Meditation on Leviticus 19

Kevin J Youngblood

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.” (Lev 19:9-10)

Admittedly, Leviticus 19 is an odd collage of commandments. What exactly holds these miscellaneous laws together such that they have some kind of coherence is not at all clear upon a first (or maybe even a second or third) reading. The instructions offered here range from the sublime (You shall lover your neighbor as yourself, 19:18) to the mundane, bordering on the arbitrary and incomprehensible (Peace offerings MUST be eaten on the same day they are offered or at the latest, the day after. Nothing left of it is to be eaten on the third day, 19:5-7).
There is, however, a thread of continuity running throughout the chapter. Every few commandments are punctuated with the refrain, “I am YHWH.” These commandments are all grounded in the character and nature of Israel’s God. To reduce these words to rules to live by is to completely miss their true significance. They are in fact nothing less than an expression of YHWH’s character. In these commands, YHWH is expressing who he is through his people who are ordered by his world and by his Spirit.
YHWH’s character is to define and direct every detail of their lives, even something as mundane as how they harvest their crops. One might expect a god as holy as YHWH to be a perfectionist demanding that every job be done with the utmost thoroughness and rigor. Actually, however, he encourages Israel NOT to be so thorough in harvesting her crops, to leave the edges alone, to leave a few grapes behind. God actually teaches his people to intentionally leave behind some of what they’ve grown for the poor who have no land of their own and for the sojourner who, for whatever reason, has been displaced from his own land, basically for anyone who happens by in need of some food.
Then, true to form, YHWH concludes this bit of farming instruction with the words “I am YHWH.” It is YHWH’s nature to be mindful of the poor and the displaced. Therefore, if YHWH is going to make his home among us, we must be an expression of his nature and similarly be mindful of the poor and the displaced. Leviticus 19 teaches us that Israel is to be a kind of incarnation of YHWH’s character and that the intent of the Torah is to help both them and us embody who YHWH is. In this way, not only Leviticus 19, but the entire Torah anticipates Jesus as the word incarnate.
Now this might lead us to assume that Jesus would come and plant a field and leave some of its produce for the poor and the sojourner. Actually, however, Jesus comes to us AS the poor and the sojourner in need of what we’ve left behind in our fields (Matt 12:1; Mk 2:23). You never know whom you might be feeding with what you leave behind. As Jesus reminds us, “. . . as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it unto me” (Matt 25:40, 45).

Please save me from the greed that makes me want to hoard what I have, what you have so graciously and generously given to me. Deliver me from the desire to “reap up to the edges” and to “glean every grape from the vine.” Thank you for the reminder from Israel’s ancient laws of how deeply you care for and are always mindful of the poor and the displaced. Lord Jesus, thank you for coming and identifying with the poor and displaced. Thank you for gracing our fields with your presence and eating what little we left behind for you and your disciples. Remind us that when we do these things for the apparently ordinary poor and displaced that in fact we are feeding you, so thorough is your identification with them. Holy Spirit, express through me the nature of the Father as you did through Jesus. Make all of my actions in their every detail consistent with God’s heart and mind.