Where has all the gleaning gone?

The other day at the grocery store I checked out some suet for the birds, and was shocked to discover it was priced at nearly $3 a pound. Does anyone remember the days when we could get it for  free?
The same goes for soup bones. At one time, butchers gave them away. Now, sure enough, we have to pay for them. And in the newspaper business, they now charge for the ends of the rolls of newsprint, which were once available at no cost to people like teachers who used them for art projects.
Whatever happened to gleaning?
Although I’m sure the butchers, grocers and news people of old never thought about gleaning, the tradition goes way back to Old Testament times, and was a way for the “haves” to look out for the “have nots.”
The Mosaic law says, “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, neither shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vineyard, neither shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.” (Lev. 19:9-10)
Elsewhere, it says, “When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.” (Deut. 24:20-21)
In the Book of Ruth there is a description of how the fields were gleaned: The poor followed the reapers at their work, and gathered all the remains of the crop, both those that fell out of the hands of the reaper and those that escaped the sickle. (Ruth 2:2)

These rules were serious enough that violators could be flogged. We’re not into flogging these days, and I doubt anyone will ever impose a financial penalty for not being willing to share, but the lessons are still there. We all, Christians and non-Christians alike, profess to have concern for the poor, for those struggling financially. We give to United Way, we donate to food shelves, we give of our “excess” whenever it won’t inconvenience us or keep us from indulging ourselves liberally.

There aren’t many of us who are harvesting fields or picking grapes, but what would it be like if we developed a gleaner’s mentality? Maybe something like this:

• Grocery stores would go back to providing soup bones and suet for free. They would stop folding the fat and excess skin under the chicken parts to increase the poundage; they would cease including the white, unusable part of the asparagus stalks to make it weigh more.

• Fast-food restaurants, which are required to throw out prepared food that hasn’t sold within 15-20 minutes, would be allowed to give it to homeless shelters.

• Businesses, such as utility companies, would follow the example of Co-op Light and Power in Two Harbors, Minn., which invites customers to “round up” their bills, and the extra money is donated to charitable organizations. For instance, a customer would write a check for $45 when the bill is $44.59. Thousands of dollars have been raised for good projects at very little cost to the donors.

• Personally, instead of selling every unwanted thing I’m clearing out of my house, I might donate it to Goodwill, Salvation Army, St. Vincent De Paul, or any other charitable organization in town.

• Or, if I really like having rummage sales, I might donate the proceeds to organizations that help those with even less than I have.

• Loose change might be saved and used as a donation for agencies that help “the stranger, the fatherless, the widow.” You’d be surprised at how quickly a jar of change adds up to $20 or $30.

The possibilities are endless. They spring from a decision not to clutch everything to ourselves with miserly cries of “Mine! Mine!” They happen when we cease being determined to squeeze every possible cent from a situation to keep for ourselves.

Gleaning might sound overly Biblical, or even overly simple.  It involves being willing to share–not thousands of dollars, but just the leftovers from our lives. It’s important, not just for the poor, but for ourselves, because the truly poor are those who think they have nothing to share. Selfishness breeds a tragic impoverishment of spirit.


About Monica Sawyn

I'm a retired newspaper reporter/columnist, and although I still freelance, I miss the weekly column I used to write. I still "see columns" in everyday life and need a place to put them after they're written--thus, this blog. I'm Catholic, have been a Benedictine oblate since 1977, and live with my husband and our beagle in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. When I'm not writing, I'm probably reading, sewing, taking photos or walking the dog.
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6 Responses to Where has all the gleaning gone?

  1. Denise says:

    Fantastic article! We have all gotten away from the days of watching out for and caring for our neighbors and the world is not in a better place for it.

  2. ravyngurl says:

    I love this! I always wonder the same thing, and I hope when we move to Minnesota, we’ll be able to provide some extra produce to donate to homeless shelters and the like. We’re planning to attempt a self-sustaining farm, so it’d be a perfect opportunity to share our luck/grace with each other.

    • Monica Sawyn says:

      I think that’s wonderful! If everyone did that, each to the level of their own abilities, the poor and underprivileged would be much more easily taken care of. What part of Minnesota will you be moving to?

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