by Jennie Pollock
Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space.
I am a sucker for a bargain. In the UK, when food reaches its ‘sell by’ date, the supermarkets reduce it, and mark the new price with a bright yellow label. They beckon to me like beacons on a stormy sea. ‘Bargains! This way!’ I pick through the shelf of almost-out-of-date pizzas, ready meals, vegetables and bread hunting for treasure. I often bemoan the fact that my freezer is too full for me to take advantage of the half price roasting joint, or have to tell myself that I do not need a profiterole tower, just because it's only £1.88.
I got caught out the other day, though. I snapped up a 'bake at home' garlic bread because it was reduced to 40p. It wasn't until I got home and was gloating over my bargain that I noticed the original price: 47p. Yes, I had 'saved' a grand total of seven pence on an item I hadn't intended to buy.
And here's the thing: 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 convenience foods at full price, too. I don't have to scour those shelves for bargains, thankfully. I could leave them for someone else.
In Leviticus 19:9-10 God commanded his people:
“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."
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 it was only when I noticed my greed in grabbing a reduced price treat I could easily have paid full price for that God began to show me that here was an application which 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 won’t some of that food then go to waste? Yes, maybe. I’m sure some of the Israelite farmers thought the same as they saw their crops wilting and rotting at the edges of the field. ‘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. Sometimes, worshipping God looks wasteful.
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 neither loving to God nor to our neighbours.
Food prices have been rising rapidly in recent years - above the rate of inflation here in the UK. This has a significant impact on people on tight budgets. However, keeping prices low either means Government subsidies (which have to come from somewhere) or companies paying unsustainably low wages to all those involved in putting those foods on the shelf – the growers of tomatoes, potatoes and beans, the factory-workers preparing and canning them, and everyone involved in the production, distribution and sale of the cans and their labels. The Bible is clear that workers need to earn enough to live on (Matthew 20:1-16), wherever they live in the world. Anything else is slavery. If those of us who can afford to do so pay full price for the items we want, we leave the reduced-price items for our neighbours in need and contribute to fair wages for everyone in the supply chain. Win-win.
Tackling poverty is a vast and complex issue. It will take action from governments, corporations, supermarkets, schools, charities and more addressing its causes and effects at many levels. But like the Israelites, we as individuals each have a part to play in the spheres we have control over, including our shopping habits. For me, one place to start is in paying full price in the supermarket while I can, choosing not to grab as much as possible for myself, but leaving the things at the ‘edges of the field’ for those who really need them.
Jennie Pollock is a writer and editor who lives, works and worships in London, England. She is involved in Women’s Ministries and Small Group Leadership in her church, and loves reading, writing and thinking about life, faith, ethics and what it means to be human. She is the author of If Only: Finding joyful contentment in the face of lack and longing. Find her online at jenniepollock.com and on twitter as @missjenniep.
A version of this post first appeared on the Jubilee+ website.