When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. It is the same with your grape crop—do not strip every last bunch of grapes from the vines, and do not pick up the grapes that fall to the ground. Leave them for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the Lord your God. [Leviticus 19:9-10 (NLT)]
When you are harvesting your crops and forget to bring in a bundle of grain from your field, don’t go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigners, orphans, and widows. Then the Lord your God will bless you in all you do. [Deuteronomy 24:19 (NLT)]
When we spotted some Sandhill Cranes last week, I recalled the cranes we frequently saw when we lived in rural Illinois. In the fall, flocks of them could be found eating the crop residue remaining from the recently harvested fields. As they gleaned the corn fields, I thought of the words in Deuteronomy and Leviticus directing the Israelites to deliberately leave some produce behind for those less fortunate—the people who wouldn’t have land of their own from which to harvest. Allowing the poor to maintain their dignity as they labored in the fields, rather than a handout, the gleaning was considered a rightful opportunity to improve their lives. The command to leave left-overs from the harvest for the poor was not to be taken lightly. In fact, if nothing remained in his fields following harvest, a landowner could be punished.
While laws aiding the poor were common in the ancient Near East, this Jewish law was unique because it specifically mentioned widows and orphans and benefitted not just the poor Israelites but also resident foreigners. In the story of Ruth, we see how it helped the widowed Naomi and her Moabite daughter-in-law by allowing Ruth to glean the fields of Boaz.
As I thought about leaving something behind for those less fortunate, I remembered the words of some non-believing friends who have no children and only distant (and wealthy) relatives. Knowing they can’t take their money with them, they joke about spending every penny before they die (and are doing their best to achieve that goal). Granted, this couple earned their money and it is theirs to dispose of as they wish but I was shocked when they vehemently declared, “No charity will ever get a penny of it!” While those relatives will get something, there will be no left-overs for the less fortunate from their fields—no scholarships for the deserving, funds for cancer research or treatment, humanitarian aid for refugees, food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, safe places for the exploited, or empowerment for the poor.
The laws about gleaning taught the Hebrews not to be greedy with their blessings; they learned that a joyful time, like a harvest, is a time for generosity and compassion. Jesus continued in that vein when he commanded us to share our excess and to love our neighbor as ourselves. In our Judeo-Christian culture today, both faiths embrace the concept of sharing with and caring for others and encourage a willingness to give up what is rightfully ours to share with those less fortunate. Failing to be generous to those in need is no more an option for us as Christians than not leaving grain in the field was for the Israelite landowner.
I’m not a farmer—I have no fields, vineyards or olive trees—but I certainly have been blessed with more than I need. Remembering that time and talent are as a valuable as money, I imagine most of us have plenty of something that could be shared with those less fortunate. It has been said that the best thing anyone can give someone is a chance. For the cranes I’d see in autumn, the grain they gleaned gave them a better chance of surviving their long flight south. For the Judean poor, the part of the harvest deliberately left for them provided nourishment and an opportunity to better their lives. Do we have anything, even a few left-overs, to share that could give someone a chance?