Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Hungry People Don't Need To Be Told About The Centrality Of Giving And Receiving Food To Religious Practice

It's true, the observation made by John Dominic Crossan, to people who are used to not missing meals, who never had to worry about where their food was going to come from into the foreseeable future, realizing how much of the Bible centers on food can be kind of a surprise.  Our inability to appreciate that in a superficial reading of the Bible or to even get it is a good example of the position of affluent people, even affluent in the way of second or third generation middle-class Americans, as biblical outsiders and of people who can't possibly understand the Scriptures without an intentional exercise of the kind of historical imagination the sections of his book posted here the last couple of days advocate. 

The next section of Chapter 2 deals with some of the major examples of how food, its giving and receiving, of getting it in a context where that is unexpected and out of the natural realm of expectation is central to understanding the Bible and really biblical religion.   I will note that I think that since this was written, forty years ago,  Brueggemann, in his more recent talks and writing, would emphasize the role that neighborliness plays in the miracles asserted in poetic form in the Bible.  I've inserted the passages that the book cites, for the convenience of those who don't have a Bible handy, they are from the Revised Standard Verson.

Some Biblical Uses of This Story

Among the uses made of this story in the subsequent retellings are at least the following.  In Isaiah 55:1-3, a poem for exiles when the community of Israel in the sixth century B.C. is hopeless, starved for faith as well as for bread,  it is asserted that bread is freshly given and milk is for the taking.

Isaiah 55:1-3

An Invitation to Abundant Life

55 “Ho, every one who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in fatness.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
    hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
    my steadfast, sure love for David.

This poet, one of our comrades in faith, has taken the manna story and has presented it in yet another form so that his contemporaries can see their situation differently.  Exile, like the wilderness sojourn, seems hopeless and without signs of life.   But for people who remember imaginatively, exile, like wilderness, is seen to be a place where God freely nourishes his desperate people.  Deathly places, wilderness, or exile are, because of Yahweh, places of life.  In this poetry of Isaiah 55, it is not self-evident that the poet consciously alludes to Exodus 16, and perhaps he does not.  But the theme floats in the life of his people, and listeners of such poetry make connections out of their stock of historical memory.  And quite clearly,  whether intended by the poet or not,  the link between the old narrative and the new poetry enlivens both.  Both take on fresh meanings which yield power and insight for a community in a seemingly hopeless situation.  

In the New Testament, the Gospel of Mark records two feeding actions of Jesus.  In 6:30-44 he feeds fie thousand in in 8:1-10 he feeds four thousand,  

Mark 6:30-44

30 The apostles returned to Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a lonely place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going, and knew them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns, and got there ahead of them. 34 As he landed he saw a great throng, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. 35 And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the hour is now late; 36 send them away, to go into the country and villages round about and buy themselves something to eat.” 37 But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii[a] worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” 38 And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he commanded them all to sit down by companies upon the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. 41 And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And they all ate and were satisfied. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.

Mark 8:1-10

In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him, and said to them, 2 “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days, and have nothing to eat; 3 and if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way; and some of them have come a long way.” 4 And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these men with bread here in the desert?” 5 And he asked them, “How many loaves have you?” They said, “Seven.” 6 And he commanded the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. 7 And they had a few small fish; and having blessed them, he commanded that these also should be set before them. 8 And they ate, and were satisfied; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 9 And there were about four thousand people. 10 And he sent them away; and immediately he got into the boat with his disciples, and went to the district of Dalmanu′tha.

Obviously the actions of Jesus are understood quite differently because the remembering church saw his actions through the prism of the manna story, and no doubt Jesus himself also did. It is clearly intended to suggest that this old history of life-giving food in a place of death is happening again. The narrative in Mark is quite self-consciously inventive in the use of history. It is imaginative in its presentation, but its imagination is rooted in a precise historical memory. As a result, Jesus is presented not imply as a miracle-worker or a bread-maker but as the action of God transforming a “wilderness” (cf. Mark 6:35, 8:4) into a place of nourishment, a place of abandonment into one of caring power, a place of death into a time of life. Jesus, as the power of God, transforms the situation. And as the church remembered and told this story and reflected on it, she drew a powerful conclusion: We are in covenant with the transforming one It has been so since our fathers and mothers in Exodus 16, and it is so each time we eat in the presence of holy power.

It will be clear to you that in reporting this story I have handled it like an insider.  By “insider” I do not mean one who has special expertise or technical learning.  Rather I mean one who lives in and derives life from the community which believes these materials.  Insiders are all the people who believe that these memories tell us about our past and these promises tell us about our future.  Outsiders, by contrast, do not take the materials that seriously but regard them only as interesting  materials which we can take or leave as they suit us.  Only an insider would take the connections to Exodus 16 in a way which energizes and informs the Mark narrative.  This connection has been made by the narrators of Mark who are also insiders, but they do it so subtly that it takes insiders to recognize the sensitivity and suggestion of the way the story is told.  We are engaged in serious Bible study when we are alert and responses to such interactions among the texts.

The piracy of hijacking the name and what would be the identity of Christianity by politicians even as they cut food stamps, wipe out the WIC program, stigmatize and vilify those on food stamps and subject them to useless drug testing for entry into the program (they also want to cut drug treatment programs) are guilty of as anti-Christian a violation of the very center of Christian morality and its world view.   I have said recently that after decades of thinking the last book of the New Testament had been a mistake, if it can be used as a lense to give a name to this hijacking of Christianity, maybe it is of more value than I'd believed.

There is no more characteristically Biblical act than feeding people who are hungry, making sure they have enough food.   Feeding the "unworthy" probably the most profoundly Biblical act of them all.  The very concept that there could be people who are properly placed in the category of "unworthy" is a sure sign of reversion to a Roman style of paganism.   With all the talk about the "de-Christianization" of Europe, there's plenty of that among those who proclaim their Christianity the loudest.  They're obviously too removed from the experience of needing food.  Which would be in line with what it says about it being harder for a rich person to get into heaven than for a poor one to. 

More of this, later. 

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