Wednesday, October 14th

The Parable of the Loaves and Reviving Lost Skills

In which I can be accused of eisegesis but it’s worth a shot for the argument for reviving age old skills that have been lost to convenience. This blog post was recycled from a lesson given on the significance of self-reliance. It has gone through multiple edits and some expansion to help clarify some points.


Something I like to do at the beginning of the year is make a list of skills I want to learn and during the year work on a few of them or if certain skills are out of my league, one of them. Some skills have been on my list for years, and some of them I should had started on years ago. As I have been documenting on this blog, I finally tackled one of them—making bread using a starter culture.

Depending on what part of the world one lives, a starter goes by various different names. In New Zealand it is called a bug, in France it is called levain or chef. In other parts of Europe and in the states it is called a sourdough starter. It is commonly referred to as leaven or natural leaven and is cultivated by souring or fermenting two basic ingredients—flour and water. The following information is from my own implementation and research. Hope you find it helpful.

Purpose—Science—Hidden Benefits

Purpose—the starter acts as a rising agent in baking, although it is more commonly used in making bread. A starter also adds flavor, and depending on the baker’s skill, the starter can be used in its sweet or sour stage to make bread and in turn achieve the corresponding flavors.

Having said this about starters (acting as a rising agent), in Ethiopia their staple crop is teff—which is of significant interest to those on gluten-free diets as it contains no gluten—where it is made into injera, a flatbread. What is revealing about this flatbread is that a sourdough starter plays an important role and ingredient in the recipe. If starters are commonly referred to as a rising agent, then what is the purpose of a starter in the making of a flatbread? This is where learning about fermentation comes in.

Science—the process of fermentation creates a culture of lactic acid bacteria and yeast (already present in the flour and activated when liquid is added); and between the two form a symbiotic relationship: the LAB converts the carbohydrates into starch, and the starch in sugar; which the yeast is then able to metabolize.

Hidden Benefits—this means that when we ingest foods that have been prepared this way, it gives health to the navel. The byproducts of fermentation are beneficial to our digestive tract by introducing beneficial bacteria to the gut. For the nutrients of a grain to be fully released, it must go through fermentation, much like a bean needs to be soaked. This process makes it easier for our digestive system to absorb and distribute nutrients.

As fascinating as the science is, of noteworthy mention is its application: it is made to be shared. Unlike commercial yeast that can only be used once, a starter can be used again, and again, and again. It is made to be shared because it can grow exponentially. I could give some of my starter to you to make your own bread and you could give some of your starter to someone else and so on and continue making bread using that starter without having to buy or use a new one. Having said that, a starter was not something you gave away without first knowing if the person you gave it to knew how to use it.

Parable of the Loaves and Fishes

While observing the various growth patterns of a starter, and how it is capable of growing exponentially, the parable of the loaves came to mind like I had hit on something quite phenomenal. This is not to say that this is how Christ multiplied the bread to feed the multitude but parables as we know have many layers and applications and this is another perspective that has application.

By way of information, the parables are stories that used objects or ideas that the people of that time were familiar with. Many of those ideas however are not as familiar to us as they were to those that lived during biblical times, one of them being leavened bread made from a starter. The noted NT scholar, Joel B Green in reference to the parable of the leaven explains, “Jesus asks people—male or female, privileged or peasant, it doesn’t matter—to enter the domain of a first-century woman and household cook in order to gain perspective on the domain of God.”

Which is why it is difficult to understand what all the fuss about a starter is. We are more familiar with commercial yeast, but the two are not the same; do not taste the same, do not behave the same, do not have the same properties, nor have the same health benefits. It’s not until you cultivate your own starter that you develop a guardian-like attitude like one carefully watching over a child because of its miraculous properties.

Feeding The Multitude

Parables, like many of the stories in the scriptures, are not explicit on details but I think one way many read into this particular story is to think that it happens within a matter of an hour and bang the miracle of feeding is done and everyone goes back to their homes with full bellies because we think that this is what makes it a miracle (that bread magically appears or falls from the sky) without giving thought to the people being referred to here as the multitude.

If the multitude of people are composed of homeless or displaced persons, one must think more critically about how the needs of hunger should be addressed which can only be done with a vision to organizing, teaching and learning that in reality takes time: days, months, even years. To think that Christ is concerned about feeding a crowd of people that simply forgot to make lunch that day is to read into this parable, and what He was about, on a cursory level.

What we learn from the narratives is that the Lord blessed and brake and gave the loaves to His disciples first, and the disciples to the multitude. With this succinct piece of information then, could the “blessing and breaking of the bread” be code for Christ teaching the disciples how to make bread so that they can go and teach the multitude, or before they themselves can be in a place where they can teach the multitude? Here’s another thought, isn’t it better to teach a man to fish so he can feed himself, rather than to always be fishing for him?

