Worship and justice in the feast of first fruits (Deuteronomy 26)

Worship and justice in the feast of first fruits (Deuteronomy 26) June 6, 2015

The first fruits from my garden this year
The first fruits from my garden this year

Yesterday’s lectionary reading included a passage from Deuteronomy 26 that gives instructions on what the Israelites are supposed to do with the first fruits that they harvest in the land that God has given them. This feast of first fruits helps to illustrate the relationship between sacrificial worship and justice that has always been part of God’s teaching.

Basically, God tells the people that they’re supposed to give him the “first fruits” of their harvest (vv. 1-3):

When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the first fruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name.

Many Christians think that the entire purpose of sacrifice is to show God that he’s more important than our worldly things. We go without something or give it to God as a gesture of our loyalty. But that’s not God’s only agenda here. After the Israelites have taken their first fruits to the temple, they stand before the altar and make the following recitation (vv. 5-10):

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.

In other words, this ceremony forces the Israelites to recognize that everything they have is the result of what God has done for them and their ancestors. Nobody can try to claim that they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. Because without what God did for their ancestors, they would still be in Egypt. Imagine if every time we ate a meal, we started it off by reciting a paragraph about all the things God did for our ancestors that made it possible for us to have the house we live in and the food on our table. How much of our miserly middle-class self-satisfaction could be chiseled away by engaging in a practice like this? Now what God tells the Israelites to do next is really remarkable (vv. 11-12):

You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

In other words, they don’t burn up their first fruits on the altar or let them sit there and rot as a way of showing God that he’s number one. Instead, having sanctified their food by remembering that it is God’s gift, they celebrate by cooking it and sharing it with the Levites and the aliens who reside among them. In other words, God is saying that the way you honor me with your first fruits is by sharing them with your neighbors. But note that it happens in a very specific way.

If God had merely told them to give their food to the aliens and Levites, they would be sharing out of their own magnanimity. It would be a moralistic deed they could congratulate themselves for having done. That’s what happens when we come together to do community service without having it proceed out of an act of worship. Because God tells the Israelites to first go through a liturgy of recognizing that everything they have is really God’s gift to them, they can feast together with the aliens and Levites as a genuine act of celebration.

Today when Christians gather to worship, it’s supposed to have the same effect on us as this feast of first fruits. We’re not getting together to begrudgingly sacrifice one hour of our time to tell God how important he is to us. We worship God so that our lives’ feasts can be celebrations in which we share God’s bounty generously with others. For the fruits of our labor to become feasts, they must be blessed by God in liturgies that remember all that God has done for our ancestors. For Christians, Eucharist is the feast of feasts that should define every meal that we eat together. The purpose of partaking in the body and blood of Christ is to become the body of Christ. Likewise, if we feast in gratitude for all the life that God freely gives, then we will become a joyful community together.

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