Bruce Epperly: The Book of Ruth, Gleaning, and the Social Safety Net

by Dr. Bruce Epperly

Leviticus 19:9-10 proclaims:

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

The God of Israel recognized the reality of poverty. God was well aware that poverty is more often the result of accident and misfortune than laziness. As the Hebraic scriptures, or Old Testament, constantly asserts, God hears the cries of the poor. Abraham Joshua Heschel described God’s relationship to the world in terms of “pathos,” God’s passionate care for the vulnerable, grounded in God’s experience of their pain.

God is not aloof, but our companion every step of the way. Passionate for justice, the details of life matter to God, as can be seen from Hebraic laws and prophetic critiques. God is concerned that the scales for weighing be exact, that farms be maintained by owners and not foreclosed, that lending be a matter of ethics and not profit, and that every child be fed.

Gleaning, or what we would describe as the “social safety net,” was not optional nor was it a matter of generosity. It was law! God’s law, and it was required of landowners and institutions. The divine passion inspired prophets to cry out against the injustice of economic inequality and the dissonance of poverty in the midst of plenty. Everything is personal to God, and this means business and government as well as individual relationships.

Ruth and Esther CoverThe Book of Ruth is more than a pretty love story. Now, I must confess that I like the happy endings of Hallmark movies. I delight in performing weddings and celebrating at wedding receptions. The Book of Ruth is often invoked in weddings and the relationship of Ruth and Boaz is often seen as purely romantic. But, it was also a matter of economic survival and the welcoming of a foreign women into the Jewish community.

Ruth can be read as immigration story, as a reminder that strangers have a place in our communities because they are God’s children, too! Ruth can also be read as an argument for a strong social net provided by government and business as well as personal generosity. Worried about their survival, Ruth goes to the wheat fields to gather food, the leftovers at the edges, and perhaps to catch the eye Boaz, who will provide economic security for this mixed race family. As scripture notes: “And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.’”

Ruth had a right to glean in the fields. She was poor and she was a foreigner and God’s law mandated that Boaz provide out of his largesse for the well-being of the power. All’s well that ends well. Ruth marries Boaz, bears a child, and becomes the great-grandmother of King David, Israel’s greatest king. Dig deeper, the greatest king was the descendant of a foreigner, an immigrant, and a welfare recipient. Although she was single and childless at the time, Ruth’s experience is similar to today’s single parents, the working poor, doing their best to support a family on a minimum wage job. Ruth’s experiences is also mirrored in the couple, both of whom work in the service industry, perhaps serving our lunches or cleaning our rooms, who barely scrape by, who receive no sick leave from their employers and must go to work or not be paid or lose their job, and who live from paycheck to paycheck and must depend on government services for health care and child care. (For more on Ruth, see Ruth and Esther: Women of Agency and Adventure.)

In the midst of the election cycle, the Book of Ruth challenges any form of “dog whistle” politics that asserts that the poor are lazy and undeserving, and highlights “welfare queens” (with the implication that these are people of color) while neglecting our nation’s subsidies of corporations, many of whose employees must receive their health care from the government, our tax dollars, because wealthy corporates often fail to give benefits or a living wage to their employees.

In today’s world, the practice of gleaning was a tax. It was God’s requirement, codified in Hebraic law. Generosity was encouraged in Israel, but generosity is always optional and arbitrary. Law is a requirement. Those who call themselves Christians would do well to look at the principle of gleaning, as well as the sabbatical and jubilee years, as a reminder that we have a social responsibility for the poor and vulnerable and that governmental support for vulnerable people is a necessity and not a luxury in securing the protection and the common good of the nation. This means fair taxes for the wealthy and corporations, who gain the most from our economic and governmental systems. Christians would do well to challenge candidates for whom lower taxes are an idol and who want to “starve the beast” and in so doing, starve our families and children.

To God, it’s never just business or public policy or profit, its people and their joy and pain. God rejoices when the city streets are safe, children are laughing, everyone has enough to eat, and families are secure. God delights in just such public policies and governments that care for the least of these.

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