Public Square & Theology 101

Gleaning – A Guide to Christian Charity?

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And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God. – Leviticus 23:22

This passage is among several that teach the practice of gleaning. Most commonly understood from the story of Ruth, gleaning is the practice through which a farmer would leave some of his crop in the fields, and afterward the poor would gather some of those crops for their own sustenance.

There are several important points wrapped up in the practice of gleaning which are significantly different than how assistance for the poor is often conducted today.

1. The responsibility was personal rather than corporate. 

The command to leave something in the field went to all of Israel, but it was up to the individual farmer to determine how to implement the command.

The command was not to leave a certain percent of the yield, or a given number of rows of crops at the edge of the field. No, the command was for the benefit of the poor, and the farmer would have to choose how much to leave.

The principle of subsidiarity, of letting more immediate groups address the issue, was applied so that the individual farmer could make the decision that best fit his needs and the needs of the poor in his area.

2. What was given depended on the crops grown by the farmer. 

An implicit part of this command is that the farmer was to contribute what he had to the poor. Instead of requiring cash or a particular type of crop, he would leave gleanings of whatever he happened to grow.

The farmer had an ethical obligation to contribute to the well-being of the poor, but it was as a part of what he was already doing, not an additional burden.

3. The poor had to do the gleaning. 

This third point, perhaps the most important, is that the person who needed the assistance was required to work for it.

Rather than sitting expectantly in his house, the hungry man was required to go to the farmer’s field and pick the produce, then prepare it. This meant that there was a connection between work and providence, a point that could bear some expansion given the present welfare culture.

4. The gleaning could result in a new economic enterprise or in present sustenance.

Because the farmer was leaving produce in the field, the poor could either gather it for food or could gather some of it for seed. In this manner, both the immediate and long term needs of the poor were being met. The poor could be fed, and they gained an opportunity for self-support in the future.

In the future I’ll further explore how the biblical practice of gleaning compares to the contemporary practice of charity.

What implications do you think gleaning has for how Christians practice charity today? Leave your comments here

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