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“All who humble themselves will be exalted.” Matt. 23:12

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Alexa Smith  |  Bible Explorations compas pic

Pass the tomatoes 

Paying attention to the food we eat |
Read: Matthew 13:1–23

I remember the moment I knew something was wrong. I was slicing tomatoes in the kitchen, laying a spinach-tomato pie.
It’s simple: a layer of spinach, a layer of ricotta cheese, a layer of juicy beefsteak tomatoes, a pinch of garlic and minced onion sauteed in lots of butter, some pepper, then a thick layer of parmesan to top it off. Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes (Nicola Hill, The Tomato Cookbook).
But when I cut into the tomatoes, there was no juice, no guts. The plant was tougher, inside and out. Bright red. But it didn’t taste quite right.
You see, our overindustrialized, too-big food system sells us produce that looks great but lacks taste, because the priority is firmness for shipping and a longer shelf life. So tomatoes are packed into refrigerated trucks and shipped cross-country to grocery stores. Before that, they may be picked in a massive field owned by shareholders of a huge agribusiness by an overworked immigrant who left home because trade agreements between his government and mine undercut small farmers and forced him to go elsewhere to find work to feed his family. And local farmers here went under competing with big and cheap.
But the oil needed for transportation isn’t cheap, and injustice has its own costs (as Barbara Kingsolver says so well in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle).

But when I cut into the tomatoes, there was no juice, no guts.

Granted, scientists probably meant well. But unintended consequences can bite. We eat food for both its nutritional value and its flavor. Food ought to taste good. Be luscious. Delicious. Tomatoes should belch out their insides and taste scrumptious. Jesus, too, worries about salt losing its savor (Matt. 5:13), so he’s no fan of bland. Solomon says sweet apples and raisins even comfort the lovesick (Song of Sol. 2:6).
How did this happen? How did science get carried away and take good taste with it? What were the rest of us thinking when the food system changed so radically—when chemical companies slapped patents on 98 percent of the world’s seed sales and produced the sprays that keep the tomatoes pest-free? Why weren’t we paying attention? Maybe food was cheaper? Maybe avocados are nice in February?
In Matthew 13:1–23, Jesus talks about seeds—about a sower tossing seeds into his field. But it is all a metaphor for souls, souls trying to find the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. But they can’t see what is right in front of them (vv. 14–15). Can’t hear what is being said. They don’t realize that something has gone awry. They just bumble along, paying no attention to the world around them.
To the disciples, he says, “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.” So it is the disciples he’s counting on to latch onto the word and spread it around so that it sprouts up thick and fast and feeds those who’ve been starving for it until now. He says we can’t pretend life is alright when it isn’t, and we shouldn’t even try.
Call it what you want. A parable. A fable. A fact. But we all came from a garden. Lush. Delicious. Nutritious. Likely tasty. God said to tend all the growing things and then said it was very good. There were seeds for every variety of plant, and God says we shall have them for food. But at some point we stopped paying attention; we were distracted by temptation.
Our global partners say they don’t want to repeat what we’ve done—to so industrialize the world’s food supply that they too lose a taste for it. Food shortages abound abroad, and trade agreements undercut small farmers who now buy imported food they once grew. This isn’t simply a push to be charitable overseas—we all live in a global economy, all of us. We all eat.
Talk about solidarity.
People, we have eyes to see and ears to hear so that we may act together to plant new seeds for a more luscious, locally rooted future. What we grow can be heavenly—feeding the world, keeping our own lives savory, comforting the ones in pain, and letting earth’s seeds do what God calls good.
So pass the tomatoes. Only the tasty ones, please.

Alexa Smith is a journalist, ordained teaching elder, and staff member of the Presbyterian Hunger Program.

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