This past week I heard an interesting juxtaposition of comments (maybe veiled criticisms) that made me think that I just might understand Jesus better than I used to.
One person said, “Our church is really good at Lent. But we aren’t that great at joy.” I think they meant that we can relate to being morose and remorseful; we can do pensive and self-critical, but we have a tough time letting loose and being happy. Maybe.
Another person was pondering out loud and said, “Having a pile of goodies as part of worship is a new twist. Gluttony as praise.” He was referring to our weekly invitation to get our taste buds involved in receiving the sweetness of resurrection. One week we had a pile of strawberries littered with chocolates. But he must have been there the week we had a big pile of homemade cookies. Were we encouraging the behavior that makes many of us so food-obsessed and fat? Maybe.
Isn’t it great that people are thinking deep thoughts and not all at Iron Man 3?
Their comments reminded me of what people said to Jesus. On the one hand, his disciples were aghast at what he said to the rich young man he sent away. When Jesus told them it was hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom they wondered “Then who can be saved?” (Mark 10). Jesus seemed extremely serious and downright austere. The kingdom is a perpetual fast?
One the other hand, people thought John the Baptist was tough, but they thought Jesus was a party boy, in comparison. John seemed like perpetual Lent and Jesus looked like a glutton and a drunkard, eating and drinking with tax collectors and other people on the outs (Luke 7). Jesus seemed committed to joy and freedom and on the edge of being immoral with the immoral. The kingdom is a perpetual feast?
Feasting is such a problem for us Americans. We live in a food glut, so we never kill the fatted calf, we decide upon which fatted calf we will eat today.* The vast majority of us have never been hungry and don’t know anyone who has been hungry, ever (even though they are still out there, people: in Philadelphia and in the world). I think many of my plump friends looked at a plate of cookies on the “altar” and it looked like it was mocking them. They’ve eaten so many cookies, they stopped tasting their sweetness ages ago. Food is like a burden they carry. They are always loaded with it, trying in vain to get rid of what’s hanging on them. They can’t feast, just feed at the immense trough.
But fasting is such a problem, too. We live in such a food glut that we are always eating the fatted calf, we have cow factories devoted to providing them at low cost. When we fast we tend to give up the cherry on our perpetual sundae, or go on a brief diet. We can’t get away from excess even if we try. Yesterday, I went to a breakfast meeting, a potluck for Cinco de Mayo (with excellent chips) and two further meetings laden with surfeit snacks! If we endure a season of Lent we think our morose behavior is extraordinary and we long to get back to our sunny diversions — the ones that make Jesus look like such a downer.
I think most of us have been well-trained to live in the quandary I just set up. The people who supplied my original motivation were doing the same thing. There are always the opposing thoughts in any argument or situation and we think our job is to live in the compromised middle of them. We tend to be afraid to move this way or that because there is always that other argument. Does Jesus call us rich people to give it all up, or is he feasting with us sinners and freeing us from condemnation? And there we go again in some endless dialectic.
It seems to me that if all we are talking about are the applied definitions of “fast” and “feast” we are liable to sit around feeling critical of strange things that happen in worship meetings. But strangely hidden in the scriptures that seem so opposite is another approach to listening to God that is not about applying static principles.** Just like the Christian year moves from fasting to feasting along with the creation, understanding the revelation in Jesus is a journey, a trusting movement through time.
In the Mark 10 passage where the disciples are amazed at how hard Jesus seems to be on the rich man, Jesus is just suggesting a journey. The man needs to move through the “eye of the needle.” Likewise, the disciples need to leave and move with Jesus into eternal life. In the Luke 7 passage where Jesus is accused of being a glutton, it is all about people going out to see John and coming to Jesus, and Jesus going into the marketplace and making relationships. I think both passages are happening along the journey, during which there are days of fasting and suffering and there are days of feasting and joy. It all works out in the purpose of God and in the love we are sharing, not in the appropriate application of good theology, alone.
Faith is a daily matter of trusting God along the journey. Sometimes we can’t make perfect sense of it all. For instance, I went out to dinner twice this weekend. On Friday I went to Harvest at 40th and Walnut, where I had a delicious pork chop and plate with just enough calories on it. The next night I was hungry again and ended up at Tandoor where I had two heaping plates of my favorite dishes from the buffet. I felt a bit guilty after I ate at the wanton Tandoor, like I had betrayed the morality of the austere Harvest. Today I have convinced myself that it is all part of the journey in the land of food glut. I was criticizing myself like people criticized Jesus – and I was, indeed, better at that. But I also really enjoyed all that saag paneer and the pakora, too – and I am letting myself experience that sweetness.