“‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.’” Leviticus 23:22
The combines are out en masse in the fields around my house. Golden browned soybeans, wheat, and corn are being harvested and stored. It’s a time of hard work, but also celebration for God’s provision this year. For the ancient Israelites it meant that and more. For those who loved God it meant a special season for giving to God and providing for the poor.
Looking at Leviticus 23, I am moved by the compassion of God, who was so careful to make special provision for the needy people He knew would make a home in Israel. As an agrarian society, Israel was commanded to not squeeze as much profit as possible from its fields, but rather to leave bits of grain for the poor to find. Interestingly, this command comes in the midst of instructions on all the grain offerings brought to God during this harvest season. The Israelites were to bring the first-fruits of their harvest to the temple and also leave a remnant behind. It is like God is saying, “Oh, by the way, your first-fruits are mine, and so are your “last-fruits;” caring for the poor as I do is part of your worship of me.”
What does it look like in our society to care for the poor? Most of us don’t have fields; those who do generally don’t have needy people asking to come behind the combines and pick up left-overs. But I don’t think that means we should just ignore this passage. While we don’t have fields for the poor, I think this opens up some startling implications for our lives. The first implication is that not only is God concerned about the welfare of the poor, but providing provision for them is even an act of worship. It is loving what He loves, and that pleases Him. The second and possibly more surprising implication I find relates to how we provide provision for the poor: not only by sending a check to charity or volunteering our time, but also by looking for ways to help the poor help themselves. In this passage the Israelites provided left-over grain and the poor provided labor to gather it. God was wise to set up such a system. It has been found on many mission fields that hand-outs to the poor often do more harm than good. If people are simply given things, they tend to take them for granted, abuse the system, and in the end become dependent on continued charity. Making people earn what they get, i.e. paying a small amount, has been shown to heighten appreciation for what is provided. It also gives a sense of honor and personal worth to the person earning what they need. When possible, it is better to empower the poor to make their own way than it is to only give charity.
I have been asking myself what our “fields” are like in this day and age. Where is the left-over or surplus of our labor that can be transformed into provision for the poor? In a society that builds itself on dollars, what choice do we have but to simply write more checks to charity? I would like to propose that our dollar is our field. Not in the sense of giving but in the sense of spending. Let me explain. In our society, most of us buy what we need rather than producing it ourselves, and it is usually the poor both in our own country and around the world who make those things. In too many cases, the poor in this system are made more destitute in order that others (be it consumer, distributor or producer) may reap more profits. How we spend our dollar and the things we buy have a massive impact on the poor. For many years I have operated by the ethic of stretching my dollar as far as I can, shopping wherever I can get things the cheapest. I am getting the gleanings from my own dollar. But lately I have been challenged to leave that gleaning for the poor, to search out places to spend my dollars that allow the poor worker to go home with something to live on. Now when I go into a store, I tell myself, “Someone is paying the price. Better me than them.” It is hard, costly. But living God’s way often is. I want to be like King David, the man after God’s own heart, who came to worship the LORD with these words: “I insist on paying the full price. I will not take for the LORD what is yours, or sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing” (1 Chronicles 21:24).
My current field is fairly small. I don’t have many dollars to spend, and to be honest I haven’t found a lot of places to spend them that leave those gleanings. But at least now I’m looking. I’m not content to only bring my grain into God’s temple; I want to leave part of my grain for the poor. It might not be a lot at first–just a kernel here or there, an occasional choice to buy that dress I need from a socially responsible seller rather than the usual retail store, a decision to get one shirt instead of two so that the worker who makes it will have a decent return for their labor. My field’s gleanings are small, but maybe to that one person it will mean feeding a young family. And to me, it will be a conscious choice to worship God with all that I am, and all that I have. And that’s really worth something.
For further thoughts and resources on this topic, you can follow my new blog at My Justice Journey. I would welcome your ideas and comments.