When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God….— Leviticus 19:9-10
There is a lot wrong with the Book of Leviticus. It is an archaic set of laws for the tribe of Levi who were designated as the priestly class. However, there are tidbits from which we can learn a few things. One of these is the concept of gleaning. Gleaning is first mentioned in Leviticus 19:9. When wheat and barley fields were ready for harvest, some of the grain was allowed to fall to the ground so the poor could gather what they needed for provisions. Israelite law also required the corners of the fields not to be harvested. The purpose of the law was to feed the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the foreigners. It served as a safety net and resource.
Gleaning is an example of how, without capitalism, humans are naturally inclined to share with and care for others. There’s more than enough to go around as long as people are not greedy. We might think of the Native American concept of land ownership. While it is no longer believed to be true that all Native American lands were held communally, there was always a sense of sharing for the common good. The community worked together to feed one another. This is apparent in the sharing of the meal at the “First Thanksgiving.” However, as American society became more capitalistic (as opposed to the original mercantilist economy), American land ownership became particularly important. Usually, land ownership was a criterion for voting.
Americans pushed Native Americans to adopt private property standards. The Dawes Act of 1887 sought to assimilate Native Americans by, among other things, transforming their traditional uses of, and attitudes about, land and land ownership to the more mainstream American attitude of private ownership and settled farming. Some Native Americans did become farmers convinced that assimilation into white society and having a property deed were their only protections against those who would rob them of their lands. Others rejected the white man’s world of markets, deeds, schools, and Christianity. Encouraging resistance, they deemed the government’s allotment strategy a conspiracy to destroy tribal culture and organization which indeed it was. Native Americans would have been familiar with the concept of gleaning in some fashion even if they did not call it that.
In Judeo-Christian tradition, gleaning the fields is central to the story of Ruth found in the Old Testament. Ruth was a Moabite, the widowed daughter-in-law of the widow, Naomi. To prevent starvation, Ruth gleaned the fields of Boaz: “And Ruth the Moabitess said unto Naomi, Let me now go to the field, and glean ears of corn after him in whose sight I shall find grace. And she said unto her, Go, my daughter.” (Ruth 2:2). The example is found again in Ruth 2:23 “So she kept fast by the maidens of Boaz to glean unto the end of barley harvest and of wheat harvest; and dwelt with her mother in law.” Because Ruth was a widow, she had no husband to provide for her. She took the initiative and went out into the fields to take care of herself and Naomi. She was not afraid of admitting her need or working hard.
Modern Christians can practice the biblical concept of gleaning by allowing others to “glean” from our abundance and to “glean” from God’s Word.
Throughout Scripture we see God blessing people and promising to bless people. But abundance isn’t only for the wealthy. In the book of Ruth, Boaz set this example. He was wealthy and richly blessed. When he learned of Ruth’s story, and of her dedication to her mother-in-law Naomi, he instructed his field workers to drop extra grain on the ground for Ruth to collect. Boaz is an ancient example of sharing abundance which modern Christians can apply today. People often talk about God doing “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us,” (Ephesians 3:20). What does this look like in your current lifestyle? What corners of your field or extra margins could you share?
- It could be sharing your talents and gifts.
- It could be giving extra time to help those in need.
- It could be taking groceries to the local food pantry.
- It could be giving free space or donations to non-profits if you’re a business owner.
- It could be giving to charity.
There are many examples of giving what we have to help others. The commandment of gleaning reflects God’s desire for people of means to create opportunities for the poor and marginalized to be productive and contribute to their own well-being. In the Bible, gleaning created a safety net for those who were in need. Many politicians, especially conservatives, do not follow this belief. They use the ideas of gleaning as fearmongering among their followers. They are afraid that laws similar to Christian charity might be applied to the wider world. They fear losing their own abundance.
We glean from the Bible, too. We gather, we acquire, we obtain, we extract. And what we acquire becomes a provision of God’s word for our spiritual nourishment. It becomes words to live by. It applies to us today because like Ruth, we are among foreigners, gleaning the living word of God to sustain us as we apply his truth and teachings in a fallen world. We must keep in mind the latter references that God will glean us one by one threshing out the righteous from the unrighteous.
We should take note that we will glean different concepts, lessons, and boundaries depending on the season we are in. Notice that Ruth gathered for the whole harvesting season. From March to May, she gathered barley; from May through July she gathered wheat. As we grow in our faith, we will have different seasons of harvest. Like Ruth, we need to stay in the fields with other experienced believers to glean what we can from their wisdom. In Ruth 2:8, we see the wisdom and example set for Ruth in this manner. The Lord might say to you what Boaz said to Ruth; “Hearest thou not, my daughter? Go not to glean in another field, neither go from hence, but abide here fast by my maidens.” Gleaning in the Bible is an important concept that a believer should take to heart and remember. Each time we open the word of God, ask Him what He wants you to glean from His Word today.
Believe it or not, the custom of allowing the poor to glean in the grain fields and vineyards is still practiced by generous landlords in some parts of the world such as in Syria. Sometimes the owner will send a helper to glean what remains to be given to the poor. The appointed “watchmen,” who are like a type of security guard over the fields, groves, or vineyards, allow the poorest of the poor to glean what the harvesters missed. Sometimes, a gracious owner will intentionally instruct his workers to leave some of the produce so the poor can harvest it and provide for themselves and their families. This falls within the Pillars of the Islamic Faith, the third pillar zakat, or alms. In accordance with Islamic law, Muslims donate a fixed portion of their income to community members in need. Many rulers and wealthy Muslims build mosques, drinking fountains, hospitals, schools, and other institutions both as a religious duty and to secure the blessings associated with charity. Why aren’t Christians doing more of this? Why do so many evangelical Christians fight against welfare programs by the government? It is because they do not follow the concept of gleaning.
There is still a harvest going on and the Lord God is gleaning the corners of humanity, but it appears to be only the corners of the fields that are left. As Jesus said “For many are called, but few are chosen,” (Matthew 22:14) and so we must understand that “Then saith He unto His disciples, The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that He will send forth labourers into His harvest.” (Matthew 9:37-38). Sadly, most Christians (less than 1 in 10) have ever entered the harvest fields even once.
In contemporary societies, it may not be easy to discern how to apply the principles of gleaning. In many countries, land reform is certainly needed so that land is securely available to farmers rather than being controlled by capricious government officials or landowners who obtained it corruptly. In more industrialized and knowledge-based economies, land is not the chief factor of production. Access to education, capital, product and job markets, transport systems, and non-discriminatory laws and regulations may be what less fortunate people need to be productive. Leviticus does not contain a system ready-made for today’s economies. But the gleaning system in Leviticus does place an obligation on the owners of productive assets to ensure marginalized people have the opportunity to work for a living, and those who cannot work are taken care of by those who can. In many cases that is the government. We shouldn’t begrudge someone for needing government assistance.