This talk was first given on the mainstage at the CCDA Conference in Memphis in November 2015. You can watch Michael give this talk here.
“Why work?” Think back to your first job: why did you get that job and what difference did it make in your life? Why do you work now? What difference does work make to you today?
The apostle Paul gives us a glimpse of how he would answer the question in Ephesians 4:28. Paul writes:
“Let the one who steals, steal no longer, but instead work something good with his hands, so that he may have something to share with those who are in need.”
In this one verse about people who are stealing, Paul almost in passing gives us the beginning of a Christian view of work. Paul suggests that work allows the worker to do something good, to provide for themselves and their family, and to have something to share with those who are in need. While there’s certainly more to say, that’s a pretty good place to start for anybody trying to understand what work is all about.
But Paul isn’t talking about just anybody, he’s talking about thieves. He’s talking about people who are destroying the neighborhood. These are the folks that end up on the 5 o’clock news. And Paul suggests that work provides the means by which these community destroyers become community philanthropists. Because for Paul, the ultimate goal isn’t simply that these thieves “get off the welfare roles” or attain the American dream of independence. No, Paul envisions a neighborhood where work is the means by which everybody can give, where everyone can contribute, where even former thieves support their neighbors when they hit hard times.
Twice a month, Donald Jenkins, proud owner of Jenkins Lawn and Tree Removal company, cuts my yard. When I met Donald, he came as one of the former thieves looking for a way to become a philanthropist because he met this guy named Jesus through the ministry of Christ’s Church, a church in our South Memphis neighborhood. Through the job training and entrepreneurship programs at Advance Memphis, a neighborhood non-profit, and the employers and entrepreneurs who partner with Advance, Donald not only got a job, he also started his own business, a business which he now uses to hire other folks from his neighborhood who need jobs. Donald is changing our community and neighborhood. And work is a big part of what made it possible.
But as we read Ephesians 4:28 in 2015, and as we reflect on Donald’s story and other stories like his, we have to ask the question: what happens when the thief can’t find a job? For that matter, what happens when any marginalized group struggles to find work? People with disabilities, folks with low-educational attainment, individuals from neighborhoods of concentrated poverty . . . all of these demographics struggle to find a job. Paul spoke about what work could do for those who had been destroying the community, but many of those who struggle to find work in America aren’t the guilty, they’re the victims: victims of racism, systemic injustice, and failing schools. And when these marginalized folks do find work, it is often temporary, unstable, or pays so poorly that it can’t even enable the worker to get off welfare, much less have an abundance to share with those in need. What happens when for many of our marginalized neighbors work just doesn’t seem to work?
Now, at this point, you’re probably thinking one of two things. Most of you are probably thinking: yeah, of course, and if we could just raise the minimum wage and quit giving tax breaks to the rich, then the government could ensure a living wage and we could solve this problem.
And some of you may be thinking: yeah, of course, if we’d just get inefficient bloated government bureaucracies out of the way of the free market, quit loading down job creating entrepreneurs with taxes and regulations, the market would create the jobs and we could solve this problem.
But notice what both of these approaches have in common. Both approaches outsource responsibility for our neighbors’ difficulty in finding work far enough away that it costs us very little. Republicans might outsource responsibility to the invisible hand, and Democrats might outsource to Uncle Sam, but it’s outsourcing all the same.
Now don’t get me wrong: questions about how markets and government can support low-income communities are important; this outsourcing isn’t all bad. God made markets and government, and it is important for these institutions to work well for everyone. But the Bible also provides us with examples of how God’s people as God’s people can work together to create opportunity for work through our own creative, sacrificial action. I want to suggest that outsourcing isn’t our only option. I want to suggest that these biblical examples have the power to inspire us to come out of our conservative vs. liberal trenches and together create access to meaningful work for the marginalized.
The Bible is filled with passages that have this power to fuel our imaginations and inspire us to pursue this kingdom economy, but I’d like to focus on just one: the Gleaning Laws.
The Gleaning Laws said Israelite farmers had to leave the edges of their fields unharvested and only go over their fields to collect produce once. By following these instructions, landowners would leave some of their profits in the fields, so that the most vulnerable in the land- the orphan, the widow, the immigrant, and the poor- could work in the land-owner’s field and provide for themselves through their work.
