Deut. 8, 7-18, 2 Cor. 9, 6-end, Luke 19, 11-19
Why does God warn the well-fed well-heeled Israelites not to forget the desolation from which they came? Why does he press them to remember to give thanks to the God who led them out and was always patiently there for them, and to heap blessings on God? Why does he insist in both today’s Old Testament reading and more widely in both the Torah and the Prophets that they, just as we, must not to forget to keep God’s commandments for a just society? That does not mean ‘just’ keeping the letter of the Ten Commandments – even if there were such a land. No, it would be a land where justice and mercy, kindness and fairness reign, a land in which the equivalent of gleaned grain is automatically available for rootless stranger and local fallen on hard times alike, where land is carefully tended to recover its heart, and all are freed from lives of slavery.
With such a clear stencil for filling lives with God, fulfilling lives in God, why the warning? Because God was fully aware that while Israelites, and we, remember to give thanks, and congratulate ourselves for our brilliant skills when there’s lots to be thankful about, both they and we forget to be thankful amid short commons and dearth. Maybe, as a Lutheran Bishop in South Australia ironically said of local farmers: ‘when the harvest is good it’s their skill: when the harvest is bad it’s God’s will.’
What is it about harvest that still strikes us as significant, given none of us are dependent on what we plant for our food, and poor corn, rice or wheat harvests in major areas of production have but a tiny effect on our bills? One reason is straightforward: memory. In Europe until the mid-to late 18th century, the regularity of the annual hungry months – just March till May would be a good year – meant the preceding harvest affected survival for the majority. That is still the case in many parts of the world, whether this occurs through the rising seas and salted land of climate change and deforestation, the greed of landowners taking too big a cut, or the greed of warmongers trampling on the people like elephants on grass, destroying crops and lives as in South Sudan today.
Whether near or far, the memory of happy harvests as the completion of a year, a cycle, lingers in many a city life: Charles Dickens ‘Hard Times’ in urban London is entirely structured around images of sowing and reaping. And indeed in rural England, Harvest Festival is commonly the second most attended service in the year after Christmas, and indeed it may top the bill in a near-collective act of remembrance and thanks, offered by follower and agnostic alike for the completion of another cycle. To whom that thanks is offered, God in Trinity or that ‘spirit of community’ so close to the self-worship against which Deuteronomy warns, is another question!
But a focus on outcomes as a mark of value linked to the moral worth of the victor, the top producer, brings up a trickier point. Despite our understanding as Christians that the harvest of the fruits of the spirit is the crucial valuable, human simplicity too often equates worth, victory, with the biggest barns or, in modern parlance, the biggest cars and houses, the most gold. Indeed, where Harvest Festival goers bring their own produce, it too easily becomes the last chance to fight for precedence in the best onions contest!
Victors in farm, factory or office contests tend, in so many places, to wear their harvest crown as a badge not merely of output but of moral honour and, switching to the milieu of Prosperity Gospel theology, more widespread than we might imagine, as a sign of heavenly favour. In such situations, which pop up regularly in Christian as in other religious histories, as I remember so well from my own years in Borneo, harvest may well signify happiness for the few, ‘blessed by heaven,’ but become times of anxiety and stress for the poor, who feel rejected by God, and far from garlands of harvest joy. Moreover, in such a crass distortion of Christ’s teaching, giving extravagantly, not just generously as Paul asked of the Philippians, will be materially rewarded a thousand-fold. Be the rewards as they may, that is one way of filling the coffers of many a manipulative recipient of the hopeful pauper’s pennies.
Giving is not just about transferring goods. We commonly use the same word for giving thanks which, while uttered in words, is not a thing but a gifting from the giver, a gifting, if truly meant, of the self, and thus of the whole person. Giving money maybe expected, even requested: giving return thanks from the heart is a gifting, a completing of the exchange which otherwise hangs out of kilter.
That’s the problem for the nine lepers who did not give thanks for healing. Maybe some couldn’t cope with re-joining communal life after so long in isolation; maybe some went back to families or spouses who didn’t want them or, like some children orphaned by AIDS or Ebola, to families who rejected them through fear. How each dealt with their healing was up to them. Yet in failing to give thanks, they failed to complete the ideally reciprocal exchange between themselves and Jesus, Son of God, and so their return to their communities was as incomplete, not-whole, persons. They had the chance to complete their harvest of the love of God, and become whole: but only one, doubly rejected as Samaritan and leper, completed the cycle by returning the love of Jesus in thanks.
Love springing from gratitude for the gifts of God is faith practised. These ten lepers were accepted and healing freely given. And so too are we accepted, the whole of each of us: not just the nicer bits we put forward but the bits we hide, like the mottled fruit put to the bottom of the bowl. Jesus not only accepts all of us collectively, but all that is within us as well, and it is and must be with the whole person that with ‘all that is within us we praise his holy name.’ In that light, let us give thanks for the completion of this harvest year, a metaphor for the gifts of God, and pledge ourselves to sowing and reaping the fruits of the spirit.
October 12th 2014