I recently re-read a book entitled "The Year of Living Biblically" by A.J. Jacobs. Jacobs is a secular agnostic Jew in New York City who – purely out of curiosity rather than religious suasion – decided to not just read the Bible, but live every possible rule and regulation as best he could. He writes about his year-long experiment in living biblically.
The book is full of his interpretations for various passages. Recently, I was struck by his analysis of Leviticus 19:10: "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." The idea behind leaving some of the harvest was to provide gleanings for the poor.
We're all familiar with the most famous biblical example of the good that comes from this, namely the faithful and industrious Ruth whose gleaning led to a match with Boaz. The descendent of that match included King David, the ancestor of Jesus.
So gleaning plays a critical part of biblical history. "The idea of gleanings is one of my favorites in the Bible," Jacobs writes. "It goes like this: When you harvest your field, don't reap the entire field. Leave the corners unharvested so that the leftovers – the gleanings – can be gathered by the poor. It's a beautiful and compassionate rule. … It's been called the first welfare system."
What struck me about Jacobs' observation – namely, that gleanings are God's form of welfare – is that it differs in two major ways from the welfare of today.
First, leaving gleanings is a voluntary action. You can be a stingy property owner and harvest all your crop, but you have to be prepared to deal with the consequences, namely God's displeasure.
But no government officials were brandishing swords at Old Testament farmers and demanding they leave the corners of their fields unharvested. Landowners were not threatened with fines or imprisonment or confiscation by bureaucrats. Property owners were considered righteous if they conformed with God's edict, but it was no earthly business of government busybodies if they chose to ignore it.
Second, while this form of welfare was provided to the poor so they wouldn't starve, it wasn't exactly free. The people had to get out there, as Ruth did, and bend their backs in the hot sun while they gathered food. It was never expected that the landowner should deliver the gleanings to the poor in a gift-wrapped basket.
In other words, if the poor wanted food they had to work for it – just like everyone else. Just like the paid laborers in the field. Just like the landowner who often picked his crops alongside his workers.
And these two points distinguish the welfare of the Bible from the welfare of today. Biblical welfare was voluntarily provided by the wealthy and available to those willing to work for it.
Today, welfare money is forcibly removed from those who work and often given to those who won't. Not can't, won't. An unwillingness to work is rewarded and subsidized by a bloated and overspent government that steals money from its citizens at the point of a gun. This system creates millions of people who, tragically, never learn how to work.
Before the progressives jump all over me, I hope they've read 2 Thessalonians 3:10 – "For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: 'The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.'" The distinction between those who cannot work and those who will not work is very clear. We all know someone too ill, too incapacitated, too elderly, or too disabled to work for his food. No sane person objects to merciful charity and helping those unable to help themselves.
In today's economy, there are a lot of people temporarily down on their luck who would benefit from some gleanings. But these are the people who understand that gleaning requires work, and they embrace the opportunity to exchange labor for their daily bread.
I know a couple in their late 50s. Like so many others in this economy, the husband lost his job and the wife is clinging to her low-paying position. Naturally, they've been diligently searching for new employment commensurate with their impressive experience and credentials. But in the meantime, to keep body and soul together, they're pulling weeds. Yes, throughout the hot summer these people are on their hands and knees in other peoples' yards and gardens, pulling weeds. "Where's their dignity?" you might ask. I'll tell you where their dignity is: It's in their hands and knees, pulling weeds. These folks aren't asking for a handout from the government. They are doing whatever it takes to keep afloat in a rotten economy.
But our current welfare system has created an entire multi-generational dependent class that actually objects when they are asked to work. They protest that they are victims; that it's undignified to do menial labor; that they should be handed their (pre-packaged, pre-cooked, microwave-ready) food in a gift-wrapped basket.
Meanwhile, struggling workers are taxed more and more as the unemployment rolls swell. We are termed uncaring and uncompassionate when we complain that some welfare recipients dine on steak and lobster while the welfare providers are eating macaroni and cheese.
I do not believe God approves of "legal" robbery to feed an able-bodied dependent class. The compassion God requires us to show to the poor has been distorted and misinterpreted to the point where no one can object to massive fraud without being termed cold-hearted and uncaring.
The tragic part about today's welfare system is it traps people into endless dependence. My friends who spend their time on their hands and knees pulling other peoples' weeds are willing to do so because they don't want to be trapped. They also understand the difference between momentary assistance and endless dependence.
But there are now entire generations of welfare recipients – as well as the useful idiots who applaud the system – who cannot or will not recognize that distinction. And it is the combined efforts of those who steal to provide welfare, and those who live to collect it, that will aid in the eventual collapse of our country.
When that happens, the gleanings will be poor indeed.