This article is the third in a series on Meals with Jesus which formed part of this year’s Lent course. This third is on the pericope of the Gleaning in the Wheat Fields, Luke 6·1–5.
It’d be wrong to think that it was a whirlwind of dinner invitations that sustained these thirteen vagabonds over their years of wandering hither and thither. Sometimes you must eat what the Lord provides and be thankful for what you can get. Sabbath prayers were over, and the thirteen were on the road again, and their sustenance was the wheat growing at the edge of the fields — plucked, rubbed between the palms of the hands and eaten raw.
The Pharisees saw them, and saw they had committed the serious sin of letting the world of work, politics, poverty and foreign occupation into the sacred time of the sabbath. “By the seventh day, God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.”
Blinded by the need to protect the sabbath from all worldly intrusion, they forgot that it should be a day for the satisfaction of good and right. For the hungry vagabonds on the road, the leftover ears of grain, left in observance to the commandments, was an answer to the sabbath prayers — no more fishers of the seas, but gleaners of what could be found, and reliant of God’s good provision each day.
“Give us today our daily bread” — each day just enough for the day, like the manna in the desert.
There are two Torah commandments being explored in this event. The first, not explicitly obvious to non-Jewish readers, is the commandment on gleaning — the leaving unharvested of agricultural produce for the poor to gather. Leviticus 19·1–17 is the source of this commandment, and verses 9 and 10 are the centrepiece of the section
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”
The surrounding verses of this section speak of the holiness of God, which Israel should reflect, honouring parents, keeping the sabbath, opposing idolatry, offering a worthy sacrifice and eating it on the same day, not stealing, cheating or lying, not abusing God’s name in oaths, not defrauding, paying the day’s wages on the day, not hating kin, reproving neighbours, not bearing a grudge, and loving your neighbour as yourself.
The other Torah commandment is about refraining from work on the sabbath, which is made explicit by the questioning of the Pharisees. Keeping the sabbath as a day of rest is what makes it holy, and is an entering into the holiness of the first seventh day, the seventh day of creation.
It may seem petty that the Pharisees looked on the disciples’ rubbing the husked grain between their hands as work, but the holiness of the sabbath is serious business. The land was occupied by a foreign army, and the Jewish people had suffered half a millennium of rule by different foreign powers. The sabbath as sacred time was an especially important refuge, in which Israel’s God was still king.
Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees alludes to I Samuel 21·1–6, when David and his soldiers ate the consecrated bread that has been removed from the tabernacle. On a superficial level, it is a religious defence, showing how David broke the letter of the Torah while upholding its spirit. On a deeper level, we should understand Jesus’ word to make a comparison between himself, the Davidic Messiah, and his forebear — implying that he and his band of followers are on a holy mission to oppose the ‘Saul of the moment’, those who claim to be the anointed leaders but are not. We should not miss the fact that Jesus is being intensely political in his reply.
The event of the gleaning tells us something about what happens when religion confines itself to such rigid refuges. Religion becomes more concerned with policing its boundaries rather than fostering holiness and justice within and beyond them.
The event of the gleaning also has a social-justice message for us. The commandment to leave a little for the poor has no place in a world where the maximisation of profit is the goal. The mind of the corporation is to harvest the field bare until nothing remains, to take all and give nothing. As Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees was a radical one, we miss the point if we do not make a connection to the radical response Christians should make in the here and now.
“The poor deserve the best. They do not deserve what’s left over when the more prosperous have had their fill” — Rowan Williams, Christmas sermon 2006.