Many Christian believers find aspects of the Law of Moses found in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) unjust, archaic, or just plain baffling. This is because it is nearly impossible to contextualize some of the laws found there to our modern lives and beliefs. For instance, the laws regarding ritual purification, or the harsh penalties prescribed for infractions that today barely get a slap on the wrist.
Amidst some of these difficulties, I find beautiful the laws of gleaning, statutes that are set like gemstones in the midst of commandments that are rather oddly arranged at times. For example, between a commandment to eat the entire remainder of a fellowship offering, and the simple dictate “Do not steal,” is this gem:
“‘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. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God. (Lev 19:9-10).”
This on first glance might seem imprudent or wasteful. Shouldn’t we always seek to maximize our profits and make full use of all our resources? No, apparently. Though God commends saving, thrift and resourcefulness, it matters more to Him that his people look beyond their own needs or profits. They must be willing to provide for the needs of others they can reasonably predict, of course, especially within their own families. But going another step, God’s people are to intentionally leave a portion of the proceeds of their labor available to a needy individual who might happen along the way. The poor or foreigner must find something left behind that will sustain him.
There’s no guarantee this will happen. In the case of agricultural fruits, there’s a chance that the remainders will go unclaimed and just rot on the ground or dry up on the vine. In modern, monetary terms, there’s a chance that leaving money on the table could limit our bottom line. But that is not to be our concern. When we hold back from greedily grabbing up all of the fruit, we are acting in obedience to the Law of God, and this carries its own reward.
John the Baptist hinted at this principle and its centrality to the advancing kingdom of God he was announcing. Preaching a baptism of repentance, he instructed them to demonstrate their repentance through true acts of generosity, giving away extra food or clothing (Lk 3:11). To contextualize this to the Church age in which we live, the Apostle Paul admonishes the believer not to steal, but to “labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” (Eph 4:28). Yes, we are supposed to take care of ourselves, so we do not become a burden to others. But that is not enough. We are to work hard enough at whatever work God has given us to do, so that there is extra on hand to share with those who are in worse circumstances.
I think this also has application to non-material fruits. If we learn great truth through our study or reflection on the Scriptures, or through our life experiences, we ought to be looking diligently for the opportunity to make it available to those who might show up in our lives. Who knows when you or I might be the person with a word for the weary, someone we had no idea was coming? Can we have such abundance of the fruit of the Spirit that we always have plenty for ourselves, plenty to share with those we know and love, and even plenty to give to the one who shows up at the door uninvited.
This is the beautiful law of gleaning. It releases a spirit of freedom and generosity in those who practice it, and sustenance to those go out to glean in the harvest fields.