Reflection: The Gleaners July 29, 2018
My paternal grandmother, my Oma, was involved for years with an organization in San Diego called “The Gleaners”. The Gleaners would gather donated produce from groves and farms all over the area; they would also go from store to store at the end of a day, collecting day-old baking, late-dated or past-dated produce or canned and dry goods, and bring them to a central meeting place where they would then be sorted for pick-up by different organizations that fed the poor. The Gleaners would also be allowed to choose items to take home with them. In 2016 the San Diego Gleaners collected 500,000 lbs of food that would have ended up in a landfill, to help feed some of the 500,000 people in San Diego who experience food insecurity. When visiting at my Oma’s home I might be picking through wilted lettuce to find the fresh leaves, or opening a big can without a label to discover concentrated orange juice that hadn’t been refrigerated. I never knew what I would find, and as a young adult, I wasn’t too crazy about eating other people’s cast-offs. Oma raised children in Germany while under aerial bombardment during the Second World War, and she and her children nearly starved in a Russion POW camp. Suffice it to say, she was not so picky. As a senior, she was on a limited income, and appreciated anything she could find to supplement her two pensions. This way she could help others while also getting some help for herself.
The name of the organization comes from the practice we see in this episode of Ruth’s story. You may not know that the laws that governed the ancient Israelites specifically provided for the poor by commanding that landowners must leave a portion of any crop in the field so that the poor could come and pick up the leftovers to feed themselves. This was part of the whole system instituted in the time of Moses to care for the vulnerable among them. You might consider it an early version of a Food Bank or Social Security. In the language of today, you might say Ruth and Naomi were on Welfare.
As widows, she and Naomi had no way to earn a living, except to rely on the generosity of others. So Naomi sent Ruth off to the field of a man who had a good reputation, a relative of hers, hoping that Ruth would be safe there. As you can imagine, a woman working alone among the fields could be in danger of everything from harassment to rape. Such women were often assumed to be prostitutes, and treated as such by the people around them. In fact, as a foreign woman, Ruth was doubly suspect: the word she uses to describe herself as an immigrant woman is actually the same word as the one for “prostitute”. But they must eat, and so Ruth must go, taking the chance that all would be well.
This is not a dramatic story: there are no catastrophic floods or pillars of salt or burning bushes or parted seas. There are no kings or queens or Pharaohs – not even any prophets or judges. This is a simple story about a good man and a good woman who act out of love, kindness and their faith in the living God.
Boaz could have easily judged Ruth based on her role as a foreigner, a poor dependant woman. But he asked about her, and found out who she was, and her faithfulness to Naomi inspired his generosity in return. He went beyond what the Law required and made sure she was safe and she and Naomi would not go hungry. She worked among his workers, ate with them, and took home enough food to feed the two women for weeks to come – in one day of gleaning! He spoke to her directly, as an individual, a person with an identity and a story of her. Ruth in turn recognized his generosity, expressed her gratitude, and shared her bounty with Naomi. She and Naomi pray a blessing for him, in recognition of all he has done.
Both Boaz and Ruth are described in the Bible as people of integrity. “Boaz is introduced in the narrative as an esh gibor hayil (a powerful man of integrity) in 2:1, and he pronounces the community’s opinion of Ruth as an eshat hayil (a woman of integrity, a worthy woman) in 3:11. The latter phrase is also used of the ideal woman or wife in Proverbs 31:10, which in the Jewish ordering of the Hebrew Bible immediately precedes the story of Ruth.” (Kathryn M Schifferdecker, workingpreacher.org) According to Hebrew Scripture, this is what living our faith with integrity looks like. This is what God’s lovingkindness, God’s chesed, looks like when embodied by two ordinary human beings.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t hear the story of Ruth right now without thinking of all the stories we have seen and heard of immigrants and refugees over the past few years. Images of the body of a young Syrian boy’s body on a beach, of premature Rohingya babies carried in basket as their family flees Myanmar, of Nigerian migrants strung up by their ankles, shackled and sold as slaves in Libya; of African and Southeast Asian nannies and domestic help imprisoned and mistreated by their employers; of children in cages and a man barred from leaving a store in Ontario because someone wanted to call immigration on him – these are all stories that come to mind as I read Ruth’s story.
I also think of some of the women I have met over the years – women struggling for dignity under a crushing weight of poverty. Women who have left abusive spouses; women who have been bankrupted by divorce or abandoned by their baby-daddies and left to raise their children on welfare; women forced into the sex trade by human traffickers or by desperation; women who are widows trying to get by on a spouse’s pension or on CPP because they never went out of the house to work or they worked at low wages with no benefits. Not just women of course; men too. But all the statistics prove to us that women and children remain far more vulnerable to poverty and marginalization in today’s world, just as they were in ancient Israel. (Try looking for a decent job as a middle-aged woman here in Victoria and you’ll find very quickly that all things are not yet equal.) Add in status as immigrants or refugees and you have a recipe for your life, your body and your livelihood being at risk. And yet the world continues to look down on them, call them names, blame them for their poverty, judge them as criminals for wanting a fresh start, or even use and abuse them because of their circumstances.
But not Boaz. And not anyone else who understands how much their life is shaped by God’s chesed, God’s lovingkindness and faithfulness. As a man of integrity Boaz judges Ruth, not on the labels attached to her, but on her actions. He goes beyond what the Law requires to bring aid and to affirm her dignity and worth as a fellow person of integrity, a fellow child of God. The only question remains is: as children of God, as people of integrity, can we do any less?
Reflection: The Gleaners July 29, 2018