In his novel Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry contrasts the old farming perspective of Athey Keith with the new approach of Athey’s son-in-law, Troy Chatham. To maintain the delicate harmony of the land, Athey limits its use, maintaining, for example, a generous margin of available feed for his livestock. Athey knows his property is more than sufficient for the health and comfort of his family, so he adopts a conservative mindset. Athey says, “Wherever I look, I want to see more than I need, and have more than I use.”
Troy, by contrast, is a forward-thinking “visionary.” He wants to turn Athey’s property into a modern money-making miracle. His philosophy? “Never let a quarter’s worth of equity stand idle. Use it or borrow against it.”
This isn’t a difference of agricultural opinion but rather of a man’s conception of his life and place in the world. Athey understands his smallness and his duty to creation, family, and neighbors. He’s part of a larger whole. By contrast, Troy lives only for himself, for his fame, wealth, and ego.
Moses encourages us to adopt a mindset akin to Athey Keith’s when he relays God’s words:
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God. (Lev. 23:22)
How are we doing with applying the principle behind this injunction? Do we take for ourselves all we can from this life? Or do we live remembering our duty to God and our neighbor?
Leave Margins in Your Life
Leviticus 23 speaks to those of us tempted by Troy’s selfish, maximizing outlook. We may not have fields, but we can certainly apply the principle found in Leviticus to our finances, refusing to budget every last dime we expect to make so we have funds available for unexpected opportunities to bless someone in need.
Do we take for ourselves all we can from this life? Or do we live remembering our duty to God and our neighbor?
Could we apply this text in other ways?
Most would agree time is more valuable than money. But when we set our schedules, do we leave room on the edges of our calendars for those in need? Do we leave the “gleanings” of our itinerary for those whom in God’s providence we unexpectedly encounter?
If we want to be available to God, and to make the most of every opportunity (Eph. 5:16), we must have margin in our schedules. We must know we could take an unplanned hour to sit with someone who’s hurting, confused, questioning, grieving, or even overjoyed. We must have time to meet him where he is and minister Christ’s presence in his moment of need.
Our most significant, life-transforming moments in ministry won’t be scheduled in advance. They’ll come in unplanned, informal conversations. They’ll come when we follow a tearful widow into the parking lot after a sermon to offer a listening ear and a shoulder on which to cry. They’ll come when we stop our yard work and engage that neighbor who hesitates just long enough after we offer the obligatory “How’s it going?” They’ll come when the troubled kid one street over rings our doorbell after she’s run away (again). They’ll come because we’ve made it clear to her (and her parents) that our house is a safe space to be messy. They’ll come when the friends who were just dropping something off end up staying for dinner. They’ll come even when the house is messy and we don’t have anything good in the pantry.
Who’s There at the Margin?
If we take Troy Chatham’s approach and in our inflated sense of self-importance refuse to let a quarter’s worth of time and money stand idle, we’ll miss the very reasons God has entrusted time and money to us.
If we refuse to let a quarter’s worth of time and money stand idle, we’ll miss the very reasons God has entrusted time and money to us.
I once had a neighbor—a skeptic in whose life I’ve tried to invest—ask me for a moment of my time. In my hurry and haste, my reaping to the edge of my field, I failed to stop for him. I learned soon after that he and his wife were separating. Would 30 minutes or an hour have changed the course of his marriage, his life, and the lives of his three daughters? I don’t know. But I’ll always wonder.
Let’s be careful how quickly and fully we pack our budgets and agendas. Don’t schedule to the edge of your calendar or your bank account. Leave the margins—the gleanings—for the poor, hurting, doubting, and seeking among you.