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Sheaves and Charity - Lessons of Harvest

"When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands". ~Deuteronomy 24:19

Here in the Midwest, it is very rare to see someone still harvesting their fields by hand. Instead we have giant combines costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy new being utilized to bring in the harvest. Combines have taken what used to a process with multiple, labor intensive, somewhat tedious steps and combined them into one machine. This common machine farmers use today would have been seen as truly miraculous in Old Testament times.

Harvesting a field by hand is a multi-step, multi-day process. First, it was cut by hand with a sickle and once your arm was full, you bound the crop, stalk and all, into a sheaf. The sheaves were generally organized into larger piles throughout the fields to help facilitate them being picked up by camel or oxen. The animal would have a bundle secured to each side of them and be led to the threshing floor and unloaded. Once it arrived at the threshing floor, it was beat or trampled in some way to separate the grain from the rest of the plant.

Then it was winnowed, a multi-step process of its own to separate the kernels of grain from the straw. The grain was then sifted to further separate it from things like small rocks or bits of straw. Today, all of this is accomplished by combines driving through the fields at harvest time.

Even with the modern technology employed in harvesting crops today, some still gets missed. Perhaps you have noticed the random corn which grows among the bean fields. This occurs because the previous fall, as the combine worked its way through the field, some corn kernels didn’t make it into the right part of the combine and were thrown out the back with the chopped-up stalks, leaves, and corn cobs. Or some crop was spilled when moving it from the combine to the wagon for transportation to the grain bin. This is crop which gets left behind. This is crop which, in Biblical times, would have been gleaned by the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow.

This passage in Deuteronomy, as well as a nearly identical passage found in Leviticus 23, addresses not the workers who bring in the crop, but the owners of the fields. It is a challenge to guard against greed. The margin between profit and bankruptcy in farming has always been slim, and largely dependent upon the weather during a single growing season. And during the time of the Old Testament, there was no such thing as crop insurance to help you weather a bad year or two. So the temptation for land owners was to be rather obsessive about making sure every piece of grain was accounted for.

However, in any given community there were always those who had no way to provide for themselves. Foreigners had no family to be their safety net or from whom they could inherit land or learn a skill. The fatherless and the widow had no man to provide for them in their families. These were people with virtually no rights in society. They had no political protection and no way to earn a living. They were powerless. And there was absolutely zero benefit to landowners to care about their fate.

But then there is this teaching. And the tradition of the day where the corners of the field, the gleanings, and the forgotten sheath were considered the property of the poor. Calvin in his commentary on Deuteronomy explains that these parts of the harvest were to be left because “it is a sign of ingratitude, unkindly, and malicious to withhold what we derive from His [God’s] blessing.”

The reality check for the landowners was that a good crop was only due, in a very small part, to their hard work and cleverness. God was the one who provided the rain and sunlight at the right times in the right amounts. The weather was beyond the control of any human, including a politically powerful and wealthy landowner. Demonstrating kindness to the underprivileged by allowing them to make use out of crops left in the field because there was so much already being gathered was a key way to give thanks to God for the harvest.

Today the poor, powerless, and underprivileged among us don’t glean directly from the fields. It honestly doesn’t make sense for them to feed their families in this manner. Fields in the Midwest are massive compared to the fields mentioned in scripture and the machines used to harvest them leave too little behind. But we are still called to care for them. Throughout both the old and new testaments, we are reminded that a key measure of one’s moral goodness, of a society’s faithfulness to God, is how well the poor and powerless are cared for.

Deuteronomy is one of five Old Testament books from which the Jewish law is derived. The first five books of Scripture set the tone for how the nation of Israel was to live, how they were to treat their fellow human beings. And when it was done as God intended, passages such as today’s reminded the people that devotion to God means little without acts of charity. Acts of charity today don’t generally involve leaving excess crops in the field, even if you happen to be a farmer. So, what do they look like?

Well, they look like Zion Lutheran Church in Des Moines who purposefully opened their doors to the immigrants in their community trying to start their lives over from scratch so their children could grow up in a place where they felt safe. They look like Clearwaters Life Centers in rural northern Minnesota which provides a space for youth to experience art, adults to experience healing, and a community to gather together. They look like opening up your home and heart to children in foster care. They look like the business owner who strives to pay their employees a livable wage and ensures the men and women they employ are paid equally.

They look like people of faith recognizing that all they have ultimately belongs to God, not to themselves, and who trust that God will continue to provide for their needs so there is no reason to greedily hoard what they have been blessed to receive.

Follow Up

1. Needs and wants are often used interchangeably in our culture today. I need a new cell phone. I need a new car. I need faster internet speeds. I need my fancy Starbucks latte each morning. But how often do we really NEED things? Take a hard look at what you “need” to see if it really is a need, or is it something you want? How often do you believe you have nothing to give to those less fortunate because you are making your wants into needs? Challenge yourself to open up one place in your schedule and budget by recognizing a “need” as a “want” and putting that excess towards helping the underprivileged in some tangible way.

2. It is incredibly overwhelming to see all those who are hurting and suffering in the world and know you can’t help everyone. So concentrate on helping just one person. Help one person in your immediate family. Help one person in your community. Help one person who lives in a foreign land. Make a meal, offer a ride, volunteer at an outreach event, sponsor a child, ask around and you’ll find lots of ways, big and small, you can help someone else.

3. Invite someone to get involved with you. Leaving the forgotten sheath for the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow was something the entire community participated in. After all, any of the workers could have easily picked it up and taken it with them effectively stealing from those who had no way to earn a living. Plus, you are more likely to stay committed to whatever it is you are doing if you are doing it with a friend. So invite someone to join you in whatever acts of charity you are currently doing, or would like begin doing! Bonus: It’s a great, easy, natural way to share your faith!

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