When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be left for the alien the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this. (Deut. 24: 19-21 — See also Exodus 23:10-11; Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22; or Isaiah 17:5-6)
I gleaned a cornfield today.
The farmer climbed off the tractor to greet us when we arrived at his fields. The four of us pulled on work gloves and shaded our eyes with our hands as the farmer pointed out which fields we could glean. The weather has been tough this year, and planting came late. He had to harvest more than he normally would, but there is still much corn left behind for us, smaller ears that won’t sell. Before we begin, we husk an ear and pass it between us, like a ritual, each taking a bite of the sweet, crunchy corn.
Then we each start down a row, filling large mesh bags with corn. We each work at our own pace, and soon I am alone in the peaceful quiet of the cornfield, lost in the rhythm of harvest: the sudden pop of separating the ear from the stalk, the swish of pulling the outer husk off each ear, bending to carefully add it to the filling bag at my feet, then swinging the heavy bag forward as I move down the row.
When we’re finished, we pile into the truck and drive through the well-picked field, retrieving the full bags we’ve left in the rows. It is a satisfying feeling to lay across the bags of corn in the back of the pick-up, looking out over the field, and think of all this food that might have been wasted. We have picked hundreds of pounds of corn, and tomorrow it will be distributed to food banks in the area, where it can be efficiently handed out to hungry families across the county.
A practice of remembering
Remember my afflictions and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it, and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to and end.
They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness. (Lam. 3:19-23)
Gleaning is an ancient practice of providing communal support for the landless poor. Yahweh God commands the Israelites to allow the poor to glean their fields multiple times the Hebrew scriptures (see above).
Perhaps the most beautiful part of this commandment is the reason that God gives for issuing it: remember your past. So often the commandments of God are accompanied by this word ‘remember.’ Remember that your own story is one of hardship and fear. Remember that you have known hunger, pain, and want. Remember that you, too, have lived off the mercy of others. Remember your own suffering, says God, by not forgetting the suffering of others.
After wandering the desert wilderness for a generation, the Israelites will build their society in the Promised Land around the remembrance of their exodus story. Their worship, their social laws, their festivals and feasts will all create cycles of remembering so they do not forget who they are. The desert wanderers teach their children these stories, so the next generation will also remember the experience of suffering. The remembering of suffering and liberation will make them who they are. The practices of generosity, like allowing the poor to glean, will be the embodiment of their remembering.
I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me. (Psalm 13:5-6)
As I gleaned today, I felt so keenly the words of this Psalm: God has indeed dealt bountifully with me. What can I do to faithfully rejoice in that bounty? Is that bounty empowering me to trust God’s love more deeply?
I thought about what parts of our story we might be forgetting in our society. Perhaps the needy of our society are not widows, orphans, and strangers, but immigrants, homeless, and welfare recipients. Single mothers, elderly without families, and those living with physical and mental disabilities. Those who depend on their communities to keep them safe and to provide for them. Our neighbors, our friends, our co-workers, perhaps even ourselves.
I thought about how the deep truth of this command to allow the poor to glean still rings true today. When we come together as a community — creatively providing for each other, sharing from our own bounty – we are remembering and embodying our own story. When we connect the experience of our own suffering to the suffering of others, we open ourselves up to the possibility of generosity. Whether we are offering or receiving generosity, we are weaving our own lives into that communal story, and in doing so, we are continuing the practice of gleaning.
Gleaning is still possible within the context of modern farming! I spent some of my summer working with the Gleaning Project of the Chautauqua County Rural Ministry in western New York. You can read more about their gleaning and community garden adventures at their blog.