A Spirituality of Food:
"The All-Sufficient Metaphor for Power"

For Sunday August 29, 2010

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)

Jeremiah 2:4–13 or Sirach 10:12–18 or Proverbs 25:6–7

Psalm 81:1, 10 –16 or Psalm 112

Hebrews 13:1–8, 15–16

Luke 14:1, 7–14

           The books about food just keep coming, with Michael Pollan of Berkeley leading the way. In The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), Pollan explored "our national eating disorder" by tracking food from its origin to our dinner plate. In Defense of Food (2008) offered a seven-word mantra with three rules: "Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants." More recently, his tiny treatise Food Rules (2009) suggested sixty-four one-page guidelines to healthier and happier eating.

           Pollan's books are only partly about nutrition. He points us to a bigger picture that includes not only our appetites but our consciences. Food ecology is important, but so is a food ethic. There's more to food than buying organic, joining the slow food movement, going vegan, or bicycling to your farmer's market with a denim bag. Food is about more than nutrition.

Elegant dining table.

           Where you eat, what you eat, how much or how little you eat, when you eat, and who you eat with all say something about your identity and the community you keep. In a review of the book Feast: A History of Grand Eating (2003) by Roy Strong, Ingrid Rowland notes how throughout history food has often been "the all-sufficient metaphor for power." That's a distinctly Biblical idea.

           Food plays a conspicuous role in the Biblical narratives. Jews celebrate liberation from Egypt with the Passover meal. Many of their 613 mizvot or commandments deal with dietary restrictions. John says that Jesus's first miracle was to turn water into wine at a wedding party in Cana of Galilee. In the gospels we read about the Last Supper, the Lord's Supper, and the Great Supper—all signs that signify spiritual realities that transcend their physical nature.

           There are stories about feeding the multitudes, whether it's okay to eat with dirty utensils, food production and farming, arguments about whether to abstain from food (fasting), which foods are ritually clean or unclean (kosher) and why, whether a believer in Paul's day could eat meat that had been sacrificed to pagan idols and then afterwards sold in the local market, and the poor begging crumbs from the rich. Luke's Gospel for this week is only one of several stories that Jesus told in which he used food as a metaphor for a sort of power that could build or destroy human community.     

           Jesus often ate with fringe people, the riffraff, so much so that his detractors disparaged him as a glutton and a drunkard (Luke 7:34). For the religiously scrupulous person of that day, to eat with a "dirty" person defiled you and made you impure before both God and humanity. But Jesus also ate with these very same religiously zealous and socially powerful people. That's where the gospel for this week finds him. Jesus was eating dinner with a prominent Pharisee when he noticed something about the guests and something about the hosts (Luke 14:1, 7–14).

Starving child.

           The guests at the party clamored for "places of honor" at the table. To insinuate ourselves into places of importance, to wheedle a prestigious invitation, to be seen at the right eatery with the right people, all these behaviors are what we're inclined to do. It's entirely human. When I was in Oxford in the fall of 2002, I regularly attended the beautiful church service called Evensong. On my first night at Magdalen College Chapel (founded in 1448) I learned an important lesson: do not, under any circumstances, even think about sitting in the back row reserved for the professors. Those are prestigious seats for important people, and never mind that the church was empty except for the boys choir and a few tourists like me.

           Whether it's sitting in the sky box at the football game or at court side at the basketball game, we confuse a powerful social location with an authentic personal identity. Just as school children long to demonstrate through their bag lunch that they are okay (do you remember school lunches?), adults want to demonstrate by their social location at a table that they are not only okay but important and powerful. Jesus warned the dinner guests — be careful where you sit; it might reveal more about yourself than you would care to know.

           Jesus then turned from the guests to the hosts, and commented on what we might call the law of reciprocity. When you throw a dinner party you tend to invite people whom you most enjoy, those whose presence in your house might flatter you. In fact, said Jesus, there's a decent chance these people will reciprocate and invite you to their party, which is exactly what you hope. But to the hosts Jesus also turned the tables. He replaced those whom we would most likely invite, "your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors" (Luke 14:12), with those whom we would least likely invite, "the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind" (Luke 14:13). Jesus warned the hosts, be careful about your invitation list; like your seating preferences, it also says something about your deepest identity.

           Jesus warned both guests and hosts, "Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 14:11). Commenting on this passage from Luke, William Willimon, former professor and dean of the chapel at Duke University for almost thirty years, observed, "there is a warning here about the advent of a kingdom where those who are full, and content, and on top get dislodged."

Our Ugandan friends sing for us.
Our Ugandan friends sing for us.

           I was reminded of Luke's parable when I was in Uganda in 2004. In a village outside of Tororo, our group was feted by a duo who between the two of them lived the life of all four people that Jesus mentioned. They were both poor, one was blind, and the other person was lame and crippled. They sang to us newly composed songs of appreciation, complete with our individual names, and threw the best party with the best food they had. In this instance, as is also the case in the gospels, food was a metaphor not of power, envy, and social posturing, but of joyful celebration of the God who exalts the humble and humbles the exalted.

           When my friend's daughter, Lisa, got married, they wanted to invite their entire church, but budgetary constraints prohibited that. Instead, after the service, they had the local police block off the main street in downtown Waco, Texas. Guests danced in the streets and enjoyed refreshments from a Baskins Robbins ice cream cart. The gazebo in the concrete park next to the theatre sheltered the wedding cake.

           Lisa's husband, Chris, had made friends with a number of homeless men who lived under a bridge. As a pastor, Chris had employed these men for odd jobs at his church. "Coyote," the leader of his homeless friends, came to the wedding in his usual attire of jeans with holes in the knees, a scraggly beard, and unwashed hair. He organized his friends to clean up the streets after the wedding, then sat on the curb with a big smile and smoked a cigar.

           Another guest was Lisa's next door African-American neighbor. The little girl loved to spend time with Lisa, and really wanted to come to her wedding. So the mother, the daughter, and the grandfather all came. The 70 year-old grandfather was soon the center of attraction as he went out on the street and danced to the music. Soon the college girls were vying to dance with him. As passersby strolled by and inquired about what was happening, they too were invited to the wedding. There were guests dressed in their nicest clothes alongside guests who wouldn't feel at home at a formal occasion. However they dressed, on this occasion every person felt welcomed as an honored guest, just as God himself welcomes us to himself, and invites us to welcome each other.

For further reflection:

* From the epistle for this week: "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so some people have entertained angels without knowing it" (Hebrews 13:2).
* How is the Lord's Supper a sign of the kingdom of God?
* Should the Lord's Supper be offered to all people without conditions, or limited to some people?
* Consider: Whereas the west has an epidemic of obesity, about half the world, 3 billion people, lives in what the UN calls “food deficit countries.”
* See Sara Miles, Take this Bread (2007) and Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead (2010).

Image credits: (1) BBC News; (2) Doctors Without Borders; and (3) Dan Clendenin.