October 11, 2020

Imagined Scarcity, Abundant Reality, VI:
Generosity in the Corners and at the Edges

Passage: Deuteronomy 24:19–22

The Book of Ruth, selected verses

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. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.

The Book of Ruth is one of the most charming short stories ever told. Most of the story takes place in Bethlehem, Jesus’ birthplace, about a thousand years before Jesus’ birth, when Israel was still a loose tribal confederacy ruled by muscular chieftains called Judges.

The story is about two widows—Naomi, a 50-year-old Jew from Bethlehem, and Naomi’s daughter-in-law Ruth, a 25-year-old Gentile from Moab, which shared Judea’s eastern border. Next-door neighbors, Jews and Moabites hated each other.

It would take me too long to explain why Naomi, a Jew from Bethlehem, has a Gentile daughter-in-law from Moab, but suffice it to say that there they are in Bethlehem, these two widows, 50 and 25 years of age respectively.

Manlessness might be a good thing for many women in our own place and time, but not in Palestine in 1000 BC. Naomi and Ruth had nothing; they were destitute.

But Ruth is fearless. She has spirit. She has guts. She has initiative. She is a doer and a go-getter and a mover and a shaker. She marches over to the nearest Jewish farm to harvest the barley, because even though that’s not her barley, and even though she’s not from around these parts, she knows that Jewish law stipulated that every Jewish farmer must leave leftover crops in the field for the poor.  They never harvested the field to the very edge; they always left some healthy stalks at the edges and in the corners.

In your vineyard you pick most of the grapes but not all; you always leave some bursting clusters for the poor, the orphan, and the widow. In your olive grove, you shake the trees only once. The olives that don’t get shaken to the ground the first time you leave for the poor, the orphan, and the widow. It was the law. Ruth engages in the ancient practice of gleaning; she picks up the leftovers.

Happily, the ancient tradition of gleaning continues to this day. Ninety-six billion pounds of crops—about 7% of the total U.S. agricultural yield—go unharvested every year and get plowed under the soil.

The farms of central Florida supply the tourist industry in and around Orlando—fresh and processed food for Disney World and the hotels and the convention centers. This spring, as you might guess, there were no tourists in Florida. No one wanted all that food. One farmer grew cucumbers and sold them year after year to the Vlasic Pickle Company, but this spring the demand just dried up. This farmer called The Society of St. Andrew, an agency started by the United Methodist Church which sends volunteers into the fields to harvest all those unneeded crops, and the harvest goes to food banks.  The farmer was disconsolate. He said, “It’s the best crop I’ve ever had. It doesn’t pay to harvest it. You’d better come out here. It’s yours.”[1] Acre after acre after acre, all for the poor.

Back to 1000 BC. A Jew named Boaz owns this farm where Ruth is harvesting the crop alongside Boaz’s farmhands without permission. She doesn’t need permission. It’s the law. When Boaz spies this fetching shiksa he’s never seen before, he is curious and interested. He tells his guys to leave lavish loads of barley unpicked in the field—for the poor, the orphan, and this attractive widow. “Be sloppy,” he tells them. Leave a whole row untouched.”

Ruth comes home with bushels of barley and tells Naomi about this friendly farmer. And you will just not believe what happens next. You won’t believe it. Naomi, this pious, observant, God-fearing Jew, tells her Gentile daughter-in-law, “This is what we’re going to do: break out your smokiest eyeshadow and your reddest lipstick and your slinkiest skirt, and go back to Boaz’s place.”

So that’s what Ruth does. She goes back to Boaz’s place, and, well, it’s too R-Rated for me even to tell you what happens, but you might be able to guess.

It works! Eventually, Boaz takes this shiksa as his wife, and Voila! Ruth and Naomi get a nice little farmhouse with a mother-in-law suite, a 401K, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and children and grandchildren! Eventually, Boaz and Ruth have a son. They call him Obed.  Eventually Obed has a son. They call him Jesse. Eventually, Jesse has a son. They call him... You know what they call him.

Ruth’s story concludes with the Mother of All Happy Endings. The last word in The Book of Ruth is “David.” Can you believe it? Jesus the Christ has a Gentile Moabite great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother. Eventually, after 42 generations, Boaz’s generosity leads straight to the Messiah.

Generosity at the edges and in the corners.  Last week in a great sermon, Jo talked about Big Generosity, Generosity at the center of our lives. She talked about the very mission of the American Corporation. She talked about whether the whole ancient, gigantic, comprehensive system of Capitalism is working for all Americans.

