“When you reap the harvest of your land, you are not to reap to the very edge of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not strip your vineyard bare or gather its fallen grapes. Leave them for the poor and the resident alien; I am the Lord your God.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
As followers of Jesus, we are not beholden to the laws given to the people of Israel. They are part of an old covenant that predates the one we have with God in Christ. Our only law is Jesus’ command to love one another as He loves us. That being said, there is great wisdom in terms of shaping a country’s national policy in the various laws God gave the people to govern themselves. The question is: How do such laws apply in a modern setting and through the lens of Christ? Let’s consider this today through the lens of this intriguing law.
One of the sacred cows of our political environment today is the welfare system. The welfare system encompasses a whole variety of different social programs that provide various benefits to low-income families and individuals from food assistance to medical insurance to retirement income. A generation or so ago, the respective political parties went back and forth about how generous the benefits of this system should be and how much it was costing the taxpayers.
Generally speaking, the Democrat Party was in favor of a more generous benefits package and tended to be less concerned about the overall costs because taxes could always be raised (always on the “millionaires and billionaires” who never seem to be paying enough in spite of already paying more than everyone else). The Republican Party, on the other hand, wanted to reign in on the amount of benefits made available and to attach more work requirements to them so they did not become permanent, enabling handouts instead of a temporary assistance on the road back to self-sufficiency. Part of their argument was moral, but part was also financial because lower benefits that encouraged people back to work as quickly as possible cut down on the nation’s growing deficit.
In more recent years, though, both parties tend to merely assume on the benefits and rarely question adding more to the already growing list. When Covid hit, for instance, most taxpayers received thousands of dollars in direct payments from the government that was almost entirely controlled by the Republican Party. Many individual states also have generous welfare benefits available to residents that are separate and apart from federal benefits. I read the other day that there are several states in which a person can “make” more money from collecting welfare benefits (more than $80,000 annually) than they can in most available jobs.
Whatever your particular thoughts on the welfare system happen to be, though, we live in a world in which modern, advanced nations all have some sort of direct public aid for low-income citizens and even mere residents. This is how the world works, and even the most dispassionate libertarians don’t want to see all of these benefits disappear. And many folks who are eager supporters of the modern welfare state and who give even a little bit of credence to the Hebrew Scriptures held as significant by more than half the world’s population will point to passages like this one as a justification for their support.
The gleaning laws in Leviticus are interesting. The Law of Moses was given in a day long before there was anything like a public, state-funded welfare system. This was because there was no assumed value of all people. It was readily accepted that for some people, their lot in life was to suffer. If you were suffering, it was because the gods were punishing you for something you or perhaps your ancestors had done.
That kind of idea still lingers today in some places. I read a memoir years ago about a woman who was a Christian minister who married a man who was a Hindu priest. It was about how they navigated their differing worldviews to find a place of harmony that worked for them. While the idea sounds perfectly romantic in our pluralistic culture, I was wildly underwhelmed. But what stood out most to me (beyond her woefully inadequate grasp of historically orthodox Christianity) was his explanation for why there was so much suffering from the effects of poverty in places like India and so little native institutional help to deal with it. He explained that in the Hindu worldview, the reason these folks were suffering so much was because they had done something wrong in a past life and the cosmic forces of justice were holding them responsible for it in this life. Once they had paid their penance, if they bore it gracefully and graciously, they would go on to a happier next life. If we moved to alleviate their suffering in this life, we might short-circuit this cosmic justice and extend their suffering into their next life. Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have victims.
In any event, people who were poor in the ancient world begged for scraps and otherwise suffered. Then came the gleaning laws. God commanded the people who had plenty (they had whole fields to harvest in order to provide for themselves and sell to others) to leave a bit of extra behind as they went. This extra was then available for poor and vulnerable members of the community to come and harvest for themselves so they had something to eat. It was essentially the world’s first welfare system.
Now, as I said before, as followers of Jesus, that law doesn’t apply to us. It was given to Israel. But the heart of the command here is something from which we can draw some wisdom. It reveals God’s heart of compassion for the least of these in any culture. He cares for the vulnerable. Yet because He does not neutralize the meaningfulness of our choices, He does not simply swoop in and miraculously provide for their every need and desire. Instead, He has always accomplished His compassionate plans for them through those who are faithful to Him. For some people, He provides more abundantly than they need in their current moment so that they can share from their abundance with those who don’t have as much as they do. This is an idea Paul draws out in his second letter to the Corinthian believers.
