The book of Leviticus isn’t, I suspect, the most read book in our Bibles. It lacks the grand narratives of the Old Testament histories, the poetry of the psalms and wisdom literature, the passion of the prophets. It doesn’t have the stories of Jesus from the gospels, or the hard core theology of the Pauline epistles. It doesn’t even have the wild hallucinogenic imagery of Revelation. What it has, mostly, is laws. Lots and lots of laws. Very detailed laws. Laws for a culture more or less entirely unlike ours.
I understand that there are 613 laws in the Old Testament – I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet more than half of them are in this one book. And that most of those seem completely irrelevant to 21st century life in Australia. So reading through Leviticus seems mostly to be a useful exercise if you suffer from insomnia.
And then, as you read on, suddenly you stumble across what has become one of my favourite verses. It’s easily missed, looking at first glance like just another detailed law. But stop, pick it up, polish it up. Because it’s well worth the trouble.
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.
Now not owning a field, or a vineyard (although the later is quite an attractive idea), this is one of those laws that is ever so easy to obey to the letter. I can put my hand on my heart and say I have never reaped a field right to the edge, never stripped a vineyard bare. But it doesn’t take much imagination to start to ask what such a command might mean in an agricultural economy. This is a culture in which land was more than wealth: land defined your family, your tribe. So central was the distribution of land to society that it could not be permanently sold. Your family land was the basis of your existence: you invested your labour into it, and, God willing, it yielded the crops and fruits you needed to survive and to flourish.
And yet God says: when it comes to taking the fruits of your land and your labour, don’t take it all.
The fields and vineyards have produced wealth for you, and it is yours. Don’t claim it all.
You have worked the fields and vines, and they have produced the reward that is your due. Leave some of it.
Leave it for those who haven’t earned it, those who have no rights to the land, those who haven’t worked in the field.
Don’t take all that is yours. Don’t take all that you can. Leave some for the poor, and the alien.
And why? What reason does the law give? We might speak of redistributive justice, or of the veil of ignorance or the golden rule, but the law simply says this:
you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.
I am the Lord your God. And you, my people, are to be like me. That’s why you do this. Because, as the passage began – “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy”; or as Jesus concludes the sermon on the mount “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect”.
We, God’s people, are called to be like God. And that is why we give what we do not need to give: that is why we go beyond the superficial fairness of “what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours”, into the deeper justice of “what’s mine is from God, and I will deal with it according to God’s priorities. I will not squeeze every last drop of wealth from my assets – I will allow others to benefit from God’s generosity to me”.
Because our God is a giver, and we, the people of God, are called to be like God.
And God doesn’t seem too concerned with what is fair. You’ll recall the parable of the workers in the vineyard, where the master pays those who worked just one hour the same wage as those who worked all day. Not fair. If someone sues you for your coat, give them your cloak as well. Not fair. If they force you to go one mile, go two. Not fair.
An eye for an eye is fair. A tooth for a tooth is fair. Love those who love you, is fair. But fair, Jesus says, is not enough. Fair is not the point. Gathering everything in the field, all the grapes in the vineyard is fair; but it is not holy, as God is holy.
God is not characterised by fairness; but by generosity, by unconditional giving. The sun rises on the evil and on the good. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. A fair go might be a worthy mantra for a nation, but it is not enough for the people of God.
For we, more than anyone, ought to know that fairness would not be enough for us. We, the forgiven people of God ought to know that if all we received from God was fairness, we would be without hope. Our faith is rooted in our confidence that God’s treatment of us is not fair, but generous. That God loved us even when we were enemies. That God reaches out for us each time we turn our backs. That Jesus Christ died for us, when we did not deserve it.
Our God’s love is not limited by what is fair, or right, or equitable. And for that fact we should give thanks every day. And let it be our example, our model, that we might be children of our father.