[Tuesday in the First Week of Lent] The Common Good: Who owns what?

Read: Deuteronomy 24:19-21

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 left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.



In medieval England, a portion of the land was set aside as “common” or “waste” land. Common land facilitated the grazing of animals and other similar uses by the residents of a community. Waste land was where landless peasants often turned to grow food for their families. Gradually though, landowners began to search for more profitable ways to farm, and the common lands became private lands, a process supported in large part by the passage of legislation that enclosed the land for private use. Landowners then charged rent for those wanting to farm the land, and many farmers ultimately moved to cities to work in factories. The gradual turning of common land into private land hastened the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism.

Our own age has seen its versions of enclosure. There is heated discussion on whether or not parkland should be open to mineral and oil exploration undertaken by private companies. Formerly publicly held utilities are sold to private corporations. For-profit companies buy religious hospitals. Military operations are supported by independent contractors, which are often not under strict public oversight. We undertake these twentyfirst-century variants on enclosure under the theory that private companies are more financially efficient than publicly owned institutions. In each of these instances, assets that were at one time held to be part of the common good, for the benefit of or under the control of society at large, are no longer seen as such.

Is this privatization consistent with the biblical injunction to keep fields open to the alien, the orphan, and the widow? Was the first-century experience of Christians sharing all their goods in common a practice that can find traction today? Christians have lived as faithful witnesses in every economic era. How do we live as faithful witnesses in this one?


Almighty God, in giving us dominion over things on earth, you made us fellow workers in your creation: Give us wisdom and reverence so to use the resources of nature, that no one may suffer from our abuse of them, and that generations yet to come may continue to praise you for your bounty; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(The Book of Common Prayer, p. 827)


Larry Benfield is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas.