Rev David Moffat
The modern reader encounters frequent difficulties in the Bible – the acceptance of slavery, the place of women, the angry God who commands the wholesale slaughter of his enemies. We often feel that ancient Biblical culture was so barbaric in comparison to our own. Yet in regard to their treatment of the poor, the Bible is far in advance of our own times: it’s a pity we’re not similarly horrified with own failings in that regard.
There are so many fine passages to choose from in the Old and New Testaments with regard to generosity towards the poor. I’m sure you can call some of them to mind. Similarly, there are many passages in Swedenborg’s work which tell us how these “poor” are to be truly understood. What has particularly spoken to me in preparation for this year’s harvest celebration is the concept of “gleaning:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:9-10)
Elsewhere we find the “Sabbath year”:
“… but the seventh year you shall let [your land] rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the beasts of the field may eat. In like manner you shall do with your vineyard and your olive grove.” (Exodus 23:11)
Now, remember, these provisions are not part of the system of “tithes” (Leviticus 27, Numbers 18, Deuteronomy 12), which is the offering of a tenth of your income. This is in addition to it. You don’t reap to the corners of the field, you don’t strip the vines bare, and only harvest in six out of seven years. What remains is provision for the poor, the stranger and the beasts of the field. Then, out of the harvest you do gather, one tenth is dedicated to the Lord.
It is a generous inefficiency. Doesn’t that contrast with modern life! Business claws back every cent, underpays staff, rips off producers, dilutes the goods, charges more for less, and with increasing determination as each year passes, only stopping to think if it’s caught out. I’m sure you’ve also witnessed people who get caught up in “looking after number one”. When everyone else is doing it, love towards the neighbour becomes so much harder to practise.
Of course, there are spiritual lessons behind the Biblical notion of gleaning. But don’t think for a minute that it lets us off the hook! The reason for our ruthless pursuit of wealth is that we have lost hold of the fundamentals to which this generous inefficiency relates.
Firstly, I am not the source of the blessings I enjoy. I may plough the field, sow the seed, and tend the vines, but I certainly don’t make the seed sprout, grow and bear fruit. Even if you don’t believe in God, agriculture remains a cooperative venture, as do many human endeavours. Nature and opportunity are forces over which we exert no control, though we may strive for it. But we frequently forget this, and forge on – all take and no give – as though we owe nothing.
Then, just as I will never be the author of my own success, neither am I the master of my own destiny. I cannot control the future any more than the past or the present. At least with regard to the future we have the common sense enough to acknowledge that there is much uncertainty. Unfortunately, that only leads us to stockpile, as though somehow I can amass enough of anything to insulate me from every unforeseen circumstance that might arise. Sometimes we do see the folly of such actions, as in the recent craze for hand sanitiser and toilet paper, but much of the time it lies hidden, lurking just below the surface of respectability.
And lastly, I am not the point of my own existence. Sometimes, we treat life as though it’s a bucket to be filled, as though the winner is the person with the biggest …, or the most … (insert your own here, there are so many to choose from). But such an existence is meaningless: the only meaning to be found is in the realisation that I am here to bless others.
Now, it’s very easy for us religious types to read that, nod our heads sagely, and comment upon the materialistic world we live in. But it applies just as much to us as to anyone else! We can be so caught up in our own salvation that we forget others. We can delight in our knowledge of spiritual principles. We can find comfort in the good deeds we perform, or even our own spiritual growth. The riches we treasure might be so-called “spiritual” ones, but they can be just as much of a handicap and a stumbling block to us as worldly wealth. We can lose sight of what that knowledge and action is really for.
When we turn our attention to the church, then, asking questions like, “What is the church here for?” I hope the answer is abundantly clear: it is for others. Yes, we have our own needs. Yes, we must be devoted to the worship of the Lord. But we must also be here for something greater than self. Swedenborg describes the church as the heart and lungs of the universal human, but it’s important to realise that he doesn’t just mean those organs: he is talking about the whole circulatory system which those organs drive and nourish. Individually and collectively, we are channels through which the Lord’s Love and Wisdom flows … to someone else.
Given that, when participating in conversations about the church – how we define membership, for example – I remember that generous inefficiency as an absolute necessity. Sure, “membership has its benefits”, but we’re not a credit card company (actually they only tell you that to justify charging exorbitant fees). Rather, membership has its responsibilities: I join because I seek to support the work I believe in. We do have to provide for our own needs, whilst providing for the needs of those around us. Actually, our greatest spiritual need is to be of use.
I’d like to leave you with this lovely picture of abundance from Luke’s gospel. We’re familiar with the words in Matthew, but I particularly enjoy the continuation, which only occurs in Luke:
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:37,38)