So…here’s an idea you might not have considered for a while. “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. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the LORD your God.”
That’s Leviticus 23:22 in case it sounded familiar and you weren’t sure why. I want to play with it a little today. Frankly, it sounds immensely appealing and completely impractical. Here’s something a little more practical. This comes from Lisa Dodson’s survey of strategies for coping with poverty in the U. S. today.
Three years earlier I’d met Andrew, a manager in a large food business in the Midwest, and he told me that low wages are a big dilemma for him too, though together he and his wife made a decent income. But many of the workers in the food company made “poverty wages,” and he was affected by all the troubles people bring with them. Then he told me, “I pad their paychecks because you can’t live on what they make. I punch them out after they have left for a doctor’s appointment or to take care of someone And I give them food to take home. . . .
Today’s question is this: is the solution in paragraph one the modern equivalent to the solution in paragraph 2? I don’t think so. I don’t think there really is any modern equivalent.
In Dodson’s book, I met a produce manager who “managed” the standard for how good produce needed to be. If it isn’t up to the standard, he can’t sell it, so he gives it to the people who work in produce—and, of course, to their families. This guy raises the standard toward the end of every month. The result is that more and more produce “is unacceptable” at the end of the month and may, therefore, be given to the underpaid workers.
The produce manager is leaving the edges of the field unmowed so the poor can come and glean. He is making sure there is “surplus” by not taking all that is there to take. It is, however, not his field so his behavior raises some profound questions.
In a society where there are landowners, hired workers, and “the poor,” leaving crops unharvested along the edge of the field looks pretty good. The grain is all there. Anyone can see that the owner “owns” the grain and would have a right to harvest it. He would have, but he does not because he also has covenant obligations. He owes a duty to the poor of the village, whom, presumably, he knows. He also owes a duty to the immigrants, whom, presumably, he does not know. God says, “You need to balance your harvest from the field with your obligations to people who will go hungry if you fail in this obligation.”
Another aspect of this picture is that the owners of the other fields are under the same obligation he is under and everyone can see who is obeying the law of God and who is not. Without question, there will be farmers who interpret “the very edge” of the field to mean 5—10 feet and others who will estimate it at 1—2 feet. Still, it is a public norm and compliance with that norm is a matter of common observation.
Finally, the farmer is not called on to determine which of the poor members of his society and which of the immigrants “deserves” access to the unharvested grain. “Deserving” is no part of the question. The need is presupposed and the response to the need marks the members of the covenant community.
Our society is just not like that, all things considered. We are an urban society, which means that we don’t know each other and don’t expect to. We don’t deal in crops; we deal in cash and, increasingly, in credit. The mythology of our society is that everyone could be and should be, “self-supporting,” so we have turned “the poor” into “the parasites.” We have retained a fragment of the older ideology by talking, in some cases, of “the deserving poor,” but you can’t sustain a society like the one I described on the basis on judgments about who deserves poverty and who does not.
There are things we can do. The produce manager has declared the “field” he manages to be “his field” and has left food for the poor. We could make up some part of every public sector work crew of people who need the money, not of people who have the highest skill levels or the greatest seniority. We could emphasize the value of resource-sharing communities so that everyone in the group could draw, when necessary, on the resources of the whole group.
Every one of those thought balloons will run quickly into a needle of some sort. The produce manager’s behavior is unethical. The work crew solution will make every job more costly and probably more shabbily done. The resource-sharing community would have to have real authority over its members in order to work over the long run. As Americans, we don’t like any of those. As Americans, we are not part of a theocracy where such social practices can be established by concluding the commands with “I am the LORD your God.” That’s not us.
So I find solutions like everyone leaving part of the field unharvested very appealing, but I don’t see any systematic ways of applying it to the kind of society I live in. I see occasions when I can take an action on behalf of someone in need, but actions taken by individuals don’t add up to social practices. The farmer, in deciding to “obey God’s commandment” and leave the margins of the field for the poor, must also take the reactions of his neighbors into account. Everyone will know whether he has obeyed the commandment or not and the pressure to “go along” creates what today we would call an “opt out” system.
From God’s standpoint, that would be the very best kind.
 The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy.
 I know a lot of the people I see in a day because I do the same kinds of things every day. I know a lot of people at “my” Starbucks; in “my” department at the university; at “my” church; and even—oddly—people who run on “my” trail in Forest Park. I know Debbie because we have run on that same trail for many years. She’s a lot faster than I am, but we say hello and comment on the running conditions of that day. One day we exchanged first names and now we greet each other as she blows by me on the trail.
Hi Dale–when my parents lived in Arizona, my dad participated in a gleaning program. The group would go to various fields and pick up fruits and vegetables left behind by the harvesters. The grapefruit, I know, was made into juice and donated to those in need.
Linda Brown, your relative by marriage
Good to hear from you, Linda. I had never heard you last name before and I had to ask Bette to be sure. I think gleaning programs like that are a wonderful adaptation of the law about not “mowing to the very edge of the field.” If only it were possible, in our time, for the poor to help themselves to the fruit, we would be just about there. I know that isn’t practical.