Today we will be looking at the topic of compassion, and how in allowing for gleaning of their fields, ancient Israel was making a statement that they would not be repeating the class abuse they had suffered in a foreign country. They were instead showing intentional and purposeful compassion to those in need.
Deuteronomy 24:19, 22 – “When you are harvesting your crops and forget to bring in a bundle of grain from your field, don’t go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigners, orphans, and widows. Then Yahweh your God will bless you in all you do. … Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt. That is why I am giving you this command.”
Because ancient Israel was an agricultural society, there are many laws that apply specifically to that type of culture. Gleaning of the vineyards is one of those unique instructions, but one that I believe we can still learn from and apply today.
So, what is gleaning of the fields? When a field was harvested, sometimes the fruit or grain that was not quite ripe was left on the vine or the tree, with the idea that the harvesters would come back through the field at a later time to ensure all of the harvest was brought in. However, God instructs the Israelites to leave what remained for those less fortunate in the land. After the main harvest, the poor class without income, typically widows, orphans, and resident outsiders, would be allowed to enter the fields of the wealthy and essentially scrounge whatever was left for themselves. In this way, the wealthy in the land would be assisting in providing for the literal welfare of those who could not provide for themselves.
Throughout the Torah, or instruction of God, he has commanded his people to take note of the poor and help them, and in doing so one will be blessed.
Psalm 41:1 – Blessed is he who considers the poor; Yahweh will deliver him in time of trouble.
Deuteronomy 15:7-8, 10-11 – “If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which Yahweh your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, “but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs. … “You shall surely give to him, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing Yahweh your God will bless you in all your works and in all to which you put your hand. “For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.’
God desires to bless the poor through those of his people who have something to share, and when they are faithful in doing so, it is as if they are giving to God himself.
Proverbs 19:17 – He who has pity on the poor lends to Yahweh, And he will pay back what he has given.
Conversely, God has always cautioned against exploiting, taking advantage of, or ridiculing the poor.
Proverbs 14:31 – He who oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker, But he who honors Him has mercy on the needy.
Proverbs 17:5 – He who mocks the poor reproaches his Maker; He who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished.
Proverbs 22:16 – He who oppresses the poor to increase his riches, And he who gives to the rich, will surely come to poverty.
Additionally, according to God’s pleading through his prophet Isaiah, providing for the needs of the poor is considered a type of metaphorical fasting; a sacrifice that God honors above the hypocritical self-denial of food that the Israelites in Isaiah’s day had only participated in for their own benefit.
Isaiah 58:1, 3-5 – “Cry out loudly [Isaiah], don’t hold back! Raise your voice like a trumpet. Tell my people their transgression and the house of Jacob their sins… [Yet Israel says,] “Why have we fasted, but you have not seen? We have denied ourselves, but you haven’t noticed! ” [God replies,] “Look, you do as you please on the day of your fast and oppress all your workers. You fast with contention and strife to strike viciously with your fist. You cannot fast as you do today, hoping to make your voice heard on high. “Will the fast I choose be like this: A day for a person to deny himself, to bow his head like a reed, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast and a day acceptable to Yahweh?”
The type of fasting that the leaders in Israel were conducting were only based on their own desire for God’s favor, not for truly being repentant. In response, God tells them the true type of sacrifice he was seeking in them: justice and compassion for those in need.
Isaiah 58:6-7 – “Isn’t this the fast I choose: To break the chains of wickedness, to untie the ropes of the yoke, to set the oppressed free, and to tear off every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the poor and homeless into your house, to clothe the naked when you see him, and not to ignore your own flesh and blood?”
And the promise was if they were to do so sincerely, he would then pour out his blessings upon them, the very thing they were hoping for through their own private and personal fasting.
Isaiah 58:10 – “and if you offer what you have to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted one, then your light will shine in the darkness, and your night will be like noonday.”
God was promising a blessing of recompense that would be poured out if they would simply obey his command to help the poor. Becoming a shining light is imagery that speaks to the exemplary status that would result for his people when they were faithful in carrying out what he asked.
