The Last of Deuteronomy
When you enter another man’s field of standing grain, you may pluck ears with your hand, but you must not put a sickle to your neighbor’s grain. Deuteronomy 23:26
When I was eight years old, my family moved from the city environs of Chicago to the village of Wilmette. Today, it’s pretty clear that Wilmette is a close-in suburb of a metro area that extends almost to Wisconsin, but in 1960 housing developments were popping up on land that had been mostly farms. The eastern section of the village had been well-populated for a long time, but we moved to a house at the dead end of a brand new street, and beyond that dead end were the remnants of a chicken coop and then a small working farm.
Even as our neighborhood expanded, the family farm remained active. Two aging sisters planted modest crops and flowers and sold them (and pullet eggs) from a roadside stand. There was no fence around the farm and only a dirt driveway onto the property.
I remember the summer day I found out that a couple of brothers from the neighborhood on the other side of the farm discovered the crops. For them, refugees from the concrete, it was miraculous that there was food growing from the ground virtually in their backyard. They proudly brought home an armload of eggplants to their mother. She was, of course, mortified and took the boys to the farm to apologize and offer to pay for the purloined vegetables. The sisters were very gracious. They all lived happily ever after.
We hear a lot of noise these days about the abandonment of Biblical values. In the very complicated discussions about the differences that technology and medical science have made in our lives, there are people with various perspectives who claim to know what Moses anticipated about transfusions, abortions, electricity and even Twitter. We don’t much hear about the abandonment of concern for one another that the Bible makes very clear.
A friend of mine, who also happened to grow up in Wilmette as a Chicago transplant, worked in Washington on federal policies involving the poor. I found his approach to be lacking a certain compassion (I say euphemistically) and told him so. He wasn’t having any of it. Rather, he claimed, the ideas he advanced were about dignity. Certainly, the unemployable needed to be sustained, but those capable of providing for themselves should have the opportunity to do so, not the excuse to have their productivity devalued. Our society values work, he said, and at least as important as income was a sense of worth.
In these two very different anecdotes there is a quiet countercultural idea. The sisters, perhaps inspired by the Biblical mandate, placed hospitality over cost. The policymaker understood financial support to be a byproduct of personal dignity rather than a substitute for it. In other words, even in this capitalist society, worth and value are not the same thing. The social contract that rightly should be presumed puts people ahead of money.
That probably borders on heretical in a free-market economy, but the Bible does not commend or condemn the various economic systems in which it has been read and studied. It originated in a time when, if you were hungry – not even starving, just hungry – it could be presumed that your neighbor or even the farmer along the road you were traveling would let you grab a pomegranate or a handful of figs or a fistful of wheat stalks and feed yourself. The caution not to abuse the privilege by harvesting what you did not plant and tend is a recognition that people have rightful claim on and pride in the fruits of their own labors.
In our country, helping yourself to an apple from a stranger’s orchard can get you arrested. Taking a bedraggled passerby into your home is considered reckless and foolhardy. Handing a stranger a dollar bill is cause for mockery.
The times we live in are certainly different than Biblical times and even those days of my childhood. There are no more neighborhood farms in Wilmette. The social safety net for the poor has been reimagined many times. Now, unfortunately, it is all about the Benjamins. We measure success by wealth and celebrate our values by charitable donations (and, often, the tax advantages they bring).
From both the grassroots and the ruling elite, only a return to hospitality toward others and a concern for their dignity will we find a more authentic religious standard for a just society.
(please note -- this week's column is posted out of order. Sorry!)