Back in February, I found myself confronted with an ancient agricultural law after what I thought was an innocent visit to the supermarket.
I had, as per usual, made a bee-line for the bargains aisle, those yellow ‘Reduced’ labels beckoning to me like beacons across a stormy sea. Bread! 85p! Pizza! £1.95! Garlic Bread! 40p! 40p?! Must grab it!
It wasn’t until I got it home that I looked at the label properly. While the bread and pizza had been significant reductions, the garlic bread had been reduced by…wait for it… 7p. Seven measly pence.
I hadn’t intended to buy garlic bread. I had no need of garlic bread. But I snapped it up because it was a bargain, and I am a sucker for a bargain.
The thing is, I could easily have paid full price for that item. By God’s grace I am currently in a position to buy garlic bread for 47p. I can afford bread, meat, vegetables and pizza at full price, too. I don’t have to scour those shelves for bargains, thankfully. I could leave them for someone else.
An ancient principle
As I realised that, and noticed my greed in being so quick to grab a good deal for myself that I didn’t even stop to see if it was a good deal, that still, small voice in my soul reminded me of the ancient law given to Jewish farmers:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 19:9-10
The book of Ruth gives the most famous and beautiful example of this principle in action. After moving to Bethlehem with Naomi, Ruth went out to the fields where the barley harvest was just beginning, and gleaned the grain that the harvesters had missed. She ‘happened’ to find herself in Boaz’ bit of field (2:3) and found favour with him. So much so, in fact, that he told his workers to deliberately leave some extra bits of barley out for her to pick up (Ruth 2:15-16).
I’ve known that story since childhood, but now God began to show me that right in my supermarket sits an application that applies to my very non-rural, non-agricultural life. Here is a simple way that I can leave the ‘gleanings’ – the leftovers, the extras, the overstocked items – for those who need them more than me.
But what about the waste?
I wrote about it for Jubilee+, a Christian charity that helps churches in the UK promote mercy and justice in their communities. It was wildly popular. Or if not popular exactly, it gained a lot of ‘shares’ on social media. It also gained some push-back, though, mainly from people saying, “But won’t that food then go to waste?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer. I guess maybe some of it would, and perhaps if I was shopping just before closing time, or the shelf was really full of a given item, I might buy it. It didn’t sit comfortably, though.
Then a friend contacted me and asked if she could share the post on a US-based blog she edits, Propel Sophia. I of course said yes, and offered to tweak it a bit to make it more accessible for a global audience (the original focussed a lot on the phrase ‘yellow labels’, and I’m not sure every supermarket in every country sells its almost-out-of-date food at a reduced price marked with a yellow label).
She, Bronwyn, also asked the ‘waste’ question. So I gave it some proper thought.
Of course, one aspect of the question is to do with environmental concerns: if that food goes to waste it will be dumped in landfill sites, in all its plastic packaging, with all the issues that raises. We could ameliorate that problem by continuing to urge food suppliers to cut down on packaging or develop biodegradable options.
But however we dispose of it, the question of principle remains: isn’t it bad to waste food?
I’m sure some of the Israelite farmers wondered that as they saw their crops wilting and rotting at the edges of their fields. ‘What a waste! I could have used that, but God wants me to just leave it?’ This has echoes to me of the disciples watching Mary pour expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet. “Why this waste?” they asked (Matthew 26:8, Mark 14:4), but John tells us that for Judas, at least, this question leapt to his lips “not because he cared about the poor” (John 12:6), but because he was thinking of the loss to himself.
But Jesus was clear: Mary was performing a beautiful act of worship that would be talked about forever (Mark 14:6-9). Sometimes, worshipping God looks wasteful. But it never is.
A God of extravagance
Time and time again in the Bible God shows himself to be a God of extravagance. He doesn’t seem to mind waste as we do. When he provided manna for the Israelites, there was more than enough for everyone each day, and whatever was left melted away – what a waste! But if the people took more than they needed, it rotted and became riddled with maggots (Exodus 16). When Jesus fed the five thousand, there were twelve baskets full of leftovers, and when he fed the four thousand, there were seven baskets left. This wasn’t because Jesus miscalculated, and he didn’t send the disciples off in a rush to find someone to donate the excess to. He is a God who provides abundantly for all our needs, and doesn’t mind who knows it.
That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t share our abundance with those who have need – quite the opposite – but to take what we don’t need just in case it gets thrown away is not loving to God or to our neighbours.
The coronavirus has had a devastating effect on physical health, mental health and economic health across the world. Many of our friends and neighbours are going to be facing deep financial challenges in the coming months and years. And you may, too. Let’s those of us who can afford to decide to leave the bargains for those who really need them. And maybe we can find ways to be more like Boaz, going above and beyond the requirement of the law to meet the needs of those God brings to our notice.
It’s been a challenge these last couple of months. I’m still drawn, moth-like to the luminescence of those lovely yellow labels, but each time I step away it is one small act of love for my neighbours. Will you join me?