John Wieland walked into our Home Resource center and was aghast at what he saw. There on the display floor amidst an array of furniture and building materials were several expensive new window units with the John Wieland Homes (JWH) identification on them. The windows, which were only slightly damaged, had been given to us by John's warehouse manager after they had been returned from one of their new home construction sites. To us they were treasured gifts, perfect for upgrades and repairs on older homes in our community. To John they were signs of waste and carelessness in his home building operation. He immediately jotted down some notes to take back to his next management meeting. As strange as it may seem, it was John Wieland who inspired us to establish the Home Resource center in the first place. Concerned about construction waste in the housing industry, he encouraged us to start a tax-exempt recycling operation that would put to good use the damaged, out-dated and mismatched materials that were unusable in new homes but perfect for renovating older houses. John provided some seed-funding and even helped us promote the idea with the area homebuilders association. The concept worked. Not only did it provide a ready source of affordable materials for upgrading homes in our community, it also enabled us to hire hard-to-employ young men and prepare them for stable employment in the economic mainstream. It was a way of reclaiming valuable materials and valuable lives at the same time.
But there is an obvious tension here. If a for-profit business is to succeed in a highly competitive market, it has to be run tightly. A little sloppiness here, a little shoddiness there and a company can find itself losing profits. I can understand John's alarm at seeing his expensive window units sitting on the Home Resource sales floor. On the other hand, these are the very items that enable the struggling handyman to improve the living conditions for his family and at-risk youth to receive essential job training. Must profit and compassion forever be at odds?
This is no new dilemma. In ancient agrarian Hebrew society, a similar tension existed. Temple tithing was the standard method of charitable giving. But landowners had an additional responsibility. A system of gleaning, instituted by Jehovah, required proprietors at harvest season to leave the borders of their fields unreaped, reserved for widows and migrants and other disenfranchised folk. In this way the poor, who could thus participate in the harvest, would have the dignity of working for their food rather than depending upon temple welfare. But unlike the temple tithe with its precise percentages, gleaning had no clear-cut definitions, no prescribed measures for the unharvested margins. This was left open to the discretion of the landowner. His temptation, of course, was to opt for efficiency, to reap to the competitive edge and maximize his earnings. And then donate a tithe of his proceeds to the temple. Avoiding the ambiguities, the person of business could keep his focus on what he does best and leave the poverty programs to the priests who are schooled in such matters. This would certainly be the more orderly method of discharging one's charitable duties. Yet, for some reason, Jehovah's definite preference was the less efficient approach - a dignity enhancing jobs program.
The struggle, then as now, is the same: to what extent does one compromise his bushel-per-acre yield in order to care for marginalized people? Leaving quality grain in the field or expensive window units at Home Resource offends one's business instincts. And gleaning is hard to keep under good control. One foreman is overly generous with the grain he leaves behind while another leaves only a stingy strip. One superintendent is just too lax in handling materials while another is downright miserly. It's a messy business, this gleaning.
Gleaning is a bothersome principle. It lays in our lap the dubious privilege of deciding what amount of our produce to share with others and what amount to claim as our own. Of course, if Jehovah really does send the rain and cause the crops to grow, if He really is the One who appoints the economic tides to ebb and flow, then perhaps our control of the production process is merely a pleasant illusion which He allows us to enjoy. Perhaps gleaning after all is Jehovah's ingenious device for reminding us who the Lord of the harvest really is.