Gleaning Hope: Letting the Land Serve the Poor

Mark Earley | President, Prison Fellowship Ministries | Thursday, May 07, 2009

Gleaning Hope: Letting the Land Serve the Poor

During these difficult economic times, some people are looking to traditional wisdom about how to best live their lives. For instance, the mess created by living beyond one’s means has given them a new appreciation for a biblical injunction against covetousness.

Another biblical injunction that is enjoying newfound appreciation during the economic downturn is gleaning. Like the prohibition against covetousness, biblical ideas about gleaning have applications that go far beyond the economic.

The Associated Press ran a story about what it called the “a growing army of needy people and volunteers . . . descending on farms, fields and backyards across the nation.” This “army” is gleaning “leftover produce that might otherwise go to waste.”

The people doing the gleaning include church groups, scout troops, and the needy themselves. They glean corn in Florida, potatoes in Colorado, apples in North Carolina, and oranges in California.

Given the biblical origin of the idea, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the organizers are Christian groups like the Salvation Army and the Society of St. Andrew. Their faith allows them to make the connection between the needs of the poor and a biblically inspired way to help meet that need.

At a time when “families struggle against the recession and try to maintain healthy diets,” this kind of biblically inspired thinking and action is vital. The high price of supermarket produce has families turning to food banks for more nutritious alternatives. Gleaning could make a real difference. One advocate estimates that “a hundred times more food could be gleaned if there was the people power to do it.”

But biblical ideas such as gleaning have applications that go beyond meeting people’s immediate needs. As important as that is, it also can teach us about how we are supposed to live.

At the heart of the biblical idea of gleaning is the conviction that the land ultimately belongs to God. While the Bible permits the private ownership of property, that ownership isn’t absolute. It is subject to God’s demands for justice.

Thus, Leviticus required farmers to leave crops for the poor and strangers to harvest. Similarly, it proclaimed that every 50 years—the Year of the Jubilee—land be returned to its original owner of his heirs. In both instances, the message is the same: The land is God’s and we are merely tenants. Acknowledging this was an essential part of what it meant to be holy.

While ancient Israel’s observance of these provisions was, at best, uneven, the biblical principle still stands—unless you are prepared to argue that the earth, and everything in it, is no longer the Lord’s.

I didn’t think so. While legally implementing these ideas is next to impossible, we can live as if we truly believe that “all things come Thee, O Lord, and from Thine own hand have we given back to you.” In a world where grasping after what isn’t ours and can’t satisfy us anyway has made shambles of so many lives, this example could be revolutionary.


This commentary was delivered by PFM President Mark Earley.

Chuck Colson’s daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

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