The foreigner, the fatherless and the widow

Communion service at Greenbelt 2015
Communion service at Greenbelt 2015

Some 3,000 year old words have been bugging me for a while. I was reminded of them during the Communion service at Greenbelt, so I’ll remind you of them now.

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.  Deuteronomy 24:19-22

One of the themes running through Greenbelt this year was our relationship to the environment and our response to climate change. The relationship to the earth described in these words seems striking compared to our modern approach. The land was not exploited for every last drop of goodness it could produce. Those who farmed the land did not have the right to extract everything they could possibly get from their fields, or trees or vines. One step away from the mind-set that “it’s mine so I shall have it”, the earth can be recognised as a resource which we share, and its fruit as a gift freely given, not a right of ownership.

It seems to me that moving away from our exploitative, extractive relationship with the earth, to a more equal, interdependent relationship would be a much more helpful approach as we consider the problem of rising global temperatures causing devastating climate change. The earth holds many valuable resources. But just because they are there, doesn’t mean we have to take them, or even that we have the right to take them. We are not masters of the earth, but dependent on it. Its resources must be shared for the benefit of all, not exploited for the gains of the few.

But if I thought that was all these words had to say to me, I was wrong! Immediately after Greenbelt, the refugee crisis, which had already been going on for months, finally broke through into people’s consciousness. The need and the numbers were finally recognised, and we started to ask what on earth we were going to do.

Blackberry harvest
Blackberry harvest

Again, 3,000 year old words seemed to have something striking to say now. The harvest was not to be gathered in and clung to tightly so that no-one else could get it. This idea is much easier to grasp when the harvest is considered a gift freely given and not a right which is earned. There is plenty, we do not need to keep it all to ourselves. There is enough to share with those in need, with the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, those who cannot provide for themselves, rather like refugees, in fact.

And now it is the time of Harvest Festivals in churches up and down the country, which has reminded me of another old harvest story. This story also involves refugees, though you could call them economic migrants. (Does leaving a place because you don’t have enough money to buy food to eat make you a migrant seeking a better life or a refugee fleeing from starvation?) Naomi was a refugee in Moab because of a famine in Israel. She has made a life in Moab, getting married and having a family. But when her husband and sons die, she hears that the famine in Israel is over. So she decides to return to Israel, bringing Ruth, one of her daughters-in-law from Moab, with her. They have no means of financial support, so foreigner and economic migrant Ruth takes advantage of the law in Deuteronomy and gleans in the fields belonging to Boaz during the barley harvest.

How would we respond to this situation today? Naomi might be allowed to return home, but Ruth could not come to this country, with her lack of skills or earning potential. Even if they were refugees fleeing starvation, would we welcome Ruth to the UK? And if she came here, would she survive? Do we set aside enough of our plenty so that those with nothing can provide for themselves, or do we begrudge every benefit payment that is scrounged from the state?

I’m struck by the mirror this story holds up to the UK at the moment, and the attitudes I see reflected back. What do we really think of those in need travelling across Europe, encamped in Calais, drowning in the Mediterranean? Who will we welcome into the UK? And when they come, will we really care for them, treat them as humans, value and respect them? Do we truly believe that immigrants contribute to our society or not? Because there is one final twist in this tale. Ruth goes on to marry Boaz and have a family of her own. She becomes great-grandmother to David, the great King of Israel, and ancestor of Jesus, the son of God.

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