Question: “Regarding methods of caring for the poor, what is the modern equivalent of letting your field go fallow every seven years, as the Old Testament commands? Or, leaving the corners of your field for the poor to harvest?”
Answer: In order to translate these practices into a modern context, we have to discern the principles that underlie the Sabbath years and gleaning practices...
The first principle illustrated by Sabbath years and gleaning is that the Covenant community has a primary responsibility before God to ensure that there are no needy persons among us (Acts 4:32-35). Israel was the Old Covenant church, and the provision of Sabbath years and gleaning were primarily for the poor and needy Israelites, although they were also to care for the alien and sojourner. As the Apostle Paul says in Galatians 6:10, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
The second principle is that the primary responsibility for caring for the poor is on the family. When Ruth was sent by Naomi to glean from a field, she was sent to the field of her relative, Boaz. As Paul tells Timothy, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Timothy 5:8).
A third principle is that private individuals and institutions have the responsibility to care for the poor, not the government. The family, church, and local organizations are far more efficient and personal, and they are able to provide accountability. And the government will not address their infinitely more important spiritual needs.
A fourth principle is that the poor and needy should expect to work for their benefits, as they are able. The landowners and farmers didn’t tie up the grain in bundles and carry them to the front doorstep of the poor people. The Bible condemns laziness and “sluggards,” and promotes work as essential to our dignity as humans made in His image. “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). The goal of mercy ministry should be more than meeting the temporary needs of the poor; it should be to restore them to usefulness in society. It’s not that “handouts” are always wrong. The Old Testament Law did provide for gifts for the poor, but the Bible challenges us to consider the more long-term needs of the poor (i.e., teaching them how to fish instead of handing them a fish).
A fifth principle is that we should provide for mercy in our work and budget plans. Landowners were not to maximize their profits from their land and crops, but they were to provide unharvested crops for the poor to glean.
What would this type of charity look like in our cultural context? It’s not easy for individuals and families to provide resources for the poor in response to labor and progress toward usefulness (most believers in Biblical times didn’t have the means to do this either), although some people have their own businesses or other means to provide in that way. Certainly, we should all budget for mercy ministry, instead of our typical practice of overspending our budget on our own wants and needs. But there are many examples of this kind of “gleaning” aid by Christian churches and organizations, where the poor are expected to participate in chores, life-skills training, Bible study, etc. in order to receive food, housing, and other provisions for their needs.