29- THE POOR MAN’S WHEAT

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It was Saturday when the hailstorm destroyed the wheat crops that were about to be harvested. In Israel, Saturday is a day of rest. Women do not light their stoves, nor do men go to the field. The seventh day of the week is consecrated to God. But that Saturday was not a day of rest for us. We were gathered on the Mount of the Seven Fountains facing the lake together with the farmers from Capernaum who had lost their harvest…

A Man: This year’s gonna be very bad. It’s gonna be a year of hunger.

An Old Woman: Everything’s gone. The storm did it all!

Another Man: Not all, old woman. Eleazar’s farm wasn’t destroyed and he has plenty of wheat.

A Man: Phanuel’s farm was also spared. Those rascals own so much land and their barns are so numerous that not even heaven can destroy them.

Another Man: The rich always land on their feet like cats. They’re never losers. Now they’ll increase the price of flour to that of gold!

A Woman: Are they trying to kill us?

Man: What else can we do but tighten our belts! We can’t go against the will of heaven!

Old Woman: But we can do something about the hoarders.

Man: Really? And what can we do? Shall we confront them on their farms?

Old Woman: Why not? What did our ancient laws say? That the poor may gather the excess on the rich men’s farms so no one goes hungry in Israel.

Man: Old Deborah is right. Moses commanded the rich to give away excess food that the less fortunate might have something to eat.

Woman: Did Moses really say that? Then let the Law of Moses be fulfilled, dammit!

When the wife of another farmer named Ishmael said this, everyone looked at each other indecisively. The men scratched their heads while the women whispered among themselves…

Woman: What are we waiting for?… Didn’t the stranger from Nazareth and all of you say that God’s on our side and that things are heading for change? Why don’t we give him a little push so that things will change soon?… Let’s gather the grains in Eleazar’s farm!

Man: Yes, let’s all go!

Old Woman: Hold it, hold it!… Alright, we all go there, but without haste and without making trouble. This was how Moses led the Israelites through the desert. It’s much better to claim justice the right way!

All: That’s very well said, grandmother!… Let’s go, everybody.

With Ishmael’s wife and old Deborah at the lead, we all started to go down the hill and headed toward the vast tract of land starting from the north of the Seven Fountains. We passed through miles of fertile land owned by the powerful Eleazar…

Man: Are you all out of your mind?… Where are we headed? This can’t be!

Woman: And why not?

Man: How can we slip freely into his farm?

Woman: This miser Eleazar has all his barns filled with the previous harvest.

Man: Yes, but…

Woman: No more buts…. This man has more than enough!

Man: While we have nothing!… Come on, everybody, let’s all go! In the name of God!

We were like an army in tatters. We went splashing through the fields, sliding down the muddy slope as we approached the posts that marked Eleazar’s property. The storm was so strong, it destroyed the crops, but the farm was so huge, grain lay scattered here and there, undestroyed….

Man: Look, there is still so much wheat left!

Old Woman: Let’s start it! And don’t you worry; Ruth started this way. See how well it turned out for her in the end.

We dispersed through the inundated wheat fields, like ants swarming in confusion after a storm. We were all covered with mud up to our knees. Then we started to cut the sturdy ears that had withstood the violent storm. The men took out their knives and began to harvest. Behind them were the women who were gathering the wet wheat in their skirts….

Old Woman: Gather all you can! …everything! Fill your skirts with whatever you gather!

Man: Listen, old woman, aren’t we doing something wrong?

Old Woman: Oh, my son, I dunno, but they say that a thief who steals from another thief is forgiven for one hundred years!

Man: And what do you say to this, young man from Nazareth?

Jesus: Well, I think we’ve got to……oh!

Man: Be careful, Jesus…!

Jesus slid and fell on his butt into the mud pool. When we saw him, his face was covered with mud, and we all laughed boisterously….

Man: Hey, man, don’t eat the soil!

Woman: This stranger looks just like Adam when God created him in paradise…!

Jesus laughed as well, as if someone had tickled him. His tunic was wet and he was supporting himself on a few rocks. Finally, he managed to get himself out of the mudpool…

Jesus: What a life, my friends…. A while ago, we were all weeping, now we’re laughing. And how things change… We can change things with the help of our hands, with God’s hand supporting us…. Yes, we can move on! Tomorrow, everything will be different. We shall rid ourselves of the present pains, and there’ll be no more tears nor screams. We’ll all be happy and God’ll be happy, too, because He’s on our side. God’ll lend a hand and will help us build a new world out of this old clay.

