How to remember the poor - by rediscovering this forgotten Biblical practice
I'd like to make a confession. Maybe you can relate.
I get a certain self righteous enjoyment from bashing big church building projects. I feel like an Old Time Prophet waving my bony finger and screeching, "You bunch of vipers! You are robbing the poor!"
Take Joel Osteen for example. It's easy to point out all the ways Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church congregation might have better spent those millions of dollars... Feeding the hungry. Digging wells in drought-stricken lands like Cambodia. Buying lots and lots of TOM's shoes.
Joel Osteen is such an affable target. He really is living his "best life now" - while the rest of us get our knickers in a twist about his private helicopter pad. (Come pick me up Joel - all is forgiven!)
But truth be told, it's a LOT easier to knock things down than suggest an alternative. When you become passionate about social justice, it's easier to be an armchair critic than forge a different path.
It's easier to point the finger than extend the hand.
So, in the spirit of hand-extension, here's another way to think about these inevitable building projects. A way to invite people into a common cause. A middle road that will get the building done AND benefit the poor.
Here's my proposal...
In ancient days, God came up with a pretty clever idea about how a society could ensure that the poorest folks would be able to survive. This was literally the first Welfare System. You may have heard of the concept. It was called Gleaning:
“‘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 and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God." (Leviticus 19:9-10)
According to the Torah, farmers shouldn't try to gather every last little bit of the harvest. But instead they were to leave the edges of their fields unharvested for the poor and the foreigner.
I can imagine Moses saying something like this...
"Mr Farmer, don't be persnickety about pickin' every last grape! Leave a few bunches hanging there on the vine! And those olive trees? Don't harvest every last olive for your Jewish pizzas. Instead, leave some fruit on the trees so that widows, orphans and refugees don't starve. They need olives for their pizzas too!"
Remember Refugee Ruth? The star of the creatively named book of Ruth? She was an economic refugee from a famine-ravaged land. And Ruth benefited from this Welfare System as well. Ruth came and picked enough free food for herself and her widowed mother-in-law, AND she snagged herself a husband in the deal at the same time. Clever lady!
So, what if this beautiful Gleaning principle were applied today?
Here are a few ideas off the top of my head....
Imagine if your church building project was conceived with the commitment that a decent chunk of the funds raised would go to building houses for the poor in other countries. That's Gleaning.
Imagine if your annual church budget was prepared with a portion set aside for widows, orphans and refugees. That's Gleaning.
Imagine if your nation was open to sharing some of its wealth with refugees and asylum seekers and other impoverished nations around the world (instead of blowing billions of bucks on buying bullets and ballistic missiles).
That would be Gleaning.
Surveys show that most citizens think their government spends a large percentage of the national budget on overseas aid.
Here are the actual percentages:
Sweden – 1.40%
Norway – 1.05%
Luxembourg – 0.93%
Denmark – 0.85%
Netherlands – 0.76%
United Kingdom – 0.71%
Finland – 0.56%
Switzerland – 0.52%
Germany – 0.52%
Belgium – 0.42%
France – 0.37%
Ireland – 0.36%
Austria – 0.32%
Canada – 0.28%
Australia – 0.27%
New Zealand – 0.27%
Iceland – 0.24%
Japan – 0.22%
Italy – 0.21%
United States – 0.17%
[Aid as a percentage of Gross National Income. Source: OECD Development Assistance Committee.]
Imagine if we not only committed to do these things at a church level, or community level, or even at a national level. But also in our own lives.
Imagine if your Christian business was run on the principle that some of the products and services would be reserved for the needy. A percentage of profits to the poor.
Imagine if your new dream house was built with an extra room for a single mother or a basement apartment set aside to house a low income family. That too would be Gleaning.
Oh, did I go too far just then? Too personal?
Actually, that's exactly what my parents did when I was growing up. They owned a fairly large property. But my parents used that property to build a couple of apartments to house refugees and low income families. We welcomed refugee families from Laos and Vietnam to live with us at various times. We also had guys who had recently come out of prison, solo mothers and their kids, and all kinds of other interesting characters (oh the stories I could tell!)
I've started calling this approach "reverse gentrification" - bringing the poor to live with you in an affluent neighborhood.
Then, not satisfied with just providing housing, my parents took it a step further, and filled up the spare bedrooms in our house with a steady trickle of vulnerable foster kids. They wanted to open up our family to others.
Dozens of children came through our home over the course of my childhood. It was one of the best lessons in Gleaning I could have ever learned. They used their excess space, a percentage of their resources, to provide for the poor. And I've gone on to practise that same principle in my own life ever since.
Not all of us have the capacity to do what my parents did. But what resources do you have? Jesus was pretty clear, all it takes is 5 loaves and 2 small fish to get the ball rolling. Once you start, that's when the miracles can occur.
I for one, want to be part of God's beautiful upside-down Kingdom plan for this earth.
And as my friend Scott Bessenecker says - a quick look at the life of Jesus shows he had a LOT more to say about how we use our coins than how we use our loins.
So, I'm calling for a Gleaning Revolution.
And I'd like to invite Joel Osteen to be part of it too. Joel and his helicopter.
What about you? What is God prompting you to do? What do you have in your hand?
It doesn't take anything much to get started. Just an open hand instead of a clenched fist - a generous heart and a Theology of Enough.
What other ideas for translating Gleaning into our modern context can you think of? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments.
[Read more about our experiments in pursuing economic justice as a family in my brand new book, Subversive Jesus, a #1 Amazon bestseller in Christian ministry books.]