Basil leaves and life on the margins

May 28, 2013 — 4 Comments

I love going to the market here and buying fresh herbs:

a beautiful bunch of mint

a beautiful bunch of mint

And basil plants like this one:

fresh basil

fresh basil

It has about 200 leaves, and if I was going to be a faithful upholder of God’s law, following Leviticus 27:30**, I would pluck off twenty leaves to set them apart as holy.

My Pharisee tendencies would also kick in. I’d wonder if I should use the little leaves that can’t be used in cooking or if I should just take the big ones? What about the leaves that have spots or those that have been nibbled on by a hungry caterpillar?

And then I would remind myself that I live under grace. I am free from petty rules and thoughtless legalism. But Jesus said He didn’t come to get rid of the law:

…you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. Luke 11:42

Or as The Message puts it, the Pharisees managed to “find loopholes for getting around basic matters of justice and God’s love.”

Jesus didn’t criticize the Pharisees combing over their herb plants and tithing 10%. He affirmed this discipline which reminds us that everything we have comes from God and ultimately belongs to him, even basil leaves.

But holiness isn’t just how we act towards God. It also includes how we act towards other people. Jesus doesn’t want us to be so absorbed in counting leaves, or even singing praise to Him that we overlook seeking justice for those who are oppressed.

2013 4 29 flowers 219

But unlike the simple math of giving a tenth, justice is an abstract concept. It can be hard to know what I should do specifically. I can understand why the Pharisees focused on keeping the law.  It seems a lot easier to figure out how many basil leaves to pick from my kitchen herb garden than how to bring justice to the world.

And I can quickly feel powerless. Injustice is woven into the fabric of the society. What can I as just one person do to change the system?

Well, the first thing I can do is pay attention.  Suffering makes me feel uncomfortable, and since injustice breeds misery, I tend to turn away. But if I want to imitate Jesus, I will look at the people I pass on the street. When I see someone in difficulty and think “life is just not fair”, that’s my cue.

*Driving to my early morning walk in the park, I pass a man biking to work–but he’s not wearing spandex and he’s not grinding away on his one-speed because he wants to stay in shape. He’s biking because it’s the only way to get to his job—which most likely doesn’t pay a living wage. That’s not fair.

*Then there is the woman who cleans my house can’t read. That’s not fair.

*Most heart-wrenching of all the children who don’t get enough to eat. They’re vegetarians– not from philosophical choice, but because their parents can’t afford meat or milk. That’s not fair.

annies 051

As I pay attention, I need to remind myself that it is possible for me to make a difference in their lives. I recently read two memoirs by people who suffered horrendous poverty as children, one in New York City, one in Ireland.**

I was struck by their poignant descriptions of how they experienced the best and the worst in people.  Some people ignored their obvious distress. But others, in powerful acts of generosity, gave them food and clothing.

It can be difficult for those of us who have everything we need, to understand how meaningful a little kindness can be. But we can act justly in small but significant ways. I can keep packages of cheese to keep in my purse and hand out when I can. I can have money to my pocket ready to give. I can get involved in a program that reaches out to those living on the margins.

annies 048

What about you?  How can you do good for God? Who are the people in your world who are suffering unjustly?

Leviticus 27:30
“‘A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord.”

two memoirs:
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
Breaking Nights by Liz Murray

4 responses to Basil leaves and life on the margins


    The image of self-righteously plucking 20 leaves off a fragrant basil bunch will stay with me for a while, Annie. Thanks for making the heart and intent of the law real and practical today. Paying attention and taking action is an even more beautiful and lasting fragrance.


    I just read this yesterday from Henri Nouwen: With fervor he (Jesus) proclaims that the way to the Kingdom is not found in saying many prayers or offering many sacrifices but in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and the prisoners (see Mt.25:31-46).” Then I was wondering if I really wanted to visit that lady enduring chemo…and maybe this has more to do with Him than me.

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