Why Being “Pro Work” Is An Economic Development Best Practice

Adapted from chapter five of Practicing the King’s Economy.

Work is good and a part of God’s good design for His creation.

But how does work, work, when it comes to poverty alleviation? What makes helping people find and keep good jobs such a crucial piece of long-term economic development efforts? 

Let’s start with a question: Why do you work? What difference does work make in your life? In your family? What would you do without work? 

The Apostle Paul offers a glimpse of how he would have answered these questions. He challenged the Christians in Ephesus to cast aside their old ways of life and “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God” (Eph. 4:24 ESV). Paul then turned to those in the community whose “old way” was a life of thieving. “Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer,” he writes, “but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need” (v. 28).

In that one verse, we don’t get an exhaustive explanation of work, but we do get an indication of some of the reasons why work matters for any of us. Work empowers us to:

  1. Do something good
  2. Provide for ourselves and our families, and
  3. Have something to share with those who are in need.

Clearly, Paul saw work as allowing workers to produce something good not just for themselves, but for the whole community. When Paul gives his last in-person speech to the Ephesians, as recorded in Acts, he reiterates his convictions about work by declaring that he himself has worked hard with his own hands to provide for himself and those who were with him (see Acts 20:34). Indeed, Paul declares that in all his “hard work,” he had shown them that “by working hard in this way we must help the weak” (v. 35 ESV).

The design for the church includes this vision of a community where every person—made in God’s image and endowed with unique gifts and abilities—contributes to the life of the community.

Gleaning

Paul wasn’t the first one to come up with this idea, though. It’s been part of God’s design for His people all along. When He wrote the “HR manual,” as it were, for Israel after He rescued them from slavery in Egypt—where their work only served to make Pharaoh richer and more powerful–God instituted an “employee policy” that affected every Israelite “business.”

“When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. (Deut. 24:19 ESV)

These “gleaning laws” (recorded here and in Lev. 19) required that Israelite landowners leave the edges of their fields unharvested so that the most vulnerable people in the land could provide for themselves by harvesting these leftovers. Once we remember that Israel was an agrarian economy in which the family farm was the family business, we can see just how radical this commandment was. 

Even though he had taken responsibility for all the work and investment, the landowner wasn’t allowed to gather all the profits. Instead, God called him to create opportunities for work for the orphan, the widow, the immigrant, and the poor by leaving some of his own profits in the field. While the marginalized had to work in his field to gather these profits, their work didn’t contribute anything to the landowner’s business. The gleaning laws required every landowner to create access to work for others by accepting a lower profit for themselves. 

This system (which we see powerfully enacted in the story of Ruth as well), offers a very different paradigm from our own approaches to work and poverty alleviation. 

  • The gleaning laws provided work for and required work from people on the economic margins. In God’s economic system, what we think of as charity wasn’t the primary focus of how He intended His people to provide for those in material poverty.
  • The gleaning laws required God’s people to create work by sacrificially leaving profits in the field. In Israel’s God-ordained economy, what ensured that each person had access to at least their daily bread was neither a robust economy in which people gave generously of their “leftovers,” nor a redistributionist government policy; it was the obedience of Israelite farmers to leave profits in their own fields to create opportunities for those without land to work.
  • The gleaning laws made each and every “family business” the place where economic justice happened. Don’t miss one of the “by-products” of the gleaning laws—those who were materially poor and the landed Israelite found themselves laboring in the same field. The land owner’s sacrificial obedience on behalf of the marginalized wasn’t sent in the mail to a charity run by professionals; it was collected by the marginalized on the edges of the land owner’s property. This made every Israelite’s farm a place of personal encounter and economic transformation.

Every bit as important as the commandment itself is God’s own explanation of why His people were to live this way: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt. Therefore I command you to do this” (Deut. 24:22 ESV). The gleaning laws served as reminders

to the Israelites that they themselves had experienced deep economic oppression and that the Lord had liberated them because of his love for them. Without God’s ongoing provision, the wealthiest Israelite farmer never would have made it out of Egypt or obtained his stake in the promised land. How then could any landed Israelite possibly deny others the opportunity to participate in the community through work?

In our next post, we’ll look at some of the implications of this in our contemporary context. If you’re interested in learning more about how you can help people on the margins of society find and keep meaningful work, sign up for our free Intro to Work Life course, where you can learn what it takes to start a work readiness program in your church or community.

The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center

We equip local churches to address the broken relationships at the root of poverty, living out Jesus’ Kingdom today.

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