Jeannie Hunter of the Society of St. Andrew in Tenneesse reflects on our society's need to recover the biblical concept of gleaning.
A reflection on the state of our society absent a spirit and principles of the biblical concept of gleaning.
Image credit to the Liberty Prairie Gleaners in Lake County, IL.
Lev. 19:9-10 (NRSV)
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: I am the Lord your God.
Though the natural processes of the earth nor how food grows have changed since the recording of Leviticus, and God is a God who remains the same forever and always, society has changed considerably. Our entire economic and social systems have shifted several times since the writers of Leviticus put these words to scroll. This means that our reflection on the principles of gleaning must be considered not in a perspective of a eons-ago community constructed with the specific principles to care for the poor, the widowed, and the downtrodden, but rather in the perspective of our 21st century world whose orientation of profit over people in some ways creates the poor, the deprived, and the downtrodden.
So we recognize one of the main principles in the spirit of gleaning is that what the land owners were told to leave are not self-determined “crumbs” or “leftovers”—it simply wasn’t theirs. The directive to “not strip your vineyard bare” means that landowners commanded not only to move on from what had fallen or was dropped, they were also to prayerfully discern the amount of stalks which remained completely untouched. They were to harvest what God informed them was theirs to harvest, and no more. It was not the role of the landowners to collect and then selectively determine who of the less privileged received what and on what grounds, and so take over the role of distributing charity. Having land was considered a gift granted by God as part of the inheritance of Israel, and so the “ownership” was stewardship—the gifts remain God’s to be given to and used through each of us.
In instructing that provision is to be created for those who do not have land, the passage three times plain states, “you shall,” and seals itself with the declarative, “I am the Lord your God.” And so the second principle is that gleaning is not an act of charity on the part of the landowners giving to others what is ultimately God’s. It is an act of obedience to community in the land owners’ relationship with God. God creates provision in abundance for every single person. As we receive gifts from God, we are to ensure access for every person who need but may not themselves have access to those gifts or resources.
And so we see in the final principle that, so long as the land owners have been faithful to their discernment with and obedience to God, the determinations of what is needed and what is abundant is left to the individual gleaners in their unique and autonomous relationship and communication with God. Every human being in the community is valued in their innate giftedness and relationship with God both to know what work they must perform as part of the community. While any of us at times may need assistance in understanding God, there is no group that is innately placed over others as by God as "more worthy" or above others. Truly, the work of any being living in a God-centered world is considered a work of community, not of individual conquest, success, or domination.
And still we must dig deeper in this and ask ourselves: In a 21st century globalized society in which many of the resources are held by people who have cordoned them off, acquired, and inherited them through various forms of oppression, what might gleaning look like? If nothing else, the spirit and principles of gleaning indicate how far from a God-centered society we are. We do not want to make the mistake of believing that the Israelites perfectly followed all of their laws, but we can look at the principles at the heart of the law of gleaning and recognize: We may today not be following them at all.
Gleaning calls we who have plenty—be that a material or spiritual resource—to live into God’s blessing and mindset of abundance, to recognize that our gifts are God’s to be faithfully steward for our community, and to ensure that the entire community of humanity has access to what God is creating for each of us.
And so a spirit of gleaning compels each of us to ask within ourselves and answer with the Spirit of God: Where in our lives we are ourselves harvesting beyond what God intends for us, which means that we are taking what God intends for others? And where in our communities are people collecting an overabundance for themselves which means that others are going without?
How is God calling, individually and all together, to help our communities and relationships be restored back to right relationship with God?
How might we create spirits of gleaning within each of our communities?