Even at the best of times the Israelites of the Old Testament lived hand-to-mouth. In good years the rains fell, the sun shone and the grains, grapes and tree fruits grew. The people ate what they harvested for the balance of the year. Cattle and sheep could pasture on the grass. If the people were lucky they had enough of a surplus that they could trade.
Lack of rain or scorching sun affected the crops’ yields. So could locusts.
One of the alternate Old Testament readings for Thanksgiving Sunday comes from Joel 2:21-27. It follows a plague of locusts that came in waves described in Joel 1:2
What the cutting locust left,
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust has eaten.
The destruction was almost total.
The vine withers,
the fig tree droops.
Pomegranate, palm, and apple—
all the trees of the field are dried up;
surely, joy withers away
among the people. (Joel 1:12)
The Israelites knew that they had ignored their covenanted duties to God who expressed his anger with the plague of locus. So they repented. They saw God as the source of the plague. They understood that God controlled the world they lived in.
As they put on sackcloth and ashes they waited to see if God would respond. This time of anxious waiting is the point at which the first Sunday reading begins. Joel 2:21-27 reassures the people that God has accepted their promises to change their ways and return to him. Moreover, God had already begun to transform the land.
Do not fear, O soil;
be glad and rejoice,
for the Lord has done great things!
Do not fear, you animals of the field,
for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit,
the fig tree and vine give their full yield.
O children of Zion, be glad
and rejoice in the Lord your God;
for he has given the early rain for your vindication,
he has poured down for you abundant rain,
the early and the later rain, as before.
The threshing floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
I will repay you for the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army (of locusts), which I sent against you.
The plague of locusts was so recent that the Israelites could scarcely believe the possibility of a bounteous turnaround. They probably feared that the locusts would return. Then Joel told them:
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
Satisfying their hunger and praising God go hand in hand.
The gospel for Thanksgiving Sunday (Matt 6:25-33) echoes Joel. The Christians to whom Matthew wrote in the late first century were excluded from synagogues, harassed and discriminated against. They lived on the margins of society and feared that they did not have necessities. Matthew reminded them of the teaching of Jesus.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.
But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Jesus does not dismiss a concern for food or clothing but, like Joel, he urges them to strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
We read these passages on Thanksgiving weekend as reminders that all good things come from God and that our joy in them should turn our hearts and minds to God in gratitude.
· The Israelites saw locusts as God’s punishment for turning away from him. Do you see God’s hand in all events of the world? Do you read their belief as a naive understanding? Do you see God’s hand as working mysteriously through more logical cause and effect relationship?
· Do you say grace before meals either publicly or privately? Something as simple as “Thank you God for the food we are about to eat” would show our appreciation and remind us of the source of all goodness.
· What are your private sources of joy? Birdsong? Cold water on a hot day? Delight in baking a pie, checking off something from your “to-do list”, a good night’s sleep? Thank God for these things too.