We continued pulling the stalks. Jesus was gathering beside me and I remember him still laughing over his fall. Peter, James and Andrew were helping a group of farmers who had penetrated the inner part of the farm….

When we had finished cutting enough wheat, Eleazar’s foremen arrived. They were rushing toward us, with poles and hunting dogs….

Foreman: Thieves, thieves!

There was great confusion. Most of us were able to jump over the posts with our arms and the women’s skirts full of wheat ears. Others left the wheat and their sandals, fleeing like scared rabbits, leaping from one mudpool to another….

Eleazar: May I know who thought of this plot against my farm? Who gave you the right to steal from my property?

Woman: With God’s right. We came here in the name of God!

Eleazar: Oh really? Or could it be in the name of the devil! He who steals is the devil’s brood!

Man: He who sucks the blood of his laborers like you do is father to the devil!

Eleazar: You shut up or be beaten up!… This way you will learn how to respect the law, you thieves!

Man: We weren’t stealing. Why call us thieves?

Eleazar: So you’re not stealing. What shall I call you then? I caught you with your hands in my wheat, pulling the few ears that were left after this morning’s storm. And you say you’re not thieves!

Woman: We ain’t no thieves. We simply obeyed God’s Law.

Abiel: Shut up, you big mouth! Don’t you ever mention the name of God with your filthy lips!

We were brought by Eleazar’s men to one of the yards of the house. With him were his two friend scribes, Abiel and Josaphat.

Abiel: I tell you, Master Eleazar, you gotta find out who’s behind this conspiracy… who the mastermind is.

Eleazar: Who’re your leaders, huh? Who advised you to steal from my property?

Old Woman: It’s hunger. Yes, we’re dictated by hunger. We need wheat for our children!

Eleazar: So! If you weren’t so lazy, you wouldn’t experience hunger. Hunger comes from laziness!

Woman: It’s the result of people’s greed people like you!

Eleazar: If you shout at me again, I’ll have your tongue and hands cut off!… But what’s got into your head? That I will allow such a brazen act in broad daylight like this? I’ll inform the Roman captain and you won’t leave jail without paying damages. You all hear me?

Jesus, who was quiet until then, replied to the landowner…

Jesus: Aren’t you contented with the wheat that is kept rotting in your barns? And you still want to deprive us of the excess grain that you have?

Eleazar: And where did this young man get such temerity? Well, you listen, stranger: I’m gonna kick you and the rest right into jail!

Jesus: Then, you’ll have to put King David in prison too.

Josaphat: What did this damned fellow say?

Jesus: I said David did something worse than what we did, yet David became a great saint.

Abiel: What nonsense are you talkin’ about? What has King David gotta do with this?

Josaphat: With whom do you think you are talkin’, peasant? We’re teachers of Law from the school of Ben-Sira.

Jesus: Well, if you’re really teachers, then you’ll remember David and his companions. They were hungry, and entered not into the farm but the Temple of God, where they ate the consecrated bread on the altar…. Do you realize that? God didn’t punish them for having stolen bread because they were hungry! A starving human being is more sacred than the holy temple of the Almighty!

Josaphat: Oh dammit! What’s this insolent talking about?

Your own words betray you. You must be their leader. Go tell the tribunal your story about King David, so you’ll get the beatings you deserve!

Woman: We only got what belonged to us, according to Moses!

Eleazar: Shut up, you bitch! All this is mine and nobody else’s, do you hear? All this land extending down to Lake Merom belongs to me and nobody can take even a single grain of wheat from it!

Jesus: We have taken only a few stalks while you have stolen the whole land, which is worse. The Scripture says that the land belongs to God and nobody can take possession of it. You’re the thief, not us.

Eleazar: I’m getting impatient, you thieves!… I was the one being robbed, yet you expect me to bear your impertinence?!

Abiel: And the worst thing is they did it today.

Josaphat: Today is the Sabbath, a holy day. These people have violated the Law on two counts: by stealing and working on the Sabbath. Do you realize the crime that you’ve committed against the sacred Law of God?

Jesus: People are not created for the Law but the Law is for people. If you really understood the Law, you wouldn’t accuse us of any crime. The first law that God commands of us is: We should have enough in order to live.

All: Dammit! That was very well said!

Eleazar: Enough of this silly talk! We shall all go to the synagogue right now and let the tribunal hear you! Hurry up!

