Saturday, December 10, 2016

Christian Caring for the Poor: Lectionary Disregard for Biblical Foundations

The Gleaners
Jean-François Millet, 1857
Paris, Musée d'Orsay
With bounteous stacks of harvest in the background,
the three peasant women scratch for stray stalks.

Recently I was invited to lead a group from my congregation, St. James Episcopal Church of Greenville SC, in a sequence of Sunday morning sessions on biblical teachings about caring for the poor. Our group's explorations led to an unexpected realization about The Revised Common Lectionary—the guide to biblical readings that is used throughout more than twenty Christian denominations to structure Sunday worship

Our group began its explorations with the Pentateuch, the Bible's opening books known traditionally as the "Five Books of Moses." We found that the poor were to be granted interest-free loans sufficient to meet their needs. We learned that owners of olive groves, vineyards, and fields of grain were to leave behind an adequate harvest for poor gleaners. We read that in every third year a tithe of the full harvest was to be set aside to provide for orphans, widows, and resident aliens.

In every seventh (sabbath) year all debts that for honest reasons remained unpaid were to be erased, and indentured servants were to be set free, with provisions sufficient for beginning their independent lives. During each fiftieth (Jubilee) year, land holders who had purchased agricultural property were to return that property to the families who had been the original owners.

We found these Mosaic directives embedded—sometimes buried—within eight chapters of the Pentateuch: Exodus 22; Leviticus 19, 23, and 25; and Deuteronomy 14–15 and 23–24.

Further survey of the Hebrew Bible disclosed that these Mosaic chapters are the foundation for numerous subsequent passages about caring for the poor. The prohibition of interest on loans to the poor reappears in Nehemiah 5, Psalm 15, Proverbs 28, and Ezekiel 18 and 22. Gleaning rights reappear in Judges 8 and Ruth 2. Sabbath-year obligations reappear in 2 Chronicles 36 and Jeremiah 34. Jubilee language reappears in Numbers 36 and Isaiah 61.

When we came to the Gospels of the New Testament we recognized that Jesus's teachings concerning the poor rest upon these Hebrew Bible foundations. In the inaugural event of his public ministry, for example, Jesus uses Jubilee-year language:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. (Luke 4:18-19, echoing Isaiah 61:1–2)
Jesus also broadens the foundations. For instance, Jesus's words about lending are not limited to collecting no interest. His teaching is more radical: "Lend expecting nothing in return." (Luke 6:35)

A member of our group wondered aloud where the foundational Mosaic passages about caring for the poor occur amid The Revised Common Lectionary's three-year repeating cycle of biblical readings. Acting on little more than a whim, we perused the Lectionary's index to locate readings from Exodus 22, Leviticus 19, 23, and 25, and Deuteronomy 14–15 and 23–24.

We were startled to find that the Lectionary includes only one reading from these eight chapters, Leviticus 19:9–10:
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.
Leviticus 19 appears in the Lectionary twice, in fact, but its second listing omits these verses concerning gleaning. The Lectionary includes none of the other foundational readings concerning social justice.

Of the dozen or so subsequent Hebrew Bible passages (listed above) that echo Mosaic teachings on caring for the poor, the Lectionary lists only one, Psalm 15, commending those "who do not lend money at interest."

Our inquiry no longer seemed whimsical. We realized that worshippers in thousands of Christian congregations are being largely deprived of exposure to the disarming details of fundamental Bible passages concerning care for the poor.

One of our group exclaimed, "This must have been deliberate!" Discussion led us to admit that we had no way of knowing whether the exclusion was deliberate or not. We realized that in truth we knew nothing about the guiding principles of the Consultation on Common Texts—the interdenominational committee that compiled the Lectionary. As our group's convener, I was asked to look into the issue.

Letters of inquiry to two liturgical officers of my Episcopal denomination brought no reply. I addressed a similar letter to the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, asking whether someone on her staff might be able to shed some light.

We received a reply from our Presiding Bishop—prompt, substantive, and pastoral. She thanked us for our letter, expressing regret that we had received no earlier response. She recognized our chagrin about the absence of particular passages from the Lectionary. She noted that Lectionary readings give significant attention to Jesus's concern for the poor, and thanked us for sharing that concern. She wrote that not being herself a historian of the Lectionary, she was referring our inquiry to officers of the current Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music of the Episcopal Church in the hope that they will take our concerns under advisement.

Our group agreed that this response was more than we had expected and the most we might have hoped for. Now our hope is that the Episcopal Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music, together with the interdenominational Consultation on Common Texts, will in fact take this issue under advisement.

By covering the full range of Mosaic teachings—interest-free loans to the poor; the rights of gleaners; the third-year harvest tithe for orphans, widows and resident aliens; the seventh-year erasure of indebtedness and setting free of indentured servants; and the fiftieth-year redistribution of land—a revised Lectionary could reclaim these disregarded foundations of social ministry, to the spiritual edification of Christian congregations around the world.


For further reading:  Scott N. Callaham, "Old Testament Preaching from the Lectionary: Challenge, Case Study, and Reflection," The Expository Times, 124:12 (2013), 582–89.  William H. Willimon, "Assessing the Gains and Losses in a Homiletical Revolution'" Theology Today, 58 (2001), 333-341.  David G. Buttrick, "Preaching the Lectionary: Two Cheers and Some Questions," Reformed Liturgy and Music, 28 (1994), 77-81.  Justo L. González and Catherine G. González, Liberation Preaching: The Pulpit and the Oppressed (Abingdon, 1980), esp. 40-42.