Eat what is good, we hear in Isaiah.
Eat what’s good for you, our parents told us. We are barraged with reports of how to eat more healthily, how to lose weight, what to avoid, what to eat more of.
In a grocery store, we’re told to buy more of the fresh items around the perimeter and to stay away from the processed evil things in the middle. Reminds me of Michael Pollan’s famous seven-word key to healthful eating: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
He says that much of what we call food isn’t real food, but processed food-like substances, like drinkable Go Gurt instead of real yogurt. (Do they even make that anymore?) Pollan adds that in this age of Lipitor and dialysis centers everywhere, we need to change the way we eat, because many of the things that are killing us are attributed to the way we are eating.
Eat what is good, we hear in Isaiah. Delight yourselves in rich food. And then the invitation. Come and eat for free! Why spend your money on that which is not bread, on things that do not satisfy.
Eating what is good is as spiritual as how we pray and serve and live our lives, but it’s something we all struggle with in one way or another.
I do pretty well at breakfast. I want some protein that will keep me full longer than all carbs like pancakes, syrup and whip cream. My daily cereal is the somewhat bland Go Lean, basically clumps of twigs and sticks, but with 14 wonderful grams of protein per serving. But take me to a party with all kinds of salty carb treats like potato chips, and I can be out of control. Pace yourself, Ernest will say.
Eat what is good. Whether literally or spiritually, we all have a complicated relationship to food.
We have more than enough. Most of us live lives of material abundance and privilege. Compared to most of the world’s population Americans are rich. Our shopping baskets are overflowing, our refrigerators are stocked, our plates often filled with seconds. Most of us are counting calories and concerned that eating too much is harming our health. Others are consumed with the pressure to have a perfect body and are literally starving as they live with diseases of anorexia and bulimia.
I am currently reading the novel Olive Kitteridge, a Pulitzer Prize winner, which is really a series of short stories that involve a larger than life, and literally large woman, named Olive. In one of the stories, Olive meets a young woman who is clearly anorexic. Olive bursts into tears. “I don’t know who you are,” she says, “but young lady, you’re breaking my heart.”
“I’m starving, too,” Olive confesses. “Why do you think I eat every donut in sight?”
“You’re not starving,” the girl retorts, looking at this woman with thick wrists and hands. “Sure, I am,” Olive says. “We all are.”
It’s a bold thing for Olive to say to a woman starving to death. Yet Olive has a capacity for empathy without sentimentality. She knows that life is lonely and unfair, and that only great luck will bring blessings like a long marriage and a quick death. She has her own regrets—but maybe that is why she understands the failings of others.
They may not be starving, but Jesus feeds five thousand hungry people in the gospels. The disciples want to send everyone to buy their own food. But Jesus’ compassion always extends to people in need.
There were only five loaves and two fish. Surely not enough. But seven is a sacred number, a sign that food is God’s gift.
Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to be shared. Sounds like what we will soon do at this table. They–and we–eat what is truly good for our body and soul.
As the people share the gifts of God, there are twelve baskets of left-overs. Twelve, another holy number. So often we look at we lack. Yet gratitude teaches us that there is more than enough. This food satisfies our hunger. It is the wholeness that we seek.
If we are all starving, if we all live with fear of what is happening to our country and to our world, if we all carry hurt and pain, what kind of food—what kind of spiritual sustenance—will satisfy our longings?
During this Reformation 500 year, we remember wisdom from Martin Luther. Maybe Olive’s comment “we are all starving” isn’t that different from Luther’s famous phrase, “we are all beggars.” The broken bread at the communion table calls us to encounter broken bodies and broken spirits. Luther linked the physical act of sharing food and in the eucharist with serving others in a sacrament of love.
Sometimes Lutherans have been accused of passivity in the face of social ills. Yet more and more theologians are holding up insights from Luther that link justification with justice and the eucharist with social ethics. We respond to the needs of others, not to earn God’s love, but because God is generous, always turning in mercy toward the hungry poor—our neighbors who are starving for justice, for acceptance, for love, for bread.
Gustavos Gutierrez, Peruvian liberation theologian, reminds us that God does not desire hunger. God wants to feed us with what is good. And hunger often arises when the right to life is trampled on. Yet Jesus shares bread with the hungry poor, and makes them his companions. We too are invited to share our bread, and to make the poor—indeed every person—our companions . . . as we join with our generous God in the project of building a more humane, a more just, and a more loving society.
So we come with the starving multitude to the “hungry feast” as one hymn puts it. We will eat our fill, yes. But the hunger will remain.
All who are hungry, come and eat what is good.