With the return of the rains, I’ve been playing farmer, beginning to plow and harrow the fields surrounding our compound in preparation for the planting season. Now before you all rush out to sign up for the missionary life of driving a tractor around all day and taking in the sun, I should mention that this tractor does not have air-conditioning or steering via GPS. It has a sheet metal seat attached to the machine via four bolts upon which you sit, and every time you go over a hillock, the non-existent suspension jams the bolts into your buttocks and lower back. At the same time the sun is baking your skin and you are sucking down gulps of engine exhaust (beside all that, it is still a pretty reasonably enjoyable job).
Now that I’ve scared you all off, we may advance to the main point of this post: pastor Dave, while we were talking about the upcoming planting, asked what meaning—if any—the Old Testament gleaning laws have for our farming project in Nakaale. If you didn’t know, we’ve spent the last couple of seasons growing hibiscus for sale to an outside buyer, but this year we are thinking about trying out some different food crops, making Dave’s question freshly interesting.
The texts in question are as follows:
“And when you reap the harvest of you land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner. I amd the Lord your God.”
“When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.”
So, avoiding the thornier questions about the Old Testament law as it relates to the Church, do these passages provide a principle for us, as farmers, today? What does leaving the edges of the field to the poor mean for us as we harvest our crops this year? More to the point for our situation, how do these verses come into play when we are very much accustomed to the Karimojong stealing the crops out of our field in the first place? How can we seek to assist the poor in our community without sitting prey to and encouraging theft?
I confess that most often, I prefer to be the one making obscure and questionably meaningful inquiries. Dave beat me to this one and piqued my curiosity, so even as I am forced to think a bit about these issues, I thought I’d put the question to our readers, all six of you, and see what responses you might come up with. Leave your answers in the comments below, if you are so moved.
The point of the gleaning laws touches two issues.
The first is about the attitude of the owner. It reminds him that whatever his profit, it is not of his doing, but of God’s, and that the profit that God distributes does not fall equally on each person all the time. If you are attempting to maximize your profit, squeezing out every last penny, then you are not seeing things from God’s perspective. Compassion is not an option. Perhaps this is where we remember the fool who built the bigger barns, took his ease, and had a suddenly shortened life. How quickly his circumstances changed from wealth to poverty, and possibly eternal poverty.
The second is about “welfare”. It is not meant to be free, but to be earned, at least in some measure. When you glean, you are reaping the fruits of someone else’s labor – they planted, watered, weeded, etc., but you also have to contribute to the effort by doing the harvesting. The owner is not compelled to give you the food, only to allow you the opportunity to work for it. Gleaning is not easy work; rather is is closer to scraping the bottom of the barrel, where the reward is not as easily attained as it is in the main harvest. He who does not work, does not eat. This encourages you not to rely on this form of sustenance.
In our modern society that is mostly non-agrarian, this could be accomplished by a business setting aside a certain portion of their profit for training programs or internships that both provide some income (food) to participants, but which also require them to be engaged in the process, with the investment of their time and energy to acquire the skills on offer. Again, balancing the compassion owner of the “field” with the sweat equity of the gleaner.
Both are of equal value in the sight of God but have experienced the providence of God in different ways. The rich fool, the Tower of Siloam, the man born blind, and more remind of to be careful about our assumptions about our current station in life and our longer term prospects.
I think I appreciate the opportunity to leave some of the produce in the field just as a matter of course; that is to harvest in a purposeful and not lax way, but not to worry over every last scrap so that the truly poor can glean some by their own efforts. After these two passes perhaps the thieves will have little to steal.
But stealing and gleaning are not the same thing.
I also meant to say that I’ve thought that the gleaning principle applies for example to old goods, furniture, appliances, clothes that you no longer need. Rather then sell them, to get all you can (i.e. don’t reap to the corners), give them to someone in need.
This “gleaning” law is really an example of the general principle of helping the needy: Deuteronomy 15:11 There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land. Interesting that Matt 6:2 assumes you are giving to the needy “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others.”
With that in mind I think the gleaning laws indicate we are not to squeeze that last drop out of every profitable investment of ours. How might that apply to farming? I’m not a farmer, but I imagine that when you harvest you get most but not everything. You are not to go back to get every scrap but leave those for the poor. If your harvesting is 100% efficient then I guess you might set some aside for the needy (applying the more general principle).
I know this is not a new problem in Karamjoa for the Mission there. I would put up a fence around the fields, to at least reduce the stealing. And I think you used to have guards perform security. If that is successfull then you may have some gleanings for the poor. If it is not successful and you only have two grapes then you can give one to the poor and tell them you are sorry you don’t have more.
And when we’ve done all we can to protect our goods, and the stealers are still successful we must say Lord not my will but yours, and pray for the salvation of the stealers, even thought you pray for their apprehension.
Is there anyway that you can somehow teach those around you to plant their own crops?
Leaving the thornier issues previously set aside where you left them, it strikes me as a wonderful opportunity to practice what God said to do in the original, agricultural context in which it was intended!
Finding myself in a post-industrial-revolution economy, I sometimes feel somehow robbed of the chance to do God’s law in the context it was given and left with only ways to either say, “that’s not for us today” or to contort, twist, and squeeze his law into a questionable point of application only as good as my own judgment and easily blown over by any stiff wind of another’s opinion.
I don’t know. I’ll be around to read the wisdom of others on this one. I was hoping for some pictures of you on the tractor and the fields that you are working on. How about it?
Leave a sign that says to steal from the edge of your field. Now they aren’t stealing, even if they think they are, and the edge of your field is being put to good use.
In Ruth’s story, she asked first to glean and was given an exclusive invitation to glean only in Boaz’s field with protection.
Leaving the corners, some forgotten sheaves and remaining fruit on the trees is commanded. We should always work to have enough for ourselves and something to share with the widow, fatherless and poor. But it appears that the means of distribution is at the discretion of the righteous owner and according to God’s providence.
May you and the Karamojong saints enjoy an abundant harvest and the blessing of sharing the corners with your needy neighbors.
What if you were to reap all your crop and then set aside some for for the poor which could then be delivered to them? You would discourage theft and provide for the poor at the same time.
I don’t think you are required by the Levitical Law but you could do it to be loving and merciful. Maybe don’t leave it unprotected to thieves but let certain poor people know they are welcome to glean whatever you leave. Those are just my initial thoughts. Thanks for asking!
Alison Okken Post