Two Cheers for Not Optimizing
The Old Testament lesson for this coming Sunday is from Leviticus 19, which is known as “the holiness code.” You might be surprised by what it asks of people — and what it doesn’t ask. Says very little about sex, nothing about people who are gay or trans. Not a word about drinking, dancing or the importance of destroying your enemies.
One of the things it does say is this: “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.” (Lev. 19: 9 – 10).
I’ve always loved this. It is called “gleaning.” Farmers and landowners are not to take every last potato, grape or wheat stalk from their fields or orchard but to leave the produce at the edges. Leave some for the poor to gather. The 19th century French artist, Jean Francois Millet, did a painting of “The Gleaners.”
There are some modern versions of this. Buying something for the local food bank barrel while at the grocery store. Or “harvesting” produce and other products, ones that aren’t quite perfect or are beyond their “sell-by” date, from stores for a community food bank. Some retailers are quite generous in this practice.
Many years ago, Linda and I had landed in an agricultural area of northwest Germany. On a walk, we happened upon some potato fields that had been harvested, but we still many found many left-over spuds. Whether the farmer was observing the practice of gleaning, I don’t know. But I do know that we had a lovely potato soup on a cold fall night and were grateful for it.
But I’ve also thought that this idea of gleaning had other implications beyond the more literal matter of leaving some of the harvest in the fields for the poor. We hear a lot about “efficiency” and “optimization.” Strive for every greater efficiency! Maximize your returns! Optimize!
I think of trucks and other vehicles so large that they take the entire width of a lane on the highway (sort of a pet peeve of mine). You can’t see over or around them. Or ticket sellers and scalpers charging outrageous prices for a ball game or a concert. Those who push the market just as far as they can, and then some, when selling a house.
Or even just people filling every possible hour of the day with activity, prizing “being busy” as a great virtue. Not to mention stores open 24/7. Consider what that means for their employees. Currency traders using hi-speed hi-tech to grab profits without actually making or contributing anything. You’ll think of other examples.
We applaud this sort of thing as hard work, efficiency, competition and “optimization.” There’s a place for it. But like any virtue, when these qualities are pushed too far, too hard or too single-mindedly, they flip over and become a vice. Efficiency becomes drivenness. Optimization becomes obsession. Competition becomes aggression.
Such an ethos doesn’t leave much room for the kind of graciousness and generosity of a world where the landless poor may glean. What it does is create a world where everyone is on edge and anxious. Which is, all too often, the world we live in these days.
Every now and then we experience something different. A teacher going out of their way for a student. Someone who gives away a cup of coffee or a muffin. A stranger who goes out of their way to help us find ours. Public trails allowed on private lands by those who own them.
I flew home to Seattle last night. On the flight there was a woman from Lexington, Kentucky sitting next to me. She was a librarian, coming to Seattle for an “urban libraries” conference. She asked me about the light rail into downtown. I said I would be taking it and would be happy to show her the way and the ropes, if she wished. She accepted. It was a little thing, easy for me. But I could see it made her feel more at ease in a strange city after dark.
This morning she texted a nice note thanking me for my kindness and saying that she would pass it on to another, paying it forward. I’m pretty sure that I have more often been the recipient of such kindnesses than their giver. But it gave the rigors of a long trip and long day a pleasant ending
Another part of the “Holiness Code” includes this, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizens among you; and you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (19: 33 – 34). Aliens are what today we call immigrants and refugees.
So it turns out, holiness is pretty practical, at least in the Bible. It isn’t about being “holier-than-thou.” It isn’t about causes or which side you are on. It is relational. It is concerned for the most vulnerable among us. I wonder if this might come as a surprise to some, including some who identify as Christians.