What this means is that some sort of welfare system is good and right to have as a reflection of God’s own concern for the have-nots of any society. The question, though, is what form or shape this system should take. Trying to offer a comprehensive answer to that question is well beyond the scope of this post. That being said, what we find in this passage does offer three points that are worth considering in our thinking about such things.
First, and like we talked about yesterday, work is inherently ennobling. Any sort of income assistance that does not include some sort of work requirement will do more harm than good to a culture over the long term. People who are encouraged not to work will eventually accept the encouragement and stop trying to work. This creates a breeding ground for idleness and laziness and an ever-growing sense of entitlement that will gradually poison the character of whole communities, locking them into a pattern of poverty and dependence rather than empowering them to move out of it in order to help others do the same. The gleaning laws did not tell the landowners to harvest all of their fields and vineyards and then give some of it to the vulnerable members of the community. They instructed them to leave some of their harvest behind for these folks to come and harvest for themselves. The help was made available, but it came with a work expectation that created more opportunities rather than fewer.
We see the kinds of opportunities this system can create in the story of Ruth. When Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem from Moab, they are a pair of poor widows with no children to help support them. That put them in about the most vulnerable class of people in the society. Yet because the people of Bethlehem practiced these gleaning laws, Ruth was able to go and work each day to provide food for herself and her mother-in-law. In the process, she was able to connect with Boaz whose attention she drew because of her hardworking spirit and faithful character (and being superlatively attractive didn’t hurt). Had she merely gone somewhere to receive handouts from Boaz’s servants, this connection would not have been made, and King David’s great-grandfather would never have been born. All welfare should ennoble people and enable them to rise out of their circumstances, rather than trapping them in them. Indeed, the nation’s original experiments with a welfare system during the Great Depression had rigorous work requirements attached to them that resulted in some of the largest public works projects in our history being accomplished.
Second, personal help is always better than impersonal help. For a person to go and glean, she first had to go to the field of a wealthier landowner and ask permission to work behind his harvesters. On the other side of the equation, the landowner had to actively give permission to his neighbors to work in his fields. This meant there was a personal relationship involved in the interchange. This was not someone’s merely getting a check in the mail (or worse, a completely intangible direct deposit) from some nameless, faceless, impersonal entity in another part of the country and with whom they will never have any meaningful, life-giving interaction. It was one neighbor helping another neighbor. These folks knew each other. They knew their families. They knew their stories. They had the opportunity to help each other creating a healthy reciprocity between the two parties that benefited them both. This kind of help engendered a spirit both of compassion and of gratitude on both sides of the equation rather than entitlement and resentment. This kind of system is vastly superior to what we have today. But it requires a culture in which these kinds of relationships are encouraged and fostered with care and intentionality. We can’t fix the system until we fix the culture.
Third, this system was something individuals were called to create in their communities, and not one forced upon them by government confiscation of their income. Totally federalized systems of welfare will always be less effective than primarily local ones. My church regularly partners with a local organization called West Stanly Christian Ministries. WSCM is a fantastic organization that does incredible work in the community. They are meeting needs, helping the vulnerable, and empowering people to rise above their circumstances to the point where they can help others. And they do all of this without taking a single dollar of funding from the government (and taking on the strings that are invariably attached to those dollars). They build relationships with local churches (like us) to help in this effort, so that together we are able to meaningfully bring Gospel relief to vulnerable people in our community. And it is all motivated by Jesus’ example of love for neighbor and not mandated from on high, nor provided by funds taken from somewhere else where they could be unleashed more effectively by the locals where they originated.
Again, none of these observations will likely make any substantive changes to our current welfare system. But as followers of Jesus, we can work to bring Gospel relief to our neighbors using principles like these as our guides. Most of us may not be able to do anything about the current state of government help for the poor. But we can make sure that in our communities, attitudes of entitlement are kept at bay by the kind of ennobling help we see envisioned here. We can make sure that no one gets locked in a pattern of poverty so far as it depends on us. We can see people educated and empowered to accomplish more than they ever dreamed. In all of this and more, the Gospel is advanced and the kingdom of God is expanded and disciples are made. Nothing less than this is our mission. We’d better be about it.