And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field…
The subject of gleaning in the fields may appear to some to be a very lowly one, and an address delivered exclusively to those who have been engaged in it, unnecessary: but a little reflection will suffice to remove such objections, if they ever existed in the mind of any person. Gleaning is not a humbler employment than that of a fisherman, and if the Lord turned the latter so as to convey instruction to His followers, there is no reason why the former should be beneath the notice of His ministers, in their efforts to reach the consciences of men. The custom of gleaning in the fields is very ancient. It is probable that it prevailed in the land of Canaan long before it was taken possession of by the children of Israel, and it is not unlikely that they found it there and adopted the practice. The nations who dwelt in this land were so wicked and abandoned that they were marked for destruction by the sword of Israel and of God. Their fields were fertile far beyond any fertility which now exists, as it was not an uncommon thing for grain to be reaped a hundred times beyond what was sown. The vines were so fruitful and the clusters were so large that the two men who went out as spies from the camp of the Israelites at Kadesh-Barnea, returned from the valley of Eschol carrying one bunch of grapes on a staff upon their shoulders as a specimen of what they saw growing in the vineyards. The gleaning of such fields and of such vineyards must have afforded no insignificant reward. When the Jews obtained possession of the land, after they had driven out the nations which were before them, God recognised gleaning in the Mosaic Law, and laid down rules for its regulation. The text which I have chosen from the nineteenth chapter of Leviticus contains part of this law; the rest will be found in Deuteronomy 24. God sanctioned the practice, and commanded that some grain and olives and grapes should be left to be gleaned by the poor, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and thus He required the Jews to pay to those who are more immediately depending for support on His bounty, a sort of tribute in acknowledgment of the tenure under which they held their land. The Jews paid no rent, because God Himself was the owner, having given it to them without price or reward; and when He commanded them to leave something for the poor gleaners in harvest, He did so that He might be able to bless His people in all the work of their hands. The reason why the Almighty sanctioned the practice of gleaning is very similar to this notion. He commanded His people to allow their fields to be gleaned, that they might always be kept in remembrance that they had been bondmen in Egypt. The recollection of this slavery was also preserved among them by the Sabbath, and by the command to do strict justice between man and man, as if the Almighty intended that the people, after they had attained to national power and prosperity, should be continually reminded of "the rock from whence they were hewn, and of the hole of the pit from whence they were digged." The sight of poor persons gleaning in the fields always reminded the Jews that they had been in slavery in Egypt, and that like them they had been depending upon others for a hard and uncertain living. In' fact, both the gleaners and the owners of the fields had been bondmen, and both were alike the receivers of God's bounty, although in different ways and in different degrees. More than three thousand years have rolled past since this law was enacted, but the principle which it contains is just as applicable to gleaners now as it was then. The poor Jew, gleaning in the fields of his rich brethren, had been a slave, but after he got into the Promised Land he became free; and exactly so, every gleaner who now searches in the fields of the farmers for heads of grain is free. I mean to tell you that you are politically free, and that you do not owe obedience to any master, except you bind yourselves to serve him for some payment. You were never slaves, as the Jews had been in Egypt, when they were forced to serve in a cruel bondage. But, let me ask you, are you really free? When you were gleaning in the fields this harvest, could you say with truth that you had once been slaves, but that you were now free? A person gleaning in the fields in harvest may be free, but she is a slave, bound hand and foot, if sin have the dominion over her. A woman gathering heads of grain in the fields may be free, but she is a slave if she spend her hard-won earnings in the public-house, drinking out of the cup which cheers, but swallowing along with the drink liquid fire and death. That gleaner is free who goes out and comes in without any to forbid, but she is a slave to the custom of gleaning, which is otherwise lawful, if, for the sake of the trifle which she may obtain in this way, she neglects her children, her husband, and her home. Every gleaner is as free as the air of heaven, but they are all slaves to their own passions if they are unable to agree together in the same field, and begin to use abusive language, to quarrel about rights which have no existence, except in the goodwill of the farmer, exhibiting scenes which could only find a parallel in the fields of the degraded Canaanites before they were driven out by the Jews. There is not a gleaner in the land who is not absolutely free, but every one of them is bound in fetters far stronger than fetters of iron or of brass, if, with this privilege of gleaning in another man's fields at their command, they have thankless hearts, and entertain no gratitude to God for His mercy, nor to the farmers for their benevolence. This brings me in natural consequence to speak about the persons on whose behalf God made the law about gleaning. They are the poor, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. I do not know whether those who go out to glean in the fields in these days could be arranged into these four classes; but they at least furnish a guide as to the persons to whom the Almighty especially extends His care. He told His people that the poor should never cease out of the land, therefore He commanded them, saying, "Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor and to thy needy in thy land." The poor are the objects of God's special protection, as long as they lead lives of holiness and humility, contented with their lot, and confident in the mercy of Heaven. If they are profligate and ungodly, dishonest and discontented, idle and careless, not one of the promises in Scripture will apply to them any more than they do to any of God's open and avowed enemies.
2. The next class of persons who were permitted to glean in the fields were strangers, from whatever country they might have come, as was Ruth, who was a daughter of Moab. God also made provision for them, knowing how unhappy is the lot of that man who is an exile from his native land. He commanded His people not on any account to do them an injury: "Thou shalt neither vex a stranger nor oppress him, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt." God by His providence watches over strangers, and never fails to reward those who help them, whether by allowing them to glean in the fields in harvest-time, or in any other manner.
3. The next class who were allowed to glean were the fatherless, whose parent was dead. If the Jew drove off from his fields in harvest a poor fatherless child, who wanted to glean some heads of corn, I have no doubt that he was guilty of a sin and a crime. There is no obligation upon any Christian man to allow such a one to search over his fields at this season of the year, but when he does permit the fatherless to glean up what the reapers have left behind, I make no doubt that he does that which is pleasing in the sight of God, and he will be able to understand, from the description of the judgment in the twenty-fifth chapter of St. Matthew, that the reward will far outbalance the kindness.
4. The only other class whom God allowed to be gleaners were widows. Like the poor, the stranger, and the fatherless, God always remembers them. Let them always remember, that, whether they may be in a cornfield among other gleaners, like Ruth in the field of Boaz, or, like the woman of Sidon, alone in a cottage with scarce enough food to eat, or, like the widow of Nain, following in tears an only son to the grave, God watches over them, and commands His angels to give them an invisible but effectual protection. There is little more to be said on this subject of gleaning, beyond one other consideration, which we shall do well to lay seriously to heart. We reflected upon the great harvest of men, which is to be gathered in by the angelic reapers at the end of this dispensation. That will be a harvest after which there will be no gleaning.
(O. B. Courtenay, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest.