Gleaning

by FCS on

by Bob Lupton

Harvest time. The best time of the year. Time to begin enjoying the fruits of a long, toilsome growing season. Grain for fresh baked bread, grapes for new wine, olives for virgin oil. Harvest is a time for feasting. For everyone – even for the poor who did not invest personal sweat in the tilling, planting, tending tasks. Yahweh saw to it that everyone was included.  

At harvest time, farmers were to leave the borders of their grain fields unreaped. Vintners were not to strip their vines clean. Olive trees were to be “beat” only once. This ensured that the unemployed – the widows, the orphans, the migrants – could also participate in the harvest by gathering what was left over. It was called gleaning. It was a primitive, but effective, social safety-net for agrarian Israel.

Does this ancient biblical practice have any relevance for a modern urban world? We certainly have enormous quantities of food that go to waste in our society – day-old bread, outdated groceries, imperfect produce left in the field, leftover restaurant food. And there are many thousands of “gleaners” who harvest this perfectly good food to distribute to the poor. The Society of St. Andrews, for example, mobilizes 35,000 - 40,000 volunteers every year who salvage over 20 million pounds of perfectly good produce left in fields to rot - nutritious food they distribute at no cost to food pantries, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters. There is something very good, very noble about such efforts.

But do these modern gleaning efforts actually follow the biblical practice of gleaning? Well, not exactly. Mosaic law prescribed that the poor participate in the harvest. It might have been more efficient for farmers to reap to the competitive edges of their fields, then toss a sack or two of grain off their wagons to the waiting poor. But that was not the required procedure. Everyone – landowners and landless peasants, hired hands and unemployed, even strangers who didn’t live there – everyone worked. For some reason, it was important to Yahweh for everyone to have a hand in the harvest.  

I suppose we could say that gleaners received free food. They certainly didn’t invest time and effort during the planting and growing season like the farm hands did. And as a result, their social status placed them below the employed laboring class. But in the harvest field and in the vineyard and in the olive orchard, gleaners wiped salty sweat out of their eyes just like every other hardworking soul. How early they arrived, how steadily they worked, how late in the day they stayed determined just how much of the harvest leftovers they would enjoy. In a sense, the harvest field was a social leveling field.           

Ancient writings don’t tell us just how much produce gleaners could collect. Without oxen and carts and barns, their accumulation was obviously limited to what they could carry away on their backs. More than a day’s diet, for sure, but certainly not a year’s supply like the landowners expected from the harvest. Gleaners’ take-away depended largely upon the hours they put in, their physical endurance, their personal storage capacity, and of course, the bounty of the harvest. Time commitment, planning, and sweat determined the gleaner’s yield.  

Any application for today’s gleaning practices? “Dumpster diving” may be the closest modern day equivalent – homeless men combing through the trash behind restaurants and supermarkets looking for edible food. Not a very dignifying practice, but it certainly keeps them from starving. But most of our other “gleaning” methods employ volunteers, not recipients, to do the collecting and distributing. It’s cleaner and easier to organize it this way. Plus it gives an army of eager volunteers something meaningful to do. Unfortunately, this removes the poor from the gleaning effort – effort Yahweh apparently thought was important.

How then do we re-engage the poor in the harvest of what is clearly the most abundant food-supply in history? Let me suggest a couple of ways. Instead of just the church men’s group collecting day-old bread from the supermarket, how about recruiting some homeless men from the mission to assist? Instead of volunteers serving soup at the homeless shelter, how about engaging homeless guests to prepare food, serve it, and clean up after their fellow homeless friends? Or instead of church volunteers running the food pantry, how about inviting recipients to join a food co-op that offers them personal ownership, investment (dues), and the satisfaction of handling most of the work themselves?  

A lot more work, you say? For sure. Dealing with gleaners’ issues certainly required (and still requires) more time and effort than managing a well-ordered harvest with experienced personnel. (I was here first…I want that field…she cut ahead of me…you are playing favorites…). It would also require us to get more personally involved with the beneficiaries of our charity. Suppose that might be one of Yahweh’s intentions?

You get where I am going? Harvesting all the grain, then off-loading sacks of charitable donations to those who wait patiently for the next handout may actually be the kindest way to deepen their poverty.   

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