The noisy crowd was getting bigger. Several farmers, men and women alike who were waiting outside the farm joined us on our way to the city. The landowner and the scribes advised the Roman soldiers to maintain order and to take us to the synagogue, where the teachers of Law would judge what we did.

*Comments*
This episode is in a way related to the previous account. Jesus proclaims that God is on the side of the poor – that He suffers and struggles with them. Jesus puts into practice the message of this proclamation and the poor who believe in it rely on him for the consequences as they move on to realize their liberation. The gospel is not merely words of liberation but deals with the act of liberating being undertaken by Jesus’ followers. At the same time, in our communities the gospel cannot end up with mere accusations, with mere words. It should be translated into concrete action, inspired by the message of Jesus such as: organization, commitment, struggle…

The culture of the Mediterranean – where Palestine is located is a “wheat culture.” Just as in Central America, the culture of the “Mayas and the Aztecs” is a “corn culture.” Similarly, we speak of the culture of various tropical countries as “banana culture” or “rice culture.” Wheat was the principal crop of Palestine and constituted the bulk of agricultural provision to the cities. Famine corresponded to scarcity of wheat.

Galilee was known for the quality of its wheat. In the fields around the lake as well as in Capernaum, there were vast wheatfields mostly owned by a few landowners. Feudal estates were common in the north. One of the goals of the zealots’ movement was agrarian reform, which earned the sympathy of the farmers and the small landowners. On the other hand, the big landowners collaborated with the Romans who assured them of retaining ownership of vast tracts of land.

When the first tribes of shepherds came to Israel, land was distributed among families, according to the area they occupied. The ownership of land was a family inheritance and from the religious point of view, God was considered the owner of all land (Lev 25:23). To go beyond the limits of family patrimony was a violation of the will of God. Nevertheless, in Jesus’ time and before his time, there were big landowners who on various occasions acquired lands by putting fraudulent landmarkers on their farms (Job 24:2). The prophets repeatedly denounced the economy (Is 5:8; Hos 5:10), which was further encouraged during the period of Roman domination. From the economic point of view, the most tangible consequence of the Roman occupation was the process of extending feudal property at the expense of communal ownership. This led to the rapid impoverishment of the farmers, who, from small landowners became hired laborers in the service of wealthy landlords.

To stop this greed, there were laws in Israel limiting property ownership and excessive accumulation of the same: The Year of Grace, the Sabbatical Year. There were other laws to protect the poor, the orphans, the widows and the foreigners according to which the landowners had to yield part of their harvest and surplus products from their farms and trees (Lev 19:10; Deut 24:19-22). The residents of Capernaum pulled the wheat grains on a Sabbath day. The law of the Sabbath was the core of the existing legal system in Israel in Jesus’ time. A willful violation of this law, and after a first warning, was sufficient reason for a death sentence. The law of the Sabbath prohibited any type of work or effort on this sacred day. At present, there is no law of this kind in our country. Just as Jesus proclaimed in his time, the supremacy of people over the law of the Sabbath, we Christians must proclaim with the same strength the social meaning of ownership (property) in a manner Pope John Paul II would formulate it: “The social obligation of ownership.”

The most ancient tradition of the Church has pointed out that when a poor person, out of necessity, takes what is an excess from a rich one, that person should not be rebuked nor be considered a thief. A thief is one who takes away what the other needs. On the question of what is “mine” and what is “yours,” St. Basil said to the rich and the powerful: “Tell me, which things are yours? You took them from somewhere and here you are claiming them as yours? You claimed as your own what used to be property of all. Now, who is the thief? What other name can you give to someone who does not clothe the naked when he can very well do it? You refuse to give bread to the hungry; you hide in your chest the cloak to clothe the naked, and you let the sandals rot in your house rather than give them to the barefoot…” (Homily “Destruam”).

The peaceful, mass action undertaken by the residents of Capernaum to fight for their basic right to life is supported by the ancient Mosaic law. Jesus was similarly inspired in justifying the above by citing the episode of King David in the sanctuary of Nob (1 S 21:1-7), where he took the consecrated bread so that he and his men would have something to eat. The great freedom with which King David acted was the same style that Jesus would always resort to, in order to show how a law became worthless if it was oppressive to people and to life. St. Paul would later on say that the law of the Christians is no other than the law of freedom (Gal 5:1-18).

(Mt 12:1-8; Mk 2:23-28; Lk 6:1-5)

29- THE POOR MAN’S WHEAT

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