Sermon #246 St. Martin’s #5 (Riverway #1) 10/31/21
When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall not go into the house to take the pledge. You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you. If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the Lord your God.
You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.
Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death.
You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.
When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.
When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.
This reading just happens to be my favorite passage in all of Deuteronomy, and one of my favorite parts of the entire Bible.
Now, today I want to walk through this passage with you, step by step because there are so many precious gems found throughout, and my plan is to point out a few of the gems as we go along. We’ll pick them up for a moment, study their different features, but I want to save enough time for the biggest gem that is at the end of our reading.
To set the context for our passage we need to learn one Hebrew word that is the link through all of Deuteronomy…it’s the word “Remember” (or zakar in Hebrew). As we’ve been making our way through this book, Moses is reminding the Israelites of their history BEFORE they finally enter the Promised Land. Two times in our passage alone it says, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.”
They were to remember who they were, where they had come from, what God had done for them, and who God was now calling them to be. Their present actions were supposed to be informed by the active remembrance of their ultimate liberation from slavery in Egypt.
And with that freedom came a duty, a sacred obligation, to be different from the nations around them. As we’ll see in this passage, Israel was to not become a land of Egypt themselves where the poor were turned into expendable slaves for the benefit of the majority. In fact, care for the poor and outsider was woven into the very fabric of Israel’s society.
Now, Moses is no psychologist, but he knows human nature. He is telling the Israelites that there will be a day soon when you are in the land and you will forget.
The comfort and security of wealth and possessions will lead you to forget that you were once slaves—that at one time you had no land, no wealth, no comforts at all, and God saved you with his mighty hand and outstretched arm.
And so, when Moses says in our passage, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.” This wasn’t a suggestion to sit down and think about what God had done for them, to passively reflect on their history, but rather to live in light of God’s Exodus love and grace in their lives.
This kind of “remembering” was actually a way of life.
The Social Ladder
In this particular part of Deuteronomy, Moses is focusing his attention on how Israelites are to treat the poorest among them, whom Jesus would later call “the least of these.”
And we see that Moses talks about them in descending order of the social ladder of that time. First, he talks about how to treat your neighbor, then a day laborer, then at the very bottom are foreigners, orphans, and widows. So, let’s turn our attention to the passage.
The first gem we come across in this section is how to deal with a neighbor who owes you money. It says, when you give a loan and you are wanting some collateral you can’t just walk into someone’s home and take whatever you like.
I mean you can imagine if you are giving money to someone and you want to be assured that they will pay you back, you should go in their house and find something they value, whether it is an expensive item or something sentimental.
Go ahead and take my Larry Bird signed basketball, but you dare not touch my first Little League homerun ball.
You can then see the value in this command. Even though you, as the lender, are the one with the money (and the power) in this situation, you have to wait outside and let the borrower choose what they offer you as security for the loan. You have to grant your neighbor this small bit of dignity and power of choice in what might be an otherwise humiliating situation for them.
Oh, and if they are the poorest of the poor, and they hand you their cloak as collateral—which might be their only means of warmth at night—you must go and find them each evening and give it back to them so that your neighbor may have the smallest bit of decency by not being cold when they sleep.
Even though the lender has the power, they are the ones responsible for seeking out their neighbor and giving back their cloak each night.
The Mishnah, a Jewish text written later by the rabbis, adds that you cannot take someone’s pillow at night as collateral, or someone’s plow during the day. You must, at the very least, let your neighbor sleep and work in peace—free of shame and harassment. Wow.
In verse 14 we now move one rung down on the social ladder. Moses tells the people that you shouldn’t take advantage of a day laborer who is working for you, no matter if they are an Israelite or a foreigner.
You must be fair to them and pay them each evening when the work is done because for many of them it’s either that or starvation. No pay equals no meal for them or their family that night. And then they will have to work the next day on an empty stomach and hope that you pay that time.
Think about Jesus’ parable of the landowner who gave each worker a full day’s pay though some only worked a few hours. He’s harking back to this passage. Moses says be fair to these people, but Jesus takes it step further and says don’t just be fair…be generous.
Foreigners, Orphans, & Widows
Our passage then turns to the very bottom of the Israelite social ladder: the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow. People who either cannot call the Promised Land home, or own land, or have no family to care for them. And this is the biggest gem in the passage, and I want to dig a little deeper into this one.
Moses says, when you’re harvesting your barley or wheat field with a sickle, and you miss some on the first go around (or forget to harvest the far corners of your field), don’t go back a second time around— leave it for these people at the bottom of society.