That sermon is more important than this sermon, but still, generosity at the edges makes a difference too. Tiny Generosities. Daily Generosities. Negligible, almost invisible generosities. Don’t scrape your field bare. Leave something at the edges and in the corners for the poor, the widow, and the orphan.

The Houston Rockets entered the NBA’s so-called Bubble at the Grand Floridian Hotel near Orlando on July 22. When the Rockets were eliminated from the Playoffs, Russell Westbrook checked out of the hotel to go home. He left a little tip for the housekeepers—$8,000.

Now, it’s true. That’s pocket change for Russell Westbrook. He makes $38.5 million a year, second highest in the NBA behind Steph Curry; $8,000 for Russell Westbrook is like $10 for me. But Russell Westbrook is legendary for his generosity. He doesn’t scrape his field bare; he leaves something at the edges and in the corners for the poor, the maids, the janitors.

I’ve told you before about my friend George. He was one of the most generous people I’ve ever known. He’s gone now. He was in his late 70's when I met him 20 years ago. George was from the South Side of Chicago. He earned a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago, and then a Master’s degree from the University of Michigan. It don’t get no better than that.

George lived with his mother across the street from my church in Greenwich. George was a pious, observant, lifelong Catholic, never missed a mass, sometimes multiple masses a week, but when his mother died, he wandered across the street to the Presbyterian Church for a grief group, and met and befriended me. Never missed a Sunday once after that at the Presbyterian Church. He’d go to mass at St. Mary’s on Saturday night, and turn into a Presbyterian on Sunday morning. George was an only child. He never married. He had no children, no living relatives, so George adopted Kathy and Michael and Taylor and me as his surrogate family.

After what George called the “Presbyterian Mass” on Sundays, George would sometimes take me to lunch at an ancient, beat up Italian restaurant a block from the church. This restaurant must have been there for 70 years, passed down from father to son, never remodeled once. The tables and chairs looked like they’d been sent there from a church basement. The carpet was so worn and stained it looked like a Jackson Pollack painting on the floor.

Noon on a Sunday was a slow time for this restaurant. There’d be maybe one or two other tables at that hour. When George and I arrived, the maître d’ would show us to a table, and then he’d hustle over to the phone to call in Tony, George’s favorite waiter, who wasn’t supposed to be working that day.

Tony lived in Westchester County, at least 20 minutes away from Greenwich. Tony would drive in to work, just to serve George and me. You can guess why. When the check arrived, the total might have been, let’s say, $75 for the two of us. George would add a $150 tip. He did this every single time. George was famous at local restaurants. No one got better service than George. George was not a wealthy man. But I tell you this story because that generous gratuity was emblematic of the way George lived his long, large, lavish, loving life.

Generosity at the edges and in the corners isn’t always about money. In fact, it’s usually not. It’s writing a spontaneous note to a long lost friend, or calling someone on the edge of your life who might be lonely and vulnerable during a pandemic.

Your junior colleague works hours of overtime polishing your presentation to a professional and persuasive sheen, so you give her a gift card. But it’s your words and your acknowledgment and your gratitude that she cherishes even more. She’ll never forget it.

When my son was 17, he and I were playing golf at our little club in Old Greenwich. It was just the two of us, playing behind a foursome. At the third tee, when the foursome noticed we’d been waiting for them for a couple of holes, they told us to play through. All four of them were fit athletes in their 40's who looked like they all had single-digit handicaps.

They waited in their carts for Michael and me to tee off, which I always hate because my golf game does not need an audience. But Michael tees up and hits this beautiful drive about 270 yards down the broad green throat of the fairway, and one of the guys in the foursome says, “Wow, I don’t even drive that far on vacation.”

Just a witty, tossed-off compliment to a 17-year-old kid, but you should have seen my son beam with pride. Every day, all the time, there are so many opportunities for us to practice a generosity of encouragement and support and kindness at the edges and in the corners.

The farmer tells his harvesters, “Don’t scrape the field bare. Be a little careless. Leave broad swaths of fecund stalks for the poor stranger.” Who knows, maybe a thousand years later, a baby boy will be born in your own tiny, humble hometown, and he’ll end up saving the whole world.

[1]Rachel Wharton, “Meet the Gleaners, Combing Farm Fields to Feed the Newly Hungry,” The New York Times, July 6, 2020.