“There Will Be No Poor Among You”
God has promised (15:4) that there will be no poor in the Promised Land if the Israelites will “strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God.” That’s not unreasonable. God is giving them a land “flowing with milk and honey.” All they have to do is work the land and it will bear bountiful harvests—if they obey God’s commands. This is a one-sided bargain. The Israelites get a fertile land in exchange for obeying God—commands that will assure abundant life for all.
In today’s reading, we see how God intends for this to work out. The liturgy described here is for the Feast of Weeks, one of two Israelite harvest festivals. This was an opportunity for the Israelites to thank God for the gift of land and for a bountiful harvest. The liturgy was simple. It consisted of three parts: a confession of faith; a presentation of first fruits; and a community meal.
The confession of faith is a brief summation of Israel’s history. It begins with the statement that God chose a nomadic shepherd (Abraham) and his offspring (Isaac and Jacob) to be the founders of the nation. To escape famine, they left Canaan for Egypt, where their son and brother Joseph was in charge of Pharaoh’s food conservation program. While in Egypt, Jacob’s descendants multiplied exponentially until they became a threat to their hosts.
The Egyptians felt they had no choice but to enslave the Israelites, which they did with a vengeance, treating them harshly, punishing them brutally, and instituting the cruelest form of population control—genocide. Israel cried to God for salvation, and God rescued them, “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders.” God brought them out of slavery, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land.
After recognizing God’s mighty acts, the presenter offered the first fruits of his harvest to the priest. In God’s name, the priest accepted the gift. Notice that the offering consisted of the first fruits. This was the sacred portion—God’s portion, and the presenter certified that he had not used God’s portion for any other purpose.
The liturgy concluded with a community meal. Although the sacred writer doesn’t tell us, we can assume that all presentations were made at the same time, which means the meal would have been huge. Everyone was invited—everyone ate. No one was left out because he or she had nothing to bring, or didn’t own farmland, or was an outsider.
The Levites were there, the priestly class, who had no inheritance of land because their calling was to serve God and the people. They could not raise crops, so they were provided for.
The sojourners were there, foreigners who lived among the Israelites. They could not grow crops because the land was a gift from God to Israel. But God commanded from the beginning that foreigners should be welcomed, accepted, and fed. No one was excluded because he—or she—was not an Israelite. The Israelites had been mistreated foreigners in Egypt, and God wanted them to remember their experience and not repeat it.
The widows and orphans were there, those who could not care for themselves and who had no one to care for them. The inability to raise crops was not a reason to be excluded from the bountiful harvest God had provided on God’s land for God’s people.
“There will be no poor among you,” God said. Then God showed the nation how that would work. God still speaks today, and says, “There will be no poor among you.” God shows us how to provide. Will our harvest be blessed because we obey God’s commands?