Thought for the Week: 11th October 2020
Our thought this Sunday is taken from our harvest video service - click on the link below to access the full service.
9 ‘“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. 10 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. (Leviticus 19: 9-10)
This short passage is the basis for the ancient practice of gleaning – allowing the poor to collect left over grain. The Israelite farmers were commanded not just to allow this, but to actively encourage the process by ensuring that there was plenty left for them at the field edges. Actions that might ensure that the gleaners could scrape a living from what they found, perhaps collecting enough grain to bake a loaf of bread. The farmer was commanded to go the extra mile to help them, just as Jesus advocates in the gospels. There’s another similar passage in Deuteronomy 24 that adds a few extra instructions, if a sheaf of corn was missed, the farmer was not to go back for it, but leave it for the foreigner, the orphans or widows. Similarly after having beaten olive trees once to dislodge the olives, the farmers were instructed not to repeat the process, instead leaving the remaining ones for the poor.
All this seems rather quaint in our world where efficiency is king, where achieving profit by minimising all loses is usually the way forward. And conflict between the ideas in this passage and the quest for profit maximisation is not new. This idea of the poor having the right to glean grain from fields became accepted in many different countries because of these passages and it was the accepted practice in many parts of England until the late 18th century. Then in 1788 a wealthy landlord from Suffolk called James Steel decided enough was enough and, backed by other local landowners decided to take action. He sued a lady called Mary Houghton, who had been gleaning on his estate, for trespass and won. If you are wondering why the landowner was prepared to go to so much effort to stop something so trivial, apparently there was a backstory here; the Houghton’s smallholding was preventing the landowners enclosure plans.
One of the reasons that the judges gave for their decision was that gleaning might "raise the insolence of the poor". One of the interesting things about the many biblical commands to assist the poor is that the commands are not qualified. It doesn’t say assist the poor only if there is no danger of them becoming insolent, or assist them if they are deserving poor. It is just a case of helping the poor. Organisations like the Trussell Trust that runs our Foodbanks are very good at following this through, giving to all in need.
It may be that some of you reading this own fields of wheat or a vineyard, but most don’t. And even if you do, gleaning is perhaps not the ideal way to help the poor today. So what can we take from these verses? Well the message is that we should be generous with the fruits of our labours; just as the Israelite farmers were meant not to take for themselves every last grain of corn; we should not use every last pound from our pay-packet on our own wellbeing. Instead God asks us to save a little bit for those less fortunate than ourselves, to give to the poor, the weak or the vulnerable. That is what harvest festival is about – recognising that the good things we have are yes, the fruit of our labour but also owe a lot to others, good fortune and the bounteous gifts of God.