An important principle of Mosaic law is found in Leviticus 19:9-10, 22:23: “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…” (See also Deuteronomy 24:19-21.) In Ruth 2, gleaning is described in more detail.
In an ancient, rural society, gleaning was part of the social (and legal) obligation landowners had to the poor. It was also an excellent way to limit waste. Gleaning combined compassion with efficiency.
In our society, gleaning is a foreign concept, though the poor still practice a garbage-like form of gleaning. They glean dumpsters and landfills and pubic trash containers. This is an ignominious way to glean, particularly when you think of how much food an average family throws away.
Today, we have food drives and collections, “gleaners offerings,” food banks, and soup kitchens, all designed to help the poor and hungry. These charitable efforts are an admirable, though largely sanitized, way of helping the poor. The practice of ancient gleaning brought the well-off and poor together. Gleaning was a way of personal sharing between different classes.
In Matthew 25, there is the familiar parable in which Jesus separates the sheep from the goats according to whether they gave Jesus food, shelter, and personal care. When both the sheep and goats protested they had never seen Jesus in need, he replied that however they had treated “the least of these,” they had treated him the same way.
When you’re approached at a gas pump, in a fast food drive-thru line, or on a street corner and asked for a few dollars, is this modern-day gleaning? More important perhaps, is this person Jesus?