Gleaning: Leave Some for Others

By David Gill, reprinted from The 313.

What would an economic system look like if God designed it? I mean the God who loves everybody on earth. The God who loves the poor as well as the rich, east and south as well as north and west. Would it be all about free enterprise and individual responsibility, relying on the “invisible hand” of the market to bring about the optimum result? Would it be regulated 24/7, top-to-bottom? Central planning?  Wouldn’t it be nice to know the answer to this question?

Most of the Bible describes God and his people at work in what you might call alien, unchosen environments (economically, politically, religiously, etc.). God is at work, leading folk who are pilgrims sojourning in a strange land, oppressed captives in Egypt, forced exiles in Babylon, provincials under the thumb of the Roman Empire. In fact, the New Testament teaches Christians that this is the normal, regular situation of Christians. There will be no “Christian country” until God makes a new heaven and earth at the end of time. Thinking otherwise (confusing a specific country of the world with the kingdom of God) has been the source of unending disaster for everyone.

The call of Jesus and Scripture is to be the ”salt of the earth” and “light of the world” – not the bulldozers or Führers of the world. The Christian call is to be fully present in the heart of the world – but bring the gospel (“good news”) reality of another way of doing things with us into our daily life and work.  We want to impact our workplace and neighborhood – not take it over and expect the world to behave like the church (i.e., the real church, guided by the Holy Spirit).  

There was one time when God did more directly help some people to design an economy. This was when Israel escaped Egypt under Moses and set up a new nation in Palestine. The rabbis counted 603 different commandments and rules in the Torah. We know the Ten Commandments best among that collection. This big collection of rules is a mixture of religious and ceremonial rules along with economic and ethical guidelines. The Ten Commandments turn out to be very “trans-historical” and “transcultural” – valid anywhere, anytime (even so, they require some careful application in any given place and time). But we can’t just take all 603 commandments and precepts and transfer them to our very different setting today.

Still, there are some amazing principles from which we can learn as we study the economy God designed for ancient Israel.  For one thing, there was lots of space for individual enterprise and profit. People could work really hard and well and make some bucks. Some capitalism here!  But there were limits. Every seventh year the ”sabbatical year” laws cancelled people’s debts and returned family property to the original owners. People were set free.  See how when God planned it out you could be your creative, hard-working entrepreneurial self for six years – but then the deck would be re-shuffled and a re-start declared? This is the same basic principle behind graduated income taxes and inheritance taxes today.  It is always hard to get the rates right but the principle is a God thing.

One other beautiful rule in God’s economy: gleaning laws. God made it a rule that every year (not just the sabbatical year) the owners and managers of fields should not harvest all the way to the edge of the field but leave some for poorer folk to come along and “glean” what was left unharvested.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien (the undocumented, the stranger from another country). I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus 19:9-10

Wow! What a concept.

Actually, gleaning is happening all the time, all over the world. At almost every garbage dump in the world – and many garbage cans in our cities – the poor and hungry are rummaging around trying to find food and other usable or recyclable stuff.  In many places there are informal or formal programs to collect and distribute “day-old” bread, expired “best-used-by” canned goods, and more. “Dumpster diving” is one way it is done; formal agreements with merchants is another.

The broader question raised is this:  does my business (or “do my economic practices”) intentionally leave room for others (especially the poor, the little guys) to exercise their gifts and initiative and succeed? Or am I just a “take-no-prisoners,” “crush-the-competition” bully? It’s a good thing if everyone in our community can take some initiative, work, and survive. The strong should help the weak and be generous. Monopolies are bad for all kinds of reasons. Taking everything for ourselves is evil.

Boaz did it for Ruth and her fellow-gleaners. Workplace disciples today also leave some room for gleaners – not just in agriculture but in all fields of work and business. How might you apply this?

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