Gleaning and Giving: Thinking about Poverty Relief

by
May 8, 2015

In the midst of a busy workday, we’ve all used our lunch hour to run errands. In the midst of checking off a never-ending list of to-dos, we’ve been confronted with the all-too-familiar scene of a person holding a sign with a message akin to “Need work, please help.”

For many of us, a direct encounter with those in need is the catalyst that forces us to grapple with the reality of poverty and hunger, but too often the internal wrestling ends when the light turns green or when we walk past a particular intersection. Like many occasions in life, the best time to formulate a response to difficult situations is not in a tense moment, but before the moment is upon you. That said, let’s examine some common responses to need in light of scripture and work toward a solution that is constructive and redemptive.

In recent months I started asking Christ-followers how they responded to these encounters and I observed three trends. I noticed some are opposed to offering handouts and the reasons varied from person to person. Others are in favor of offering handouts because of a desire to meet an immediate need. There is also a large number of people who desire to assist people in need but are unsettled on a solution.

I appreciate the motivations of those who offer handouts (although it can be used to soothe the conscience of the affluent). I’ve encountered a number of people who give out of a genuine desire to meet a need. Unfortunately, I’m convinced that a long-term poverty alleviation plan that features handouts is shortsighted because it fails to consider the fullness of God’s creative design. A robust Christian worldview includes four principal relationships that each person has, including a relationship with 1) God, 2) others, 3) one’s self and 4) with God’s creation. Material poverty is a symptom of one or more of these relationships being disproportionately strained and a one-size-fits-all solution like offering handouts does not account for or restore the complex causes of poverty.

Conversely, those opposed to handouts arrive at their conclusion for different reasons. I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend among some in opposition to handouts because of an underlying distaste for the poor. This aversion is a result of the assumed character flaws or poor decision making that resulted in their plight. It must be understood that poverty is not always the result of bad personal choices nor refusal to work. Like the rich, the poor’s economic status is a confluence of personal, systemic and relational dynamics.

I’m encouraged by a second trend among those who are opposed to handouts. This group has carefully crafted alternative solutions that eclipse the benefits of (but does not exclude) direct material support. As time passes I hope to carefully craft solutions that are truly beneficial to those in need, but I have a lot of thinking to do.

In the book of Ruth, the economic climate was desperate because of a famine that plagued an agrarian society (1:1). Ruth had additional challenges to overcome including: being without a husband and father-in-law in a patriarchal society (1:3-5), having taken responsibility for her mother-in-law who did not contribute to their economic wellbeing and having moved to a foreign land (1:22). In essence, Ruth’s safety net crumbled beneath her feet like many in our cities today who resort to holding a sign on the street corner.

Although I’ll focus on Boaz’s response to Ruth for the Canon & Culture readers, a glance at Ruth’s faithfulness during economic difficulty is noteworthy. In a proactive effort to meet her own needs, Ruth studied her surroundings, found an opportunity to work and took the initiative to pursue a promising option (2:1-2). After finding a means of providing for herself and Naomi, Ruth worked hard (2:7) and maintained a good reputation (3:11) to make the most of her opportunity.

The story of Ruth is a beautiful example of stewardship and providence that helped sustain the line of the Messiah (4:18-22). Ruth’s deliverance from material poverty was due in large part to wise stewardship of what that God gave her, in this case, a familial relationship to Boaz and her ability to work. At the same time, Ruth’s delivery from poverty required Boaz to faithfully steward his influence on behalf of another.

In the story, Boaz took the concept of gleaning from Leviticus 19:9-10 to heart. God’s instruction to love the sojourner and the poor is embodied when Boaz encouraged Ruth to continue gleaning on his property (2:8-9 & 2:15-16). In addition, Boaz protected Ruth when she was vulnerable (2:8-9), he honored her for her integrity (2:10b-11) and he self-consciously acted as a conduit of grace by pointing her to God as her provider (2:11b-13).

The gleaning model is one of a number of potential solutions that affords an opportunity for the broken relationships that lead to material poverty to be healed. Let’s revert back to the more contemporary example of the person on the corner with a sign to apply the gleaning principle to our lives.

As a homeowner there are any number of housekeeping tasks to be done. Let’s consider a household chore like yard care (along with maintaining a margin in our finances, likened to “not reaping our fields to the very edges”). With the constant need of summer yard care in mind and some discretionary funds in tow, an encounter with someone in material need can be redemptive on several fronts. The homeowner can simultaneously receive help with his household chores and dignify someone by meeting their need via hiring them to do yard work.

Application of the gleaning principle has restorative potential for each relationship in the Christian worldview (noted above), beginning with the relationship between humanity and creation. A simple, yet illuminating definition of work will help us along the way, simply stated, “What creatures do with creation.” With this definition in mind, if someone does not know how to cultivate creation in a constructive or marketable manner then they are unable to be gainfully employed.

How does the Christian help heal someone’s relationship with creation? Vocational discipleship is one means of assisting. If the person does not know how to cut grass one option is to find another worker, but a more fruitful path is to vocationally disciple them. In essence, discipleship is bringing about the hidden potentials in someone or something. So, teaching someone how to cut grass and trim bushes allows them to cultivate God’s creation (Genesis 1:28-30), thus mending the relationship, but it gives them a marketable skill that could result in future employment.

If a person has a marketable skill but no relationships with others then there is no possibility of gaining employment. Some of the most gifted people with highly refined skills are jobless because of the lack of relationships. The vocational mentor can assist their mentee with their interpersonal skills and ultimately utilize their relationships on their behalf. For example, if the mentor has a friend who owns a lawn service they can refer their new friend for a job and vouch for their skill set that was cultivated in their own yard.

Regarding the relationship with self, working is part of humanity reflecting God’s “image,” in fact we are introduced to God himself as a worker in Genesis 1:1. When image bearers have the opportunity to work and provide for their needs it brings about dignity which is rooted in the ability to reflect the actions of God himself. In essence, working instills a sense of fulfillment and value in a worker that undergirds a healthy view of one’s self.

Lastly, and most foundationally, the human relationship with God. After having selflessly served another, one friend has the opportunity to communicate the message of the gospel that heals the relationship that makes the others possible. While common grace allows some ability to rebuild these relationships, true restoration is only possible by someone who is a new creation. A worker can only experience what it means to work unto the Lord as a follower of Christ. Entering into the rest of Christ is prerequisite to becoming a fulfilled worker that cultivates love for neighbor, peace with one’s self and an understanding of God’s world.

As we pass by the “Need Work, Please Help” signs, the question becomes, “How can we utilize our resources to love our neighbor?” We might not have the land, crops, workers, money nor infrastructure that Boaz had, but the question remains, do we utilize our resources, opportunities and contacts to further our own careers alone or to love God and neighbor?


Walter Strickland
Walter Strickland is the Special Advisor to the President for Diversity and a professor of theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter at @w_strickland.