Ministry to Address Temporal Needs

The parable of the loaves is narrated in all four gospels each with slight variations. In Matthew we learn that Jesus has gone to be alone after learning about the death of John the Baptist. A multitude discovers Jesus nearby and flock to be near Him because they have learned that He can perform miracles. Rather than sending the multitude away, as His disciples would have Him do so that He can be alone in His thoughts, the Lord instead has compassion on the people and heals their sick. What we next come to learn is that He is about to perform another miracle, that of multiplying the loaves and fish to feed them. This is a ministry where the temporal needs of the people are being addressed.

To highlight this point I remember reading a conference talk by an LDS leader (I wish I could reference it here but have been unable to find it) where he shares an experience as a missionary handing out, if I can remember well, calling cards to passersby. A woman dressed in rags with unkempt hair took a card from him and asked if she could buy bread with it. This experience made a strong impression on the leader as a young missionary that he hones in on that if we care about saving souls, we must address their temporal needs first.

Desert Place

The gospels give contradictory accounts on where the story takes place. In one gospel the story takes place in the desert. In another gospel the story takes place in an urban setting but when the Lord tells His disciples to find food, the disciples respond that they are in a desert place. Whether the later story highlights the interesting phenomenon of Fatigue in the Synoptics,1 the overriding idea is based on the very word that confuses textural scholars. It is the word desert.

The word desert makes a very compelling argument for how we must think about this parable. When we think of a desert, the first thing that comes to mind is arid, dry, parched, barren. Once you place the parable in its historical context and environment you can see how this might apply to one living today. Not everyone today lives in the desert, but the idea of placement can also be a metaphor for need: hunger, poverty, famine, shortage of food—even unemployment, illness, loneliness, addictions, etc. Also, one can be living in the middle of the city but still experience a food desert, not just access to food, but access to healthy food.

Self-Reliance Builds Community

Now back to the Lord blessing and breaking and giving the loaves to the disciples first, and the disciples to the multitude. It is an easy thing to go to the store and buy food for someone, or to give someone money so they can go to the store to buy food. But what can we learn from the Lord’s example when He tells His disciples to not send the multitude away, that they are to give them something to eat? What does the Lord want us to learn from this parable? From Marion G. Romney:

“Without self-reliance one cannot exercise [the innate desire] to serve. How can we give if there is nothing there? Food for the hungry cannot come from empty shelves. Money to assist the needy cannot come from an empty purse. Support and understanding cannot come from the emotionally starved. Teaching cannot come from the unlearned. And most important of all, spiritual guidance cannot come from the spiritually weak.”

If the disciples of Christ were not in a position to give, or had little knowledge or skills in which to help those in need, then someone had to teach them before they could be of service to others. If we think this parable is about food magically appearing from nothing, we have the wrong idea of what is being articulated by miracle. A miracle also means something wonderful and marvelous and if you put it in the context of providing opportunities for people to provide for themselves, that in itself is a wonderful and marvelous thing.

La Minga: Episode 101 of The Perennial Plate from The Perennial Plate on Vimeo.

To illustrate, in this video we learn the concept of La Minga, which means community work for community good. Not to be confused with communism, La Minga is an age old tradition practiced by indigenous cultures in South America. A concept that is notably subtle but one that makes a huge impact on the livelihood and sustainability of families and communities. I have written elsewhere about self-reliance and community and how learning to be self-reliant requires learning many skills, but how it makes more sense to learn a few skills and to do them well.

In this video, individuals are starting out by growing 2-3 vegetables each (rather than individuals doing the same thing growing the same vegetables) and sharing their produce. This sharing should not be thought of as giving away for free or working for free, but is an opportunity for individuals to work and provide nourishment for their families with further opportunities for bartering with each other and the possibility of making an income by selling what they grow to the public—as can be seen in co-operatives or co-ops.

Application and Benefits of Fermentation Today

While learning about fermentation methods I came across a number of research papers and published journals from around the world. This is significant because it involves research to help developing countries and, to my astonishment, countries that already have access to modern biotechnology methods. What these papers reveal is the importance of traditional methods of food preparation.

While developing countries lack hygiene and water sanitation to properly implement their skills; developed countries suffer from chronic diseases that could be resolved by implementing traditional skills that have been lost to convenience. The research reminds us how cultures and countries throughout the ages have traditional dishes that involve fermentation—although many that lived during antiquity would not have known the science behind why fermentation was central to their survival—and why traditional methods of food access, storage and preparation may have been seen as miraculous.

What this research does is that it brings this miraculous concept, of indigenous fermented foods (and beverages), to our attention and request that it be given the scientific research and consideration it deserves. In the case of developing countries one paper outlines the significance of fermented foods to national economy in that “locally fermented foods are significant in provision of employment opportunities, market improvement, availability of food supplement and poverty alleviation.”

If there was ever a standard bearer for helping its people help themselves and a perspective for the biblical parable of the multiplicity of the loaves and fishes that has real life application, I think these examples make very compelling arguments to how we have lost touch with where our food comes from and the disconnection to self-reliance and community and why we must turn our focus to the old ways of learning and to reviving skills that have been lost to many.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Online: podacre.blogspot.com/2010/07/nt-pod-39-fatigue-in-synoptics.html