Now, in an agricultural economy, the family farm IS the family business. And in that context, the gleaning laws shatter our cultural expectations for how to care for those in need. On the one hand, gleaning requires those in need to work, whereas so many of our charities and government programs don’t require and even disincentivize work. On the other hand, the Gleaning Laws required every Israelite business person to leave profits in the fields to create these opportunities for work, whereas both American Christianity and American conservatism have baptized my right to do what I want with my hard-earned stuff. The Gleaning Laws do not rely on either the government or market forces. Instead, they require every member of the faith community to personally and sacrificially create space for the marginalized to work and provide for themselves.
We no longer live in an agrarian economy, and we no longer live in a theocracy. But if we have ears to hear, the laws and stories around gleaning in the Bible can inspire us to creatively and sacrificially take responsibility for making sure that work works for the marginalized in our communities and neighborhoods. Around the country, Christians are choosing to stop relying only on Uncle Sam or the Invisible Hand of the market to give the marginalized an opportunity to work. Instead, they’re working together to create opportunities for work for their neighbors by leaving some of the profits in their proverbial fields.
Gleaning happens when business people like Wes Gardner, owner of Prime Trailer Leasing, partners with a halfway house to hire teen moms, surrounds them with supportive people, trains them to do nearly every element of the business, and pays them over $13 an hour for 18 months. At the end of that time, these young women are ready and able to find their own jobs, either with Wes or somewhere else. That’s gleaning in action.
Gleaning happens when social entrepreneurs like Dick Gygi start businesses and enterprises specifically to create jobs, like Dick did with his award-winning ThriftSmart franchise in Nashville, which has created dozens of jobs at above-market wages, trains employees, and shares profits with full-time and part-time staff on a monthly basis. That’s gleaning in action.
These strategies allow Christ-followers to create opportunity for work for those who are often excluded from the market place. Each of these strategies requires believers to leave some of their profits in the field in order to create this opportunity. And each of these strategies is currently being done by believers associated with the Christian Community Development Association network. I know because representatives of all the initiatives I just named presented at this year’s CCDA Market Solutions for Community Transformation Conference.
What would responding to the Gleaning Laws require of us? It would require us to bend all of our economic lives towards those on the margins, to steward our purchases, investments, businesses, and wealth towards the underemployed and folks returning from prison, high school dropouts and people with disabilities. It would require a generation of God’s people who don’t divide the work up into “business” and “ministry, ” but who pursue creative strategies for caring for at-risk communities through market-place solutions. It would require us to lay down our partisan ideologies.
What would be the result if we did respond to the Gleaning Laws? First, we would create communities where work makes it possible for every member to give their gifts to the neighborhood. Second, by taking responsibility for this work, by refusing to simply outsource responsibility to free markets or federal governments, we might actually learn what works, and how, beyond partisan ideology, both governments and markets can contribute to human flourishing. Because if we’re honest, we don’t know how to fix “the system;” good smart people who love Jesus think that the rising tide of the free market can’t help folks who don’t have boats, and good smart people who love Jesus wonder if big minimum wage increases won’t actually kill more jobs than they create. But if we start living towards the kingdom economy of God as the body of Christ, perhaps we can care for our neighbors and begin to learn how best to understand the role of governments and the market in supporting economies that ensure every member can contribute through work.
But third and finally, if we were to live towards this kingdom economy, it would change us for the better. Because the truth is, when we stop at outsourcing responsibility for our economy to free markets or government policy, we just join in a community-wide blame game that points fingers at others and does nothing to reduce the distance between me and my neighbor. But when we work together as the church to leave some of our profits in the fields to create opportunity for neighbors like Donald, our lives change too. I can no longer think of Donald and others like him as the “needy.” I now am on the receiving end of his work, and get to watch him leave profits in the field to create opportunities for the next guy. Work makes that possible, work that came through the creative sacrifice of God’s people.
One day, King Jesus will come back. And when He does, He’ll bring a kingdom with Him, a kingdom with an economy in which all of those who are in Christ will build houses and dwell in them, in which all will plant vineyards and enjoy their fruit (Isaiah 65). One part of our task as the church today is to make that King Jesus economy believable, tastable, smellable to the marginalized of our world. The Gleaning Laws give us a paradigm for embodying this economy by leaving profits in the field and intentionally creating opportunities for work for the marginalized. May God give us the wisdom and courage to follow Him in this work.