healthy food, and other protections? Could you imagine a hellfire and damnation literalists literally preaching from Leviticus against agri-business? Could we treated all people and all lands as sacred? What might protest signs from Leviticus look like? Can you imagine church folks waving a sign proclaiming “God demands interest free loans for the poor!” or “Address Climate Change Now: The land is God’s”? And my dear conservative Christian friends, who love to cite your verses, honest preaching requires theological consistency with all texts. If you are worried about America going to hell, maybe read James 5 or Matthew 19:16-30!
Now, I am not a legalist or a literalist. These 55 verses in Leviticus 25 are imperfect, allowing for slavery and touting a nationalism that often hides racism. Yet, Leviticus 25 presents a vision of national life that deeply challenged ancient and modern economic systems. Leviticus 25 reminds us that God cares about national life. Not all faith is personal. James thunders that God is angry at income inequality. God calls nations to provide special protections for the land and people who are poor: celebrate the land as God’s, care for creation, allow gleaning on private lands, provide no interest loans, return lands, reset the economy to ensure home-ownership, pay living wages, ensure healthcare, and more. The Land is the Lord’s- we are all tenants..
Farming, fishing, vineyards, orchards were the backbone of the ancient economy. In 1800 the American farmer could feed about 3 people. That is after 3000 years of capital improvements in farming technology. Our capitalistic system has helped the American farmer move from feeding 3 people in 1800, to 26 people in 1960, to about 155 people today. The tractor I rode in at my first church cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. At that church another farmer shared, “If I nod off during the sermon some Sunday, have mercy and know I was milking cows at 4am!” Jeff would argue that dairy cows do not want the milkers to take a sabbath. God called hard working folks like Moses a shepherd, Deborah a judge, Matthew an accountant, Peter a commercial fishing captain, Priscilla a tent-maker, and Lydia a high end boutique owner. Hard work and economic investments creates jobs and feeds people. If we read all 55 verses, we would see that the Levitical laws provided protections for capital improvements and hard work. Whereas, James 5 speaks of luxurious rust clinging to our fingerprints as evidence against us, John Wesley reminds us money can be “an excellent gift of God, answering the noblest of ends. In the hands of God’s children, it is food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, clothes for the naked, shelter for the traveler and stranger… sustenance for the widow and a parent for the orphan.” (The Use of Money) And yet, Leviticus 25, challenges our idolatrous elevation of corporate profits over people. God wants for every nation to upend poverty, protect people who are poor, reset the economy so people can start over, legalistic home ownership, pay a living wage, and protect workers. Jesus gave away healthcare. A personalized faith that does not work to care for people caught in systemic poverty is not Christian or Jewish.
Compassion Camp story guide put it like this: “What do you imagine when you hear the word justice?… Do you imagine it’s like equal treatment: everyone gets the same amount of food or treats? Often, God’s ideas are very different from ours. God’s idea of justice looks more like all the ways we’ve talked about compassion. Seeing and welcoming. Being brave and honest. Loving ourselves. Being present with each other. It means we see God’s abundance. What does abundance mean? It means there’s enough for everyone. We can welcome all to the table. We can be brave and trust each other. We can be honest with our hearts. We can give and receive care. And, we can do the work with God to care for all of creation.”
Compassion upends privatized faith. When God’s compassion soaks deeply into our hearts, we see that: God loves us, God loves others, and God loves this world. We are called to more than personal faith. We are called to flip over tables and advocate for freedom. We are called to work for things like ending climate change, no interest loans for poor people, affordable healthcare, and inexpensive nutritious food. These seem to be God’s ideas of national faithfulness. Indeed, the only treasures that remain beyond this life are faith, hope and love….and perhaps justice. Let us sew such values into our world, nation, neighborhoods, and homes- After all, life, love, and the land all belong to God: we are just tenants working in God’s fields. Amen.