Contributor: Emma Wyndham-Chalmers
Emma Wyndham Chalmers is Tearfund’s Head of Advocacy. A passionate and experienced campaigner on issues of global poverty and climate change, Emma has worked for many years to inspire and equip people in communities of faith to pursue justice for those who are marginalised.
Leviticus 23:22, Luke 13:10-17
“‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God.’” (Leviticus 23:22)
These words from Leviticus often come to mind when I reflect on God’s restoring of systems. They sit within God’s instructions to the Israelites regarding the Sabbath, their sacred festivals and offerings. A rhythm of worship and life with God, woven into the fabric of their social structure and economic system.
What do we see of God’s heart in this? In a society largely organised around farming, the harvest was a primary source of economic power. God is saying to his people, don’t hoard and save this all for yourself. Bring to me your first and finest as an offering, and leave a provision for the people amongst you without their own field. Recognise that all you have is a gift, and one to be shared generously. The life that brings glory to God and light to the world, is not above or apart from the economic, political, or practical realities of daily life, but embedded within them.
Still, even then, the system wasn’t perfect. This Leviticus passage doesn’t question why people are poor, or why the foreigner doesn’t have access to land or employment. It assumes these things as given. But in this context, the people of God, those who had land and a harvest, were given the responsibility to meet the shortfall. This was the heart of God expressed within the economy of their time, signposting a perfect future reality within the imperfect context of the current one.
Today, while still far from perfect, there are so many ways in which we can see God’s restorative power at work in the systems of this world
In Jesus’ life and teaching, we see a continued interweaving of the spiritual and material and, in speaking with, eating with, touching and healing people who were socially and economically marginalised, radical acts that were at once both personally and politically profound.
When Jesus healed a woman on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17), she stood up immediately and praised God. And yet, the synagogue leader was indignant. The Sabbath, this important day in the holy system, was for rest, not for work. Come back for your healing on the other six days of the week, he told the people.
The text says she had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. Bent over and unable to straighten up at all. But Jesus spoke to her, he touched her, and he set her free. And Jesus didn’t hold back when he responded to those who criticised him for it. Hypocrites, he called them. Your farm animals can rest on the Sabbath but a woman’s broken body may not?
I can only imagine the restorative power this woman’s encounter with Jesus had in her life, and similarly for the man with leprosy, the bleeding woman, and many others. But the implications reached even further than their individual circumstances. In these personal encounters, Jesus was also challenging the norms and systems of the day and pointing people once again to the heart of God for all people to experience freedom and abundance.
Today, while still far from perfect, there are so many ways in which we can see God’s restorative power at work in the systems of this world. So many ways in which people’s lives have been transformed through system change - social rights, economic reform, access to education, infrastructure and services - that has enabled and supported their flourishing. Of course, there is more yet to be done.
In this season of Lent, as we consider how we might join in God’s kingdom mission of restoration, these passages from Leviticus and Luke remind us of the burden of responsibility that is given to those who hold the economic and social power. As people living in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with all that we access and afford, that’s us. We need to be asking the questions of why the shortfall, why the barriers. We need to look at the big system picture, and determine what structural changes can be made to help shift our society to greater justice and equity, even while knowing this to be only a partial picture of what will one day be complete.
Yes, the change we are able to make is more often incremental than it is monumental. Yes, there are stumbling blocks and setbacks, apathy and adversity to overcome. Oh come the day when God’s restorative work will be fully realised and all things are made new, when it will be more than just margins and gleanings, and all people flourish in their own field! But until that day, and while we see the burden of poverty felt by so many, may the words and life of Jesus embolden us, to challenge voices of self-interest and greed, and insist upon systems that embed justice and generosity within them.
For many years, Tearfund has been at the forefront of calling for change to the systems and policies that degrade the earth and entrap people in cycles of extreme poverty and inequality. We know there is power in a movement of ordinary people, led from within the church, defying and shifting cultural norms and calling on the powerful to change.
Over the past year, we’ve been advocating on the issue of plastic pollution. The rapid growth of single-use plastics and mismanaged waste is fuelling our rubbish problem, threatening people’s health and making the climate emergency worse. One in four of us have no safe way to dispose of rubbish, meaning many are forced to live and work among piles of waste. The system is broken, and the impacts of this rubbish situation are hitting people living in poverty the hardest.
Negotiations are underway between the leaders and representatives of 173 nations on developing a Global Plastics Treaty to end plastic pollution by 2040. With other members of the global Tearfund family and the Renew our World coalition, we’re calling for a treaty that will address the social impacts of plastic pollution alongside its environmental impacts, and improve the lives of people living in poverty.
This includes justice for waste pickers, the 20 million people who collect, sort and sell materials for recycling or reuse. Upholding their rights and recognising their vast experience and expertise needs to be at the centre of negotiations around a Global Plastics Treaty. Read about Hamid Ali, who is a waste picker in Bangladesh.
We’ve encouraged members of the Tearfund community to sign our online petition to the Australian Government, and thousands of people have done so. (You can sign the petition here if you haven’t already!) And there is so much we can do in our own homes – and churches – to reduce the amount of plastic waste we generate. Be inspired, as we were, by one Australian church community that has been taking on this rubbish problem.
Use these questions to guide your personal reflection or your discussion as a group.
I praise you for your great power at work to restore all things. There is no life, no circumstance, no system that is beyond your loving and redemptive gaze.
I ask that you give me eyes to see all the ways in which the social and economic systems of our time could be better shaped to reflect your heart.
And give me courage to speak up for justice and generosity, and to use my power for your purpose, to challenge the systems that cripple and bind the people you have created in your image, and this earth you have given us to share.
Water scarcity, drought and conflict are putting lives at risk. You can help bring water relief to those who need it most.