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A Sacred Thanksgiving: Reflections on Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Once the best fruit has been selected as the proper gift to God, the worshipper is to put it in a basket, bring it to the priest who is in authority, and say, “Today I declare to YHWH your God that I have come into the land that YHWH swore to give to our ancestors” (vs. 3). The priest is then to take the basket and set it down before the altar. And then the supplicant is to respond as follows: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.”
There is a wonderful dual meaning in the word “wandering.” That word may also mean “perishing.” I have the strong suspicion that both meanings are intended. Israel in its ancient memory often described itself as wandering, rootless, landless. And because that is so, they were also “perishing,” threatened, fearful, victims of nations and peoples far more powerful than they. The recital continues: “he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien (immigrant), few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.” Israel’s long sojourn among the Egyptians, a central core of their story, ended with their enormous growth in numbers and power (Ex. 1:7). This made the Egyptians and the pharaoh afraid, so “they treated us harshly and afflicted us by imposing hard labor upon us” (Ex. 1:11-14). So, they cried to YHWH, who “heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression” (Ex. 2:23-25). “YHWH brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders” (Ex. 3-15).
“God brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Dt. 26:10). And there is the historical creed of Israel: the oppression of Egypt, God’s great exodus, God’s gift of the holy land. But it is not enough simply to know the history, not enough merely to recite it in worship. One must then offer a gift back to God who has been so gracious to the people. “So (as a result of all this history), now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, YHWH, have given me.” The worshipper then sets the gift before the altar and bows down before the Giver.
Is that all? Are recital and offering enough? No. “Then, you together with the Levites (landless priests among you) and the sojourners (the immigrants in your midst) who reside (however briefly or however long) among you, shall celebrate (all of you!) with all the bounty that YHWH your God has given to you and to your house” (vs. 11).
Thus is added to the memory and the worshipping gift the inevitable social requirement. Proper memory and its recital and proper worship based on the memory are never enough in Israel. Those in the community who, for whatever reason, have limited or no access to the bounty of God, are called to participate in the feast with those whose boards groan with the gifts of God. But take note. Only those who have the proper memory, only those who worship aright based on that memory, will in fact invite those who are not insiders to the gift and the worship. Right memory leads to right worship leads to inclusive celebration.
And so this Thanksgiving, may your board groan with delicious food, the very gift of the land offered to you by God. May you worship joyfully, giving back to the Giver a rich part of the gift so freely given. And may your table resound with the laughter of Uncle Alvin (you may laugh at least politely to his slightly lewd jokes) and the warmth of Aunt June and the children she so loves. And may you invite some who have little access to food and laughter and warmth and love. Without them, you see, the feast can never be quite complete.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.