This Jubilee Year reminds us that our policies and practises can be challenged and reversed.
As we attempt to reduce the causes of climate change and alter our relationship with creation, we know the benefits of leaving fields uncultivated at stated intervals. This helps reduce the soil’s exhaustion and improves its fertility. It is this ability to balance our needs with each other, locally, nationally, and globally, and with the whole of creation that will achieve the values and harmony our world so desperately lacks. The Jubilee laws provide a way of fulfilling this which can be perpetuated in our own times if we are prepared to collaborate widely and adapt our perspective.
Let’s go back to some earlier laws in the Old Testament regarding gleaning found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. These laws helped to develop a critical relationship with the land and its people which we could benefit from in our care of the planet:
9 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.
Leviticus 19:9-10 and Leviticus 23:22.
19 “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 for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.
So here are three obligations on farmers:
They were to leave the margins of their fields unharvested.
They were not allowed to pick up whatever produce fell to the ground when harvesting.
They were to harvest their produce just the once.
Those who would benefit by these laws on gleaning were the poor: that is the sojourner, the resident foreigner, the fatherless and widow. The difference between this model of poor relief and modern ideas about charitable giving are clear. The gleaning laws operated to impose a legal obligation which by definition was binding, compared with our contemporary charitable models which are based on personal choice and incentives. The Hebrew law is communal since all members of the ancient Israelite community had to fulfil their legal obligation regardless of their private opinion and economic priorities. This law underpins the Jubilee imperative of placing the community’s needs above one’s personal preferences and desires. To care for the whole community precisely because some members are wealthier than others is the crux of this law. Wealth and ownership are not simply a prerogative of the few but a command to share with those who have less.
In our present world, this plays out starkly when we see the poor, who living alongside the wealthy in cities and towns, scavenge rubbish dumps for the bare necessities. These rubbish dumps comprise all the excesses of food and materialism that we have discarded yet have become the livelihood of thousands of starving communities. In rural areas across the world many landowners hold their workers to ransom by selling their harvests to other countries at a premium while their profits never reach the workers who grew and cultivated the produce. Nowhere is this more pertinent than in the coffee we drink, the chocolate we eat and the minerals mined for our phones, computers and jewellery.
The basic gleaning law was applied variously up until the 18th century in England but it no longer operates in our current society in any obvious way. While there are many projects that re-use, recycle and re-distribute excess food supplies, gadgets, machinery, clothing, many household and lifestyle resources, these are implemented independently from government legislation, and therefore depend on random altruism rather than long term national support.
The term gleaning in our modern world alludes to the effect of collecting leftover or sell by date produce from supermarkets and delivering them to the poor. Commitment to this endeavour is voluntary on all sides. As the changing nature of our food industry today makes traditional gleaning only sustainable in agricultural lands and they are fewer now that urban development dominates our landscapes, it is still possible to apply the fundamental principle of the distribution of goods regardless of geography so that more people can live.
So this Jubilee Year reminds us that our policies and practises can be challenged and reversed. We can conserve our resources more carefully so that the distribution of goods can travel further, and we can change iniquitous policies around land grabs, international tax and tariff structures. A living wage isn’t just a wage we can live off, it should be a wage with which we can save. The rise in Food Banks and charities propping up our governments speaks loudly of our neglect of these principles in our own times. With our current cost of living crisis, we are a very long way from reducing the gulf between the poor and the wealthy today, yet the solutions are not so difficult if we see the world and its resources with new eyes. And if we see each other with mutual dignity.