Gleaning

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.”
(Lev 19:9-10)

Here is a good example of an Old Testament law that many admire. Ancient Israel, like most societies for most of human history, was based around farming and agriculture. The ability to grow crops, to grow more than you need to feed your family, so you have something to sell and trade was (still is) a vital piece in the nation building puzzle.

Yet here in Leviticus while the promised land was still a promise, God instructed his people not to maximise their profits, not to be ruthless in their harvesting but to remember the poor. The edges of the fields, the fallen grapes, the leftovers and scraps were to be left so that those who were without land could work, gather and survive.

The most famous example of this in the Bible comes from the story of Ruth who gleaned from the fields of Boaz. In an incredible picture of the gospel, the Boaz becomes Ruth’s redeemer who takes a poor immigrant outcast allows her to gain from his labour and then wins her as his bride. The gospel written into the ancestry of Jesus (Mt 1:5).

Whatever else we conclude about the God of the Old Testament, it is hard to argue that He did not, does not, care deeply about the fate of the poor, the refugee, the lowly. The Israelites had their commands to tithe and to give, but her woven into their new economic system was an instruction to care for the poor.

Today, gleaning is for most of us a principle in search of a practice. We love the idea, but now that more than half the planet lives in a city (and maybe as many as 70% by 2050) we don’t have fields or vineyards and we don’t grow our own food. In the UK, food banks have become one way for people to try and do something with this principle by encouraging people to buy a bit extra and then give that extra to a food bank.

In Sweden food banks don’t exist, so we’ve had to get creative. Sweden has a nationwide deposit system on canned or bottled drinks. You pay one or two crowns extra and then get that money back when you recycle the can or bottle at a return station (usually in the shops you buy the drinks from).

What I quickly noticed was that many of the homeless could be seen walking the streets of Stockholm gathering thrown away bottles and then recycling them and reclaiming the deposit. This has a number of benefits, it increases recycling, it provides a small amount of income to those who glean and they have to do something in order to gain a benefit. I’ve no idea whether it’s better than begging but I think I see the difference.

There are some differences, this is a product of our waste and not our work, it from our leisure and not our livelihood but we’ve begun to give our recycling to our local gleaners. Of course, if giving our plastic bottles and tin cans was the sum of our giving to the poor then that would be a poor showing indeed, but that isn’t what it’s about for us. We could keep the money, reclaim the deposit, walk past the gleaners. We could be more ruthless. Instead we’re trying to build habits into our ways of living that remember the poor.

How could you apply this principle where you live? Leave some ideas and suggestions in the comment section below.

4 thoughts on “Gleaning”

  1. LEAD says:

    Thanks for making such an easily dismissed passage so relevant for our day, Phil. The LEAD Trainees who do GGW (Grasping God’s Word) will cover this text when they Interpret OT Law and it’ll be very helpful to link them to your post 🙂

    1. Phil Whittall says:

      Good to hear!

  2. Gareth McNab says:

    The practice of tipping service staff might come under similar principles as gleaning.
    Also, asking for ‘doggie bags’ when eating out could just as easily be a meal we share with a homeless/hungry person on our way home rather than eating the next day for supper.
    This idea could be developed to see restaurants etc making their food waste available as a resource to people to make compost, use or sell waste cooking oil – vegetable scraps and meat offcuts/bones could be collected and cooked into nutritious soups either for giving to the poor and hungry or (maybe and/or) selling for profit as a social enterprise.

    1. Phil Whittall says:

      Hi Gareth, I like the idea of businesses thinking about this sort of principle as that is much closer to the original principle. Thanks for the comment

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