Organized Compassion

Jean-François_Millet_-_Gleaners_-_Google_Art_Project_2As I mentioned in last week’s post, this year I’m trying to live an extroverted Lent. I”m an introvert, so each year I tend to adopt ‘private’ Lent disciplines: fasting, meditation, prayer, reading, diet discipline etc. etc. But I’m not only called to love God with all my heart; I’m called to love my neighbour as myself as well. And somehow, my Lent disciplines in this area never really amount to very much. So this year I’m trying to journal every day (I know, it’s an introverted thing!) about how I’m connecting with people and living out compassion in a practical way. So far the results are mixed at best, but I’m going to keep at it. Truth be told, my most persistent sins are selfishness and laziness, so I can’t afford to give up!

In that respect, a passage from this morning’s One Year Bible readings brought a smile to my face. It’s found in Leviticus 23, a chapter which is all about the various religious festivals Israel was supposed to observe—sabbaths, Passover, Trumpets, Yom Kippur, Weeks  etc. When the passage gets to the Feast of Weeks (a harvest festival), it describes the various offerings the priest is supposed to present to the Lord, but then comes this lovely little note:

“When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. Leave it for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 23.33 NLT)

This is the only non-liturgical and non-ceremonial note in the chapter, so it stands out. The authors of Leviticus are generally assumed by modern scholars to be the priests of Israel, people who spent their whole lives in liturgy and sacrifice. But here they acknowledge that part of the worship we offer to God is to care for those among us who are in trouble.

Nowadays some people would see this as a bad idea: “We’re just encouraging those folks to be parasites!” Others, who advocate efficiency and belt-tightening, wouldn’t be able to see any further than the impact on their bottom line: “This is going to cut into our profits for the year!”

I like the fact that in this scripture passage, the poor and the foreigners don’t have to pass any kind of test. The authors may be aware that clever people can manipulate the system, but they don’t mention it. It’s not my business to judge people. It’s my business to love them.

I’m reminded of a story about C.S. Lewis. One day he gave some money to a poor beggar, and one of his friends scolded him for it. “He’ll just spend it on drink!” “Yes,” Lewis replied, “but if I’d kept it, I would have spent it on drink!”

I’m not a farmer, so I can’t leave the edges of my field for the gleaners. What’s the equivalent for me? Is it to make sure I always have spare cash in my pocket to give to those who ask? The bottom line is that my generosity needs to cut into my profits. In another passage in one of his books, Lewis says that the only safe rule about giving to the poor is that it needs to impact my lifestyle. There should be things I’d like to do, that I can’t do because of my giving. Until I reach that point, I’m not really being generous.

At this point I’m going to stop writing. Others who I love and admire are a lot further along this path than I am. I’m going to end with what to me have always been the most challenging words Jesus ever spoke, and this morning I’m speaking them to myself: “Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.” (John 13.17 NLT).

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