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.
-Amy King, cofounder of Square Peg Development
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.
Rather, the Scriptures consistently place gleaning in the context of God’s sovereignty and the empathy that comes from having been rescued by God. The heart of the matter revolves not around legalities but around righteousness—of the landowner, workers, and gleaners, all of whom are transformed by the experience. By incorporating the complexities of society, faith, and the market, Christian business leaders engage in a distinctive process and orientation that will differentiate them from those in other “fields.”
Gleaning, in the biblical sense, appears to have at least five key components: (1) establishing shared spaces, (2) inviting people from the margins into these shared spaces, (3) cultivating transformation in those spaces by confronting cycles of injustice, (4) allowing incarnational relationships to transform employees and the company, and (5) allowing the company and its people to transform its stakeholders and thereby the greater community.
This doesn’t happen automatically and the process is never complete. It takes effort and brings with it mental, emotional, social, and financial burdens. Yet the stories of Christian business leaders who practice gleaning reveal that it is less of a burden and more an opportunity to participate in a life-giving process.
Shared Spaces, Shared Community
As Stumberg and the employees of TengoInternet began sharing their space with Allies Against Slavery and the priest, Stumberg started noticing changes in the attitudes of his staff. He expected employees to balk, for example, as outsiders got offices of their own while many employees did not. “It would be natural for people to feel entitlement and envy when new offices get divided up,” Stumberg explained, “but not this time. It was really hard for people to be envious.” Their reactions surprised him.
There is a transformational effect when we invite workers in from the margins; everyone is changed in the process. Stumberg sensed this as his employees began comparing their own work with the cause of fighting human trafficking, which on its face seemed more noble than selling Wi-Fi access. “It forced me to really wrestle with deep questions,” Stumberg said.
The proximity to mission-driven nonprofits forced Stumberg to become clearer about the mission and vision of his own organization, to clarify the value of its work beyond the standard metrics of success in the business world. “I had to explain our business in terms of serving the greater good and explain success in terms of how it helps people. It’s a beautiful example to the people in my office that their work is sacred.” In the case of Stumberg and others, the transformation realized through gleaning began by creating a shared space of work and continued through the creation of community within and through that space.
Amy and Brady King have seen this firsthand. Gleaning was not on their minds when the Kings began their Seattle-based construction company, Square Peg Development. As business picked up and projects exceeded their capacity, they desperately needed quality employees. Anxious to bring people on board, they began skipping background checks and hired several individuals with criminal records without realizing it.
Conversations at the construction sites with the new employees quickly began to transform the orientation of the company, but it wasn’t without some hesitancy. “I started to get to know them and meet them on the sites and see how hard they worked,” Brady said. “I saw there was something here.”
As a woman, Amy felt somewhat intimidated because these men were “big guys and they have a presence about them that is very confident,” she said. “I knew they had a background but had no idea exactly what I was walking into.”
Ironically, one of these muscular and calloused men, James, also felt uncomfortable and vulnerable. Between the streets and the justice system, he came to believe “everyone wants to get something from you—or use you. It’s difficult to move from people wanting something from me to wanting something for me.”
Yet through these awkward and authentic interactions, the Kings observed their employees demonstrating what James proclaimed: “Your past is part of your story, but it doesn’t define who you are.” This revelation encouraged the Kings to re-envision their company as a workplace that invites others in similar situations to experience transformative work.
Transformation Through Relationships
Simply gaining a job felt empowering for James. It brought him access to the broader marketplace of society. He described getting a driver’s license as formative. But interactions with coworkers also changed James. One day after work, with a paycheck in the pocket of dirt-caked and sawdust-covered jeans, he was encouraged by a fellow employee to stop by the bank to open an account. Nervously, James walked into the brightly lit bank feeling “like you’re going to get interrogated.” He was surprised that it turned out to be a pleasant, 15-minute interaction. He saw this simple moment as part of a path to security as he re-engaged in society.
According to Amy, creating a welcoming environment requires “some deconditioning and training” of both those on the “inside” and “outside” of society. No employee from the majority population has ever said, “You know, I just can’t handle this. I’ve got to go.”