Beyond the general Torah commands to provide for the poor of the land, what I find interesting about the command of God to allow for gleaning of the fields is that God also provides the reasoning behind it. They were to be obedient in this way, not just so they would be blessed and become a positive example to the rest of the world, but it was to be a reminder to themselves of their previous slavery in Egypt. This act of compassion was to prevent them from abusing the lowest class, because they had previously collectively been in that situation in Egypt. Therefore, as they practiced this compassion within their society, they would be honoring the memory of their ancestral bondage and making a statement that they would not be repeating the class abuse they had suffered in a foreign country with those among their own land.
In like fashion, I believe we should take this ideal to heart and put into practice actions that can be equivalent in our day and age.
Firstly, this command should encourage us to maintain a mentality that is supportive all classes of people in our society. Unless we are among the ultra-wealthy, as a working class we need to consider how slender the line is between being solvent and becoming bankrupt ourselves. For some there may only be a few months or weeks of hardship that can transition them to a similar status. This understanding should prompt us to act compassionately, as we ourselves could easily be in a similar situation. Yeshua’s command to “do unto others as you would have them do to you” should provide an appropriate response on our part.
Secondly, we should be intentional about contributing to those among the lowest classes of our culture. Whether it is through volunteering in local events or organizations designed to provide assistance, or whether it is contributing to those types of causes through our abundance, this command should prompt us to have an intentional plan of assisting others in need. We may not have agricultural fields that others can glean from, but we all have some source or sources of income which can be be apportioned thoughtfully and compassionately.
And finally, while many might seek to pursue political activism and social justice on behalf of the less fortunate, we need to be cautious if we are relying on systems and governmental institutions to fill in the gaps of our personal, spiritual obligation to assist those who are poor. I am deeply convicted when I read the personal nature of Isaiah’s exhortation to the people of God: “”Is it not to share YOUR bread with the hungry, to bring the poor and homeless into YOUR house, to clothe the naked when YOU see him, and not to ignore YOUR OWN flesh and blood?”
With the incredible variety of challenges that the poor and homeless in any community may be experiencing, such as mental challenges and drug addictions, inviting them into your home may not always be the safest or quite honestly best thing for them that truly helps their real needs. In those cases, we must exercise discernment. But it certainly does not absolve us of our ability to personally assist them by at least helping them to possibly find a local mission or para-ministry organization who may already specialize in providing more holistic support that can help them get back on their feet. Like the Samaritan of old in Yeshua’s parable, perhaps we can assist the disadvantaged individual by helping them to a caring organization and simply offer to help with the cost of their program involvement.
Let’s do a thought experiment. By current estimates in 2022, the average number of people per household in the U.S. is 2.6. With approximately 340 million Americans, this equates to around 130 million total households in this country. 67% of Americans claim to be Christian; this results in an estimated 87 million Christian households. The poverty rate among Americans is just above 10% of the total population. That equals approximately 34 million Americans or 13 million households in poverty. So taking all of these numbers into account, in simple math, if each one of the 87 million believing households was intentional about assisting just one of the 13 million households in poverty, poverty could easily be eliminated six times over in this country!
Now obviously these are round numbers and general assumptions that do not take into account the many-faceted challenges associated with a task of this magnitude. Is it really this simple? No, but hopefully it provides at least a glimmer of a perspective of how significant real and personal involvement can be. Isaiah encouraged his generation to take personal responsibility for their poor, and I believe God is continuing to task his people with this same objective. Think of the possibilities of what a more solvent society could mean not only for those rising out of poverty, but for our economy and for the benefit of all Americans. And beyond that, what if believers were to solve poverty in America, and then take that same momentum to other areas of the world in need? Truly acting on what we say we believe can make a real difference in this world. And that difference can honor God and bring glory to his name to a world desperately in need of him.
So, in conclusion, demonstrating compassion is not always easy; if it was, it would be commonplace, and we would not need to be encouraged to take actions that we would normally do anyway. However, what we can learn from the principle of gleaning of the fields is that it takes forethought and intentionality to be obedient to the commands of God when it comes to helping others. And while our current social status might not be based on a lineage that has been rescued out of actual slavery like the Israelites were, we as believers have all come from a background of spiritual slavery of disobedience to God in one form or another. God showed compassion to us when we were spiritually bankrupt and had nothing to offer him. If nothing else, this compassionate love of our God toward us should provide a recognition of our common bond with all others, not only in our country but around the world. This bond should then spur us on to obedience, to be faithful to God’s command of demonstrating compassion with those who cannot provide for themselves.
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