And if you have some olive trees on your property, and you either take a pole and hit the branches, (or better yet) you go up in the tree and shake the branches so the ripe olives will fall on the blanket you’ve put on the ground, don’t go back in another week and shake it again trying to get the last few ones that didn’t come down before. Leave it for the “least of these.”
And if you own a vineyard, and you and your day laborers have missed a few grapes when you were picking them from the vine, leave them for these folks in need.
The point in each of these cases is that the poor were given the dignity to go out in the fields themselves, harvest what they could, and return home with a sense of pride in what they accomplished. Each of these commands point out the small ways to treat people with a basic sense of humanity—where even the vulnerable are given power and responsibility in the choices they make.
But you can almost hear the future landowners grumbling when they heard Moses say this. “But this is our land, we invested in the seed, tilled and watered the land, and now you’re saying we have to let people who did not tend the field all summer long onto our land to take some of our harvest. That isn’t fair!”
Moses would say, “Exactly, it isn’t fair. That’s the whole point.” And then he would say, “Zakar (remember) that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why the LORD commands you to do this.”
God coming down and freeing the Israelites in Egypt wasn’t fair. Redemption isn’t fair. Grace isn’t fair. God isn’t fair.
The point is being made that God doesn’t work on the merit system, if he did we would all fail. And Moses is trying to remind his fellow Israelites what life was like before they enter the Promised Land and get comfortable in their new lives.
As they go and settle the land, and enjoy the fruits of their labor, they are to make space for “the other” in their midst, the poor and outcast, so that even those without land can receive the full bounty of the Promised Land with grain, wine, and oil.
Like we said at the beginning, this way of remembering the Exodus story, “this zakar-ing” could not simply be done in one’s mind, but it had to be lived out. When Israel was tempted to be self-centered, protecting one’s interests at the expense of another, they were supposed to remember all that the Lord had done for their people in the past, and in so doing, what God had done it for them as well.
The Exodus was not just a historical fact to read about, but a living and present reality, that was to be lived. If God did indeed come and free his people then he was in the business of freeing all people from their chains so that they may live in the light of his grace and mercy.
Can you tell why I love this passage? It has so much to teach us.
And so, a few implications for us to consider this morning. How might Deuteronomy inform our living, especially since most of us aren’t going out in the fields with our sickle or climbing up olive trees to shake the branches? How might you and I leave a corner of the harvest for the “other” among us?
Off the top of my head we could talk about food banks. Instead of going out in the field, people now go to a food bank to receive food. And there’s even a subtly how many food banks operate now. Used to, you may walk to the front desk and ask for food, and they would hand you a presorted box and you’d walk out.
Now many food banks have set up part of their warehouse so that folks can pick what they want, just like in a grocery store. They grab a shopping cart and have the power of choice. The term used is giving someone their agency back.
And so, participating in a food bank, either donating food or helping stock the shelves as people pick what they want, could be a 21st century way of leaving a corner.
A second thought is sustainability. Deuteronomy 24 is all about letting everyone has access to the resources of the land. We are becoming more and more aware of just how much we Americans consume on a daily basis—whether that be electricity or gasoline or how much trash goes into landfills or food that we waste. Even access to vaccines is shockingly different here than it is in many poorer countries that are still struggling to get enough doses so their citizens can have one shot, let alone three.
Deuteronomy reminds us to think about those who may not have instant access to these kinds of resources, and what we are leaving behind us. Are we hoarding the resources, or consuming them so fast that there will be nothing for the poor today or for anyone in future generations? We must leave a corner of the harvest for them as well, and thinking about sustainability may be a way to do that.
And lastly, we can think metaphorically about this passage. Are we leaving a corner of our heart for the poor, the powerless, and the forgotten in our community?
Most of our attention is focused on ourselves, and those we love. We can be so caught up in our own concerns that we can forget to leave a portion of our heart to those who have no one at all.
This passage is a call to care for “the other” among us, but it is also a warning. It is a warning of what happens if we grow comfortable and complacent with our wealth and possessions, and forget to zakar/remember the kind of God we serve.
One who at his core is unfair and yet good. One who lavishes his love and grace on us though we have done nothing to deserve it. Redemption isn’t fair. Grace isn’t fair. God isn’t fair. My brothers and sisters, may we share this amazing Gospel unfairness with others.
Deuteronomy 24:10-22. Rob Bell “Corners” video. African Bible Commentary. Jack Lundbom’s Deut Commentary.