As business owners who intentionally hire workers with a history of homelessness, addiction, and justice-system involvement, the Kings have internalized the need to run their company differently. While in a sense the Kings had already satisfied the gleaning mandate by hiring from the margins, the act of working side-by-side with those employees inspired them to go farther.
As Amy was finishing up invoices at their dining room table one evening, she answered the phone and heard, “One of our employees is wandering the streets of downtown.”
“I remember thinking about him,” Amy said, “unsafe and unsecure and he’s supposed to come in to work tomorrow.” Comparing her warm, comfortable evening at her home to her employee’s night on the streets quickly had her calling shelters all over the city, only to find his criminal background denied him access. Navigating the role of her company and the situation of some of its employees ultimately required the Kings “to be constantly adapting to the market from a business perspective and the needs of the people who are coming to us” from a social perspective.
This experience at the dining room table became the genesis for Weld Seattle, a nonprofit the Kings now run that provides stability and security through housing, community, and re-entry skills. It began as an agreement with a developer to let the homeless employee temporarily sleep in a vacant home, a project “to help those within the company.” Now it has grown into an organization offering recovery help, education, community, and low-skilled, entry-level work to bring more people into the workforce.
By taking the time to see their employees and hear their stories, the Kings have continued to see their horizons and workplace “field” widened by inviting others to experience transformative relationships.
Transformed Businesses, Transformed Communities
“At first we had people advise us not to tell about what we were doing, because [customers] may not want to use us,” Brady said. Against these expectations, the Kings have found that many customers seek out Square Peg precisely because they want to participate in its transformational business model. Vendors also want to join in the effort to employ the marginalized. These relationships have given the Kings new roles as advocates and consultants for businesses that want to participate in a new kind of work.
Communicating this cultural shift requires a proactive disposition. Amy sees this movement toward the margin as part of the solution to what ails our economy. When she advocates for new hiring practices with business owners she tells them that $60 billion is lost every year in unemployment because people won’t hire workers with criminal records. “You are an employer,” she said. “What can you do? You can give them a job.”
Amy thinks Christian communities can be slow to realize how using their resources in practical ways can influence surrounding communities. When the realization dawns on them, though, she said that “people see it’s not just about tithing but using other resources to be creative in responding to social issues.” That said, as Christians, the Kings still insist that this work requires a neutral approach to spirituality to ensure all employees, clients, and business partners are invited into the familial culture.
“We are trying to help people who are maybe lost, who are trying to find their way,” Brady said. “That does not mean they have already arrived—that means we are going to have to go out and find them.”
Followers of God continue to be called to engage in the marketplace in a manner that reflects God’s love for the world and all who dwell within it. Creative economic structures founded in gleaning reveal that ancient biblical principles can provide new opportunities for transformation. Through gleaning, followers of God create new economic systems and practices built around relationships. Yes, this will require more of business leaders. They may need to begin new practices—both business and spiritual—to meet the challenge.
God calls employers to provide avenues for those previously not given access to the market to be offered the dignity of work. God invites us to see the needs in our world and rely upon the Spirit to imagine creative solutions. The biblical narrative reveals that participation, not assimilation, is the goal. What it means to make a living is called into question as the paradigm of gleaning asks us to allow the marginalized to inform the trajectory of not only an organization but also the broader community.
At TengoInternet, Eric Stumberg is thankful for the gift of Boaz’s example that challenged him to take the risk and invite gleaners to share space in his office. Not only has inviting workers in from the margins changed his employees and his business, it has radically changed him. It got Stumberg thinking about how to be a Christian business leader. He started to look at his own employees differently. He says he has since developed the ability to see the “extra capacity” in people and physical resources.
“You hear people say, ‘I want 110 percent from our people,’ but that’s exploitative,” he said. Now, instead of pushing for more productivity, he looks for opportunities to invite more
people into the transformational experience of gleaning, to see God’s blessings for themselves in the lives of those around them.
“This is what the kingdom of God looks like,” Stumberg said. “It’s like Boaz—he got people to notice the dignity of the gleaners.”
Bruce Baker is associate professor of business ethics at Seattle Pacific University. Tom Parks is an adjunct business professor at Seattle Pacific University and director of user experience at Constant Source.
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