Bruce Baker and Tom Parks on What Businesses Can Learn From the Book of Ruth

Gleaning, the Old Testament practice whereby farmers left an unharvested margin around their fields and the poor came and picked from it, was at the heart of the Book of Ruth. Was gleaning only an ancient agricultural regulation, Stumberg wondered, or did it also apply to how he should steward a modern-day tech business?

“I was contextualizing what Boaz did,” said Stumberg, who sees God as the ultimate owner of his business and its office space. “The story of Boaz helped me name something the Lord was moving in my heart.”

Stumberg’s growing company, TengoInternet, was in the process of enlarging its offices, and he had been wrestling with a question: How much space do you need? Even though he was not farming grain, Stumberg felt compelled to follow the example of Boaz and leave margin for others.

“It’s like hospitality,” he said. “When we expanded our space, we built a couple extra offices and deliberately set them aside for others to work.” Allies Against Slavery, a nonprofit startup working to stop human trafficking, moved into one office. An Anglican priest occupied the other. Stumberg did not charge rent or supervise them. He simply invited them in, and they set to work.

What Stumberg would eventually discover is a less-discussed side of gleaning. Scripture describes gleaners as the poor, widows, orphans, and foreigners (Lev. 19:9–10, Deut. 24:19–22)­—in other words, those society has relegated to a lower social status due to ethnicity, religion, gender, ability, or other economic disadvantage. At the most basic level, it was a practical way to help provide for those in need and to remind everyone of God’s own provision.

Yet these gleaning commandments reflect God’s desire for people of means to also see the poor in new ways and to create opportunities for the marginalized to be productive and included in work communities. What Stumberg and other business owners today are finding is that gleaning is a timeless command that aims not only to help the poor but also to transform businesses and communities.

A New Old Business Model

The history of gleaning extends far beyond its introduction in the Hebrew Bible. The regulations described in Leviticus 19 required harvesters not to “reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest” (v. 9, ESV). Instead, landowners were to leave the unharvested portions, the gleanings, “for the poor and for the sojourner.” Rabbinic literature from the Babylonian period indicates that the Hebrew exiles continued this practice after they were forcibly removed from the land of Israel.

Based on biblical precedent, Christian kingdoms in medieval Europe likewise reserved gleaning rights for the poor. In England, gleaning rights for landless residents were protected until a landmark case in 1788, Steel v. Houghton, found that gleaning in a private field was not a “right” but a “privilege.” Though originally focused on gleaning, this decision formed the basis for much of modern English property law.

Today, gleaning is making a comeback. In 2011, NPR reported that 96 billion pounds of pre-consumer produce go to waste in the United States every year because it is not attractive enough for supermarket shelves. In response, groups like the Ugly Fruit & Veg campaign and the Society of St. Andrew organize volunteers and coordinate farmers across the country to harvest leftover or unwanted crops for use by charities. Contemporary British groups, such as the Sussex Gleaning Network, also organize volunteers to harvest leftover crops to help eliminate waste and alleviate poverty. And food pantries fashion themselves as modern-day gleaners, gathering unsold food and distributing it to the needy as a matter of social responsibility.

While these contemporary efforts are admirable, they are narrowly focused on agriculture and surplus food. Biblical gleaning, however, goes beyond an agricultural method for food donation. It’s not charity. Gleaning is about the dignity of work and the transformational role of practicing business to bring peace and welfare to all.

Many businesses today engage in “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) as a way of giving back to their communities and protecting the environment. The phrase has been around since the 1960s, but by and large it has become accepted as a norm within the broader business community. Laurence Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest investment firm, spoke for this consensus in a 2018 letter he sent to heads of the world’s largest public companies: “Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose.” CSR is a good practice, and it overlaps with principles of gleaning. But gleaning goes beyond CSR in important ways.

Rather than focusing on “do-gooder” CSR behaviors that often serve merely as green-washing or window-dressing to appeal to investors, gleaning focuses on personal commitment, risk, and transformation. It doesn’t dress up the corporate annual report so much as it redresses structural injustices that exclude people from the margins.

It would be easy to take the agricultural regulations described in the Hebrew Scriptures and apply them in a modern business context and achieve little more than charity—a voluntary handout, given from surplus, that is generous but ultimately has little impact on the business or the need it claims to address. But viewing gleaning as simply a charitable act misunderstands the internal logic of gleaning found in the Torah.

As part of the Mosaic Law, gleaning is a facet of God’s covenant with God’s people, meant to reflect their Lord’s character and illustrate how God relates to the world. Gleaning laws given in Deuteronomy reflect God’s grace and provision toward Israel when they were still slaves in Egypt. A Christian understanding of business sees all assets and resources as ultimately belonging to God. In the Hebrew Scriptures this was primarily land, which God uses farmers to cultivate and nurture.

Likewise through gleaning, God also uses farmers—and business owners today—as the main mechanism to show grace and provision to the poor. It reflects God’s character as a God of lovingkindness who seeks the peace and welfare of all of God’s people—a concept that, in Hebrew, is called shalom.

An important aspect of this shalom of God is its universal scope. God intends to bring peace and provision to the whole of creation. God seeks to bring wholeness to everyone, regardless of their socio-economic status. Gleaning is transformative for all parties involved, and businesses that engage in gleaning will look demonstrably different because they will keep the margins in view. The lesson of gleaning to business managers is clear: Run your business such that everyone around you experiences shalom.

From Ruth to ROI

The ancient context of gleaning is important for understanding and applying this idea today. As a foreign widow, Ruth is invited by a unique community of people to work among the gleaners, engage with the harvesters, eat with the owner, and ultimately transform her new community. As she gleans, she gains access to resources, is cared for by the working community, gains relational connection, and receives dignity. Even as a foreigner, Ruth receives a new identity as a matriarch in the genealogy of Jesse, David, and Jesus (Ruth 4:17, Matt. 1:5–6). Her story demonstrates the practice of restorative justice that invites societal transformation.

It might be easy to dismiss gleaning as an outmoded agricultural practice with little value in today’s technology-driven business world. But the reality is that modern business practices are not nearly as efficient as we would like to believe. As organizations are beginning to recognize, there is much more margin to go around than we often assume. But more importantly, the belief that gleaning is obsolete and impractical misses the point. Neither surplus nor an agricultural context is required for the principles of gleaning to be applied to contemporary business practice.

Gleaning asks us to reflect upon the purpose of work and business in the marketplace. It is neither a “tax” on profits nor a charitable donation. Instead, it proclaims that business is intended to invite a new way of life, reminding us that work is an invitation to participate in God’s creation and that we were never meant to work in isolation. Gleaning declares that by God’s grace and the Spirit’s guidance, we are not only part of society but are called to be participants in its restoration, reconciliation, and renewal.

In short, gleaning is not so much about what a business does—good deeds or social responsibility—but rather about who a business is: a community of people who show hospitality and empathy by creating opportunities for those on the margins to engage and flourish.

Yet opportunities that come with gleaning are not without a price. Gleaning asks more of business leaders than typical market systems. Leaders need eyes to see social situations, while simultaneously discerning the “growing season,” market conditions, and labor needs to produce a profitable “harvest.” When it comes to gleaning, the spirit of the law turns out to be more important than the letter of the law. This is true not only because farming no longer dominates our economic life, but because even in its original context, gleaning never was a matter of rules, percentages, or “bright lines” in a legal sense.

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Source: Christianity Today