Yes, Leviticus: Sacred Ecology

Text: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Matthew 25:14-30

The Old Testament book of Leviticus is often used by religious liberals who want to deride biblical literalists. One can certainly get very lost in the weeds of ancient Jewish regulations for living in beloved community. The most intimate of human activities are subject to specific rules, which may account for the decision by the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary to ignore all but 19:1-2 and 19:15-18. Those carefully cherry-picked verses appear twice in the readings for Year A (The Year of Matthew): Epiphany, and Proper 25, and it is very easy for worship planners and sermon writers to leave even those verses out. They demand judging your neighbor with justice; avoiding slander; prohibiting hate; and not keeping grudges – pretty tame stuff compared with some of the other recommendations in Chapter 19, such as verse 29a: “Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute,” which implies that doing so must have been fairly routine in some quarters. (The one about selling your daughter as a slave is actually Exodus 21:7-11, but that’s a digression into the economy of redemption.)

Within the recommended verses from Leviticus are found the basics for a transformed stewardship – and a sacred ecology.

The classic definition of “stewardship” derives from pre-modern agrarian economies. The steward was the one in charge of the land in the absence of the landlord. His job was to faithfully manage the crops and the harvest so that the landlord could make a profit. Post-modern “stewardship” usually means the successful management of money. Churches admonish members to be “good stewards” and set aside a minimum of 10% of their gross income to pledge to the church “general budget” which pays the minister and keeps the doors open. “Stewardship” has also evolved to mean assuring the “sustainability” of Earth’s resources. Good stewardship of the Planet is part of the movement for “Eco-justice”: leaving the resources in the ground; insuring a legacy of life for future generations; treating the Planet as an autonomous organism, whose continuing survival depends on the health of its interconnected systems: the earth, the air, the fire, the water.

The parable most often associated with this understanding of stewardship is the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). Because of that word “Talents” – which, for the 21st century really best translates as “dollars” or “investments” – preachers often appropriate the parable to mean one’s personal “talent” for art or medicine or engineering or any of the marketable “talents” any of us has to offer, including money in the bank. If you don’t use it, the end of the parable seems to say, you will lose it.

Most of the history of humanity’s use of the land has been to use it or lose it. Karen Armstrong, in her most recent book, Fields of Blood – Religion and the History of Violence (Knopf, 2014), points out the overriding principle behind the Western nations’ conquest and colonizing of land: “empty” land is up for grabs. “Empty” land is land that is not being used for the economic purposes of the colonizers; i.e., land the native people are living on. The prime example for the United States is the forced resettlement of Native American tribes, pushed ever farther westward until the only land left to them now is the reservation. Before the establishment of the modern State of Israel, the Zionists who first settled in Palestine had a slogan: “A land without a people for a people without a land. . . . Like other European colonists, they believed that an endangered people had a natural right to settle in ‘empty’ land. But the land was not empty . . .” (Armstrong, p. 297).

In contrast, the ancient priests leading the nomadic Hebrew tribes ritualized the relationship of the people to the lands they occupied, and included the alien – the people who were already there as well as outsiders from other nomadic tribes who arrived later:

When you come into the land and plant all kinds of trees for food, then you shall regard their fruit as forbidden; three years it shall be forbidden to you, it must not be eaten. In the fourth year all their fruit shall be set apart for rejoicing in the Lord. But in the fifth year you may eat of their fruit, that their yield may be increased for you: I am the Lord your God (Lev. 19:23-25); When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Lev. 19:33-34).

In this “sacred ecology,” three years would give the non-native plantings time to establish themselves. Only after the dedication to God in a festival celebration were the people – all the people – allowed to eat the fruit so that the yield in future would become a surplus. The priests also anticipated the march of civilization into the normalcy of easy injustice. The surplus is soon taken for granted, and the temptation arises to try to keep more of the proceeds for the landowners. “[Y]ou shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning,” write the priests in 19:13b. In other words, don’t delay your workers’ wages so that you can invest them overnight in your own wealth. Furthermore, “You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity. You shall have honest balances, honest weights” (Lev. 19:35-36a).

In Jesus’s parable, the “slaves” that the landowner left in charge of his wealth were part of the ecology of that agrarian estate. But instead of participating in the sacred ecology called for by the Leviticans, the slaves who invested the master’s money were collaborating with the seductive corruption of that wealthy system. In the hyperbole of Jesus’s stories, the landlord entrusted his slaves with more than 20 years’ wages. They were expected to invest this wealth and give it back when the master returned. But in a subversion of the whole concept of agrarian stewardship, the third slave declined to participate in the master’s corrupt practices and called the master on his exploitation and oppression of his workers. The ultimate act of defiance was to bury the money in the master’s own kitchen garden.

Both the rules in Leviticus 19 and Jesus’s parable call us today to go beyond simple stewardship to an embrace of sacred ecology that subverts and transforms. Itinerant farm workers world-wide are subject to exploitation and disrespect; as are the gardeners and landscapers who tend our green lawns and the flower beds most of us have no time for in our busy lives. They are not the only “aliens” in our land, seeking deliverance from injustice. Indeed the Earth itself is subject to exploitation and disrespect in our greed for technology, comfort, food, and money.

We all know the price for calling out the exploiters. At the end of the parable of the talents the writer of Matthew’s gospel has Jesus remind us of the normalcy of the injustice we all live in: “In fact, to everyone who has, more will be given and then some; and from those who don’t have, even what they do have will be taken away” (Scholars’ translation: The Five Gospels, Polebridge Press, 1993). But Jesus himself is unlikely to have closed the conversation with such futility, and neither should we.

In the 150th Anniversary Issue of The Nation, Ariel Dorfman reminds us of the need for celebration – mandated by the ancient Leviticans’ sacred ecology:

The suffering is immense, the injustice intolerable, the stupidity widespread, . . . the future dark and dystopian, the planet on the verge of apocalypse. All the more reason to exult in our own liberation when we have the chance, to revel in the thrill of breaking conventions . . . All the more reason to recognize the re-enchantment that is reborn with each small act of hope and solidarity, and to extol the sheer joy that accompanies the certainty that we need not leave the world as we found it (“Separated at Birth”: The Nation, April 6, 2015, p. 72).

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