Barley Bread

(The Nationalist, 28 July 2006)


I returned from Africa in 1997, having spent twenty years there as a missionary. One of my first impressions of Europe was how wasteful a society it is. Along with North Americans, we really and truly are the spoilt children of the world. We have so much, we waste so much – and we demand still more. I could fill pages with statistics illustrating that.

In Africa, for example, there is almost no litter. A by-product of prosperity, litter is fuel. And people don’t throw away bottles or jam jars – they are substitute cups. Tin cans serve a multitude of purposes. Plastic bags are a substitute wardrobe; they store clothes, so that ants won’t eat them. I remember on several occasions being offered a gift of a few eggs when I visited a village, and was asked to return the plastic bag containing them, as it was precious.

There is enough in this world for everyone’s need; there’s not enough for everyone’s greed – nor is there any reason why there should be.

Nature is hugely generous in giving. Seed-bearing plants, for example, often produce a large number of seeds every year, maybe several hundred or even thousand, in a life-time, although just one is sufficient for replacement.

Poverty and wastefulness sit side by side as uneasy companions in our world. We can easily think of many examples of both if we look around us. Armies can be supplied with munitions in warfare, but, when it comes to feeding people in famines or earthquakes, we hear about logistical problems. The money the world spends on the military could solve its problems of poverty, hunger, lack of access to clean water, and the burden of debt.

There’s a gospel story about Jesus feeding five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. Three details are significant:

  • One of Jesus’ followers, a man called Andrew, seeing the problem of so many hungry people, and so little to feed them, said despairingly, ‘What is that between so many?’ We sometimes feel the same, ‘What difference can my few euro make?’
  • The loaves were baked of barley. They were the bread of the poor: wheaten bread was the bread of the rich. It was a poor person’s gift that made the feeding possible.
  • In the story, what was left over after the meal was picked up, an example of generosity without waste.

The task of ensuring enough for everyone in the world seems impossible. We may be tempted to give up, feeling that it can’t be done. Because we can’t do everything, we may be tempted to do nothing.

Hunger, poverty and injustice are not God’s will for anyone. They are a human creation. They can be prevented or remedied by us, using the gifts and abilities God gave us. In the parable, is Jesus saying, ‘Use your loaf’?


For those in a hurry: ‘Every choice involves saying yes to one thing, and no to everything else’. (Anon)