From Gleaners to Neighbors

Rufus the Wonder Dog takes me for a walk nearly every morning. On Wednesdays and Saturdays we usually see John (my temporary name for him) pushing his shopping cart down our street. Wednesdays and Saturdays are trash pickup days. Every other Saturday is a recycling pickup day, likely John’s biggest payday. John takes from our bins items we residents have designated “trash” that he hopes will gain him a little “treasure”. He does his work neatly and unobtrusively. I’ve started putting my stuff out the night before in case I have something John can use. He’s doing his very best to survive. He clearly needs the little he makes more than the trash company does.

I say “Good Morning” whenever our paths cross. John responds with a smile and an almost-reluctant wave. I don’t think I’ve ever heard his voice. Is he not sure he’s worthy of a greeting? Not wanting to be noticed even that much? At first I mentally labeled John an “independent recycler”. Recently, however, I’ve upgraded his title. John is a gleaner. He lives off our leftovers and discards. He uses what we’ve declared useless. He works around the edges and values “seconds”, just as agricultural gleaners have done for centuries—gleaners like a prematurely-widowed woman named Ruth. Ruth went into Farmer Boaz’s barley fields seeking food for herself and her widowed mother-in-law Naomi. (Boaz was a very distant relative of Naomi. That ancient Jewish mother-in-law likely had matrimony in mind as she orchestrated his meeting with her daughter-in-law.)

Boaz ordered his harvest workers not to bother Ruth and to do things that would make her job a little easier. He wasn’t doing Ruth favors he hoped she’d reciprocate. His kindness to Ruth followed the requirements of Jewish law: “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 leave them for the poor and the alien…” (Leviticus 19:9)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…” (Deuteronomy 24:19)

Membership in the community of Israel had clearly-defined boundaries. But Hebrew law also made room for folks who lived in the “neighborhood” but either weren’t “citizens” or lived a marginal existence—“…the alien, the orphan, and the widow…”  Israelite leaders recognized their responsibility for these vulnerable folks, whether they were officially Israelites or “aliens”. The tradition of gleaning encouraged generosity that enabled the “aliens” in the community to find sufficient food. Interestingly, Sabbath observance also applied to everyone: “…the seventh day…you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.”(Exodus 20:10)

Jewish law prescribed that “…you shall love your neighbor as yourself…” (Leviticus 19:18).The provision for alien residents and other vulnerable folks cracked open a door through which many “outsiders” would eventually enter and become “neighbors”. Prophets like Isaiah envisioned a day when clearly-excluded “aliens” would become “neighbors”. Eventually, of course, Jesus came along and ripped this door clean off its hinges. The holy men loved to bait him with the question this verse raises—“Who is my neighbor?” Where’s the line? Who’s clearly outside my circle of trust? The real question, he knew, was “Who’s not my neighbor?” One day Jesus answered the question with the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)  His (self)-righteous audience was stunned. Jesus had made the most impossible, least likely, and least-liked character the Model Neighbor! As his listeners picked up their dropped jaws, he told them, “Go and do likewise.” Go stretch your “neighborhood” boundaries far enough to include folks like him. After all, this man whose tribe you love to hate just stretched his “neighborhood” boundaries far enough to include you!

Jesus insists rightly that John and his counterparts among us are more than “gleaners” or “homeless”. John’s my neighbor along with my other neighbors who have live indoors and drive nice cars instead of shopping carts. I confess that I don’t know how to “neighbor” John and others in similar circumstances. Frequently we drive through busy intersections where ragged folks hold “Please help”-type signs and hope against hope for something–anything. We keep “agape bags” of food and water in the car for them. (Our 4-year-old grandson relentlessly insists that we and his parents observe this spiritual discipline.) Sometimes we offer our fast-food leftovers to these “gleaners”. (I know there’s more to their story than meets the eye. That’s another discussion.) These efforts are band-aids at best. Meaningful “neighboring” ranges from meeting immediate needs  to social and political action that addresses the root causes of suffering and transforms life for all involved. But it’s far from easy to know exactly what’s the most helpful action right here and now.

Neighboring is a learn-by-doing skills. We learn to “do likewise” as we learn to see people differently. We see “neighbors”, not labels;  “neighbor”, not “poor”, “homeless”, “welfare mother”, “different”, “lazy”, “illegal”, etc. Labels obscure our neighbors’ humanity and our common kinship. Remove the label and we reveal the image of God in every human God has ever created—even “them”.  “Neighbor” becomes both  noun and verb as we learn to “do likewise”. Jesus’ question might well have been, “Which of these three neighbored …?” His first response to human need was that he “felt compassion”—literally, he “felt with” them. There is no “them” when we have compassion. We’re all us. Jesus’ compassion triggered transformative action, often in the form of physical healing (e.g. Matthew 14:14, 15:32-35, 20:34.) So it will be with us as we learn to neighbor alongside Jesus.

Our new pastor taught us a Sesame Street song last Sunday: “Who are the people in the neighborhood?”  In the coming weeks, I’m anticipating some solid, specific—and sometimes uncomfortable—wisdom about neighboring our diverse neighborhood in the spirit of Jesus. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re invited into some “adventures in neighboring” as we follow Jesus and learn to “do likewise” .

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