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Caring for the Poor: The Principle of Gleaning

Gleaning Grain

An often-overlooked teaching in the book of Deuteronomy gives us a fascinating peek into God’s plan for taking care  of the poor.

When we talk about God’s Master Plan here at God, Money & Me, we’re usually examining things that scripture says about how we should handle our personal finances. But God’s money plan goes far beyond individual spending and saving habits. His word gives us principles that govern finance on a social level. And one of the chief things that He teaches us is how to care for the poor.

In Deuteronomy 24, God gives the Israelites numerous social laws to govern the way that they relate to each other. Some of the instructions that He gives them related to financial transactions, employment and poverty. Today we’re going to focus on just one of them — the principle of gleaning. This teaching comes at the end of the chapter, in verses 19-22:

19 When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. 21 When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. 22 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.

Though the word “gleaning” doesn’t appear directly in this text, that’s what the practice outlined here came to be called. We see it carried out in the book of Ruth, where Boaz allows Ruth to follow behind his workers in the field and glean what was left over after they harvested the grain. Boaz was following the teaching that came from this passage in Deuteronomy.

There are lots of interesting things that we can take away from this passage:

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1) God is concerned with the poor.

God gave the people this commandment because He cares for the poor. He wanted to make sure that “the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow” — the people most likely to be in poverty — would be taken care of, so he commands His people to leave scraps behind in their fields so that these people may find food. And He commands them to do this because they were once poor foreigners too. Just as God helped the Israelites to escape their oppression in Egypt, He wants them to help the poor in their communities to escape poverty.

2) God supplies enough for everyone.

A highly efficient farm owner would require his workers to harvest every last bit of produce in the fields in order to maximize the profit on the growing season. But God specifically commands the people not to do that. Instead, He tells them to leave what they missed the first time for the poor. The important lesson here is that God is providing enough food for both the farmers and the poor. The land owners aren’t in danger of starving because of the scraps left over in the fields, but those scraps are valuable food for the  poor. Those who have plenty needn’t worry about maximizing their profits in every way. Instead, they should show some concern for the poor.

3) Gleaning is not a handout.

It may be unpopular to say this today, but God’s plan for the poor here did not include handouts. He didn’t tell the land owners to harvest all of their crops and then give a certain percentage of their harvest for the poor. Rather, the leftover crops remained in the field, and the poor came behind the farmers to gather food for themselves. In doing this, they maintained the dignity of work and gathering their own food. Handouts create a class of victims, but work opportunities give people the tools to rise above their poverty.

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4) Gleaning leads to blessing.

God didn’t set up the system of gleaning as a tax on the wealthy that would only benefit the poor. Rather, He gave the landowners a chance to help themselves by helping the poor. Verse 19 commands the people to leave something behind in the fields “so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” God promises to bless the people who follow His laws, and promises abundance to the land owners who obey the principle of gleaning. In God’s economy, helping the poor doesn’t come at the expense of the rich. Rather, doing the right thing God’s way helps everyone involved.

Of course, the Bible has much more to say about taking care of the poor, and we can’t base an entire theology of giving on this one passage. But it does give us a fascinating look into God’s heart on the matter. So the question for today is this — what can the principle of gleaning teach us about caring for the poor today?

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Photo by Erik Hersman. Used under Creative Commons License.

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