I don’t trust storytellers who don’t mention food. I don’t know what to do with history books, with novels, with biographies, that neglect to mention the most ordinary thing about human beings: that we eat, we make and eat food. We can’t keep on doing this thing called life without someone somewhere growing and preparing food—someone planning out how food is going to get to our hungry mouths. We schedule our days around eating, and making sure other people in our lives have something to eat—preferably healthy and tasty, but mostly we just need something, anything: a sandwich, a burrito, a burger, pizza, anything to fuel our bodies, to keep us alive. Even better if it’s a gently massaged kale salad.
I remember reading a lot of political theology when I was in seminary—books all about the revolutionary Christian politics, very serious arguments, very important ideas. And what always struck me, what I wondered about, was what are people going to eat, who was going to make the food for the revolution? That never seemed to be a pressing concern, when the theologians theorized about the revolution, the kingdom of God. They also didn’t worry too much about childcare, which always clued me into something weird going on in how they thought about the world. Who is going to make the meals and who is going to provide childcare when planning for the revolution? Church life has taught me to think about real life, our ordinary and vital needs, whenever we plan things.
There’s a short passage that I love so much from one of Aristotle’s writings—it’s all about a kitchen. In his treatise on biology called The Parts of Animals, written some time around 350 BCE, Aristotle tells a story about the great philosopher Heraclitus. If you don’t know about Heraclitus, maybe you’ve seen the Disney movie Pocahontas and remember her song, “Just Around The River Bend,” which is basically a summary of Heraclitus: “What I love most about rivers is / You can’t step in the same river twice / The water’s always changing, always flowing.” That’s a line from Heraclitus—“no one ever steps in the same river twice.” It has to do with what has become a debate with Parmenides about the nature of being, of life, about sameness and difference. But I’m distracting myself.
Aristotle tells a story about this great philosopher Heraclitus. People come to his city to talk about divine things, to discuss the important things in the world, to learn from him. When the visitors finally find Heraclitus, he isn’t where they had expected him. He wasn’t in his study. He wasn’t reading. He wasn’t in state of meditation. Instead, they see him in the kitchen, by the oven. The visitors are at first put off by the scene—with the respected philosopher there by the stove. Heraclitus has to urge them to join him in the kitchen. “Come in,” Heraclitus tells them, “for there are gods here too.” (PA 645a15-23; see Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness, 262).
Jesus is also known to cook. At the end of John’s Gospel, after the resurrection, the disciples see Jesus on the beach, waiting for them to return from a night of work, of fishing. As they get closer and closer, they see Jesus beside a charcoal fire, roasting fish and bread. Jesus says to them, “Come and have breakfast” (John 21:12). Food matters to Jesus because bodies matter, life matters—the promises of God have everything to do with a meal, with eating in the company of friends.
The passage we heard today from the middle of Matthew’s Gospel is a story about food, about eating. Jesus wanders out into the wilderness, and a whole multitude follows him. There’s not much that happens, while they’re all out there together—just thousands of people waiting around with Jesus, until evening, and stomachs begin to growl. The disciples want to send the people away, back to their villages, “to buy food for themselves” (Matthew 14:15).
Jesus didn’t like that idea very much, perhaps because he loves the people, he loves their company, he doesn’t want them to leave, he doesn’t want to break up the party—perhaps because this scene in the wilderness is what God’s prophecies of a new world look like, where, as it says in Isaiah, “you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy without money” (Isaiah 55:1). Jesus wants the world of Isaiah’s prophecy, a world where everyone has enough food, regardless of money—a world, an economy, unconstrained by greed, by hoarding resources; a world, an economy, where people share until everyone has enough.
With the crowds around him, Jesus blesses and divides and passes portions of bread and fish, feeding the hungry masses, as each person keeps what they need and hands food to their neighbors. “And all ate and were filled” (Matthew 14:20).
I read through the whole Gospel of Matthew this past week, this time paying attention to food, to the role that food plays in the story of Jesus. I found twenty-five places in the Gospel where food is mentioned—sometimes just a casual hint that Jesus was eating with friends or sometimes the world of food becomes a metaphor for how the gospel works. Twenty-five mentions of food over the course of twenty-eight chapters. It’s almost a subplot to the Gospel, a concern about food, about having enough to eat, and a hope in an unceasing feast with God and neighbor.
The first mention of food is in the third chapter, when the storyteller lets us know what John the Baptist usually ate: “his food was locusts and honey,” it says (Matt 3:4). And the last mention is in chapter twenty-six, toward the end of the story, when Jesus spends his last evening with his friends, his last meal, where he takes a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he breaks it, giving the pieces to the disciples, saying, “Take, eat; this is by body” (Matt 26:26).
Bless, break, give. These are the same words, the same verbs, Jesus says in the story we heard today, where Jesus is in the wilderness with the crowds, and he has compassion on the people, and he offers them food, taking the bread and fish into his hands, he looks up into the heavens, and blesses and breaks the loaves, giving the pieces to the crowds (Matt 14:19).
Bless, break, give. That’s the pattern, the same verbs, the words we say every time we celebrate Communion, like we will today, later in our service, as we eat and drink our way into the Gospel story, taking a seat at the table with Jesus and his friends for his last meal—we become those people, committed to him, to his life, to sharing his love, to pouring out our lives for others just like he did for us.
When Jesus uses those same words in our passage today, those same words for the last supper, those same communion words—it’s almost as if every meal becomes a kind of communion, every meal a holy supper, everyday food as sacramental, the grace of eating at God’s table everywhere, in a world held together by God’s blessing, by God’s breaking and sharing, by God’s gift of life.
“Give us this day our daily bread,” Jesus tells us to pray. Our daily bread is ordinary grace, God’s everyday blessing—gifts that are meant to be shared, to be divided up, broken into portions so that everyone has enough. “Go into the streets,” Jesus says later in a parable, “and invite everyone you find to the banquet” (Matt 22:9).
We pass along what has been given to us—God’s blessing, God’s sustaining grace. Like the disciples in the story, we usually say, when it comes to our resources, to our possessions—we say, like the disciples, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish” (Matt 14:18). And Jesus shows us that that is more than we need, that there is enough to share, that we can give our lives for the advent of a new world, where there’s time to eat together—to make a world where all God’s children are provided for. Because God sends manna. And because Christ offers food for the hungry: our food, multiplied for others.
Addendum: Passages from the Gospel of Matthew regarding food
“his food was locusts and honey” (3:4)
“he will gather wheat into the granary” (3:12)
the devil: “command these stones to become loaves of bread” (4:3)
first followers were out fishing: “As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers…casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen” (4:18)
“blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (5:6)
“You are the salt of the earth” (5:13)
“Give us this day our daily bread” (6:11)
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (6:26)
“many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (8:11)
“As he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples” (9:10)
“Lord of the harvest” (9:38)
“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard” (11:19)
“At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.” (12:1)
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast” (13:33)
“All ate and were filled” (14:20)
“they do not wash their hands before they eat” (15:2)
“it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of a person that defiles” (15:11)
“to eat with unwashed hands does not defile” (15:20)
“even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (15:27)
“all of them ate and were filled” (15:37)
“they had forgotten to bring bread” (16:5)
“Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet” (22:9)
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink” (25:35)
“So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal” (26:19)
“While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is by body’” (26:26)