Gleaning Wisdom

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 65; 147:1-11, Ruth 2:1-13, 2 Corinthians 1:23-2:17, Matthew 5:21-26


When Naomi returns with Ruth to Bethlehem, Ruth begins gleaning from the barley fields to find “someone in whose sight [she] may find favor.” Today the word “glean” usually describes a collecting of thoughts and ideas that originally belonged to others. Used biblically, “to glean” specifically means to collect the leftovers from a harvested field. Jewish law people explicitly instructed farmers not to harvest to the edge of a field, or to go back for what they had missed, so that widows, orphans, and impoverished aliens could find sustenance in what remained (Leviticus 19:9, 23:22). Naomi and Ruth both believed their future depended the fortunes of others, be it a farmer or husband.

Ruth eventually reaches the fields of Naomi’s cousin Boaz. Because of Naomi’s plight and Ruth’s faithfulness, he invites Ruth to drink from his harvesters’ vessels and to work among his people. He responds favorably to Ruth’s kindness to her mother-in-law. But what about others who suffer equally? Boaz wouldn’t have the resources to be as generous to all who gleaned, but in God’s eyes are others any less deserving? Jesus asks: “if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matt 5:47). Boaz’s response is commendable, but it also raises questions about the nature of charity. Most are willing to go above and beyond for a loved one, but few do so for strangers.

Today we might call gleaning a social safety net. It represents a mind-set that runs counter to the popular “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. Jewish culture assumed the poor would always be present, and mandated generosity. In America such approaches are highly controversial. Pro or con, we all can examine the social structures that make such safety nets ne cessary in the first place. Is society’s time better spent on perpetuating a gleaning mentality, or on eradicating the need for it by overcoming poverty? Can they be separated? The answers are not clear, but to participate in a society defined by God’s mercy and justice, we must continue to seek them.

Comfort: There is enough for all, if we don’t hoard more than we need.

Challenge: Meditate on these questions about charity: Who do you feel “deserves” it? How is it best managed? Does it matter to you whether it’s mandated or voluntary? If so, is that more about your needs or the needs of the less fortunate?

Prayer: God of abundance, teach me to see Christ in the needy. Amen.

Discussion: When do you find it easy to be charitable? Difficult?

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