“Whence shall we buy bread that these may eat?”
For our food obsessed culture, this gospel story is either welcome relief or anxiety inducing. It just might get our minds set on our bellies, thinking of food and all manner of kinds of breads and cakes! Relax! This Sunday you get to have your cake and eat it too but only after the service.
In a way, that is the real point. It is a question of spiritual priorities. What defines us? Are you what you eat? Though sometimes attributed to the French gastronomer or connoisseur of food, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, it is literally a phrase from the 19th century theologian Ludwig von Feuerbach, who influenced Marx, in his Concerning Spiritualism and Materialism, suggesting that our minds are affected by food and other aspects of the physical world. It was also the title of popular British TV dieting programme, “You-are-what-you-eat”. Food r’us, it seems! What eats and drinks today walks and talks tomorrow.
I want to suggest that this gospel story belongs to a theology of food that is really about our lives spiritually and sacramentally. As the great patristic preacher, St. John Chrysostom put it, “we do not preach so as to eat; we eat so as to preach.” We do not live for food; we need food to live for God and for one another. If we are part of a culture where “people treat food like religion,” as has been recently observed (Dr. Yoni Freedhof, National Post, Sat., March 29th, 2014), then perhaps we need to think about the role of food in religion.
“Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit/ Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste/ Brought death into the world and all our woe,” begins Milton’s great poem, Paradise Lost. It all begins with food, it seems; that is to say, the story of human suffering and woe. The story of the Fall away from God is told in mythic form by way of eating what was forbidden, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We fall into a world where there is not only sweat and tears – working in the sweat of our brow and in the literal labour pains and tears of child-birth – but blood, sweat, and tears are the realities of human experience as the fall-out from “man’s first disobedience.” Yet food – bread – becomes an integral part of redemption. It belongs to the story of our return to God.