Isaiah 55:1-5, Romans 9:1-5, Matthew 14: 13-21
I thought about bringing a prop with me today: an English edition of Georges Auguste Escoffier’s Le Guide culinaire (1903), the equivalent of the Old Testament for those among us who like to cook. Or perhaps I could have brought Julia Child’s New Testament, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961), which would have served just as well, maybe even better. But since I haven’t used a prop since 1984, when I gave my first homily at St. Benedict Center, I thought that I’d be true to myself and leave both books at home. But given the insistent emphasis on food in today’s scriptural readings, that may have been a mistake. But I expect that we can live with it.
So let me begin instead at Floyd Bennet Field and be true to Brooklyn, New York, where I was born and reared. In the 23rd June 1914 issue of The New Yorker there is a brief article in The Talk of the Town section on Native American Indians having a powwow there where, among other things, they discussed the appropriateness of the nation capital’s football team calling itself the REDSKINS. As we see everywhere among every group imaginable—do I need to mention the Supreme Court?—they had differing opinions: one saying “Why not” and the other saying “Definitely not.” But the comment that I liked best was this one:
“The Redskins have always been the Redskins. I mean, what else are you going to call them: The Washington Bobcats? I think it’s O.K. as long as you don’t downgrade it. That ‘woo-woo-woo’ stuff, hitting the hand to the mouth. That’s not good. You’re not supposed to hit your face with your hand, because your face is your image. The Creator gave your image to you, so you respect that” (p.26)
Whether you are for or against the name REDSKINS, that comment works for both sides of the argument because the question at issue is respect.
Now perhaps a word about today’s scriptural readings might finally be in order. After reading today’s passages the first time, I was baffled. Isaiah invites those who “have no money, [to] come, buy and eat!” How do you do that without a credit card? Paul says he prefers to be cut off from the Christ “for the sake of my own people,” the Israelities. But Paul is always preaching that Jesus is Messiah and needs to be embraced as such. And Jesus himself goes off to be alone and crosses a river to be peaceful and meditate. But he ends up with 5,000 people hungry for his word and, eventually, just plain hungry. May I say I was bewildered by these three passages and immediately thought of Henny Youngman’s remark on reading in a clearly less bewildering context: “When I read about the evils of drinking wine, I gave up reading” (Chicago magazine, October 2002, p. 187). Wine is not the issue here, of course, but food is. Nonetheless, I was likewise tempted to give up reading. But unlike Youngman, I knew that August 3rd was coming and, like it or not, I had to read these texts again and again to try to make some sense of them.
Garry Wills helped me with his book What Paul Meant (2006) by indicating that in writing to the Romans, Paul is principally addressing those in the city who are Gentile Christians and asking them not to enforce their lack of dietary laws on their brothers and sisters, the Jewish Christians living there. Why? Because God chose the Israelites for his revelation, which Paul enumerates: “to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the ancestors in faith, and from them, according to the flesh comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever.” So just as in Antioch Paul had told Peter he could not demand that non-Jewish Christians follow Jewish dietary laws (see Galatians 2: 11-14), here he tells the Gentile Christians not to force their lack of such laws on their Jewish brothers and sisters. All in all it boils down to the basic law for every Christian, Jewish or Gentile: love is the only law: “You shall love the Lord your God with your entire heart, your entire soul, your entire mind—that is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is its like: You will love your neighbor as yourself. From those two commands is the entirety of the Law derived” (Mt. 22:37-40). Or in this matter of food and drink, Paul is telling the Gentile Christians the same thing that he told the Antioch Jewish Christians: “What you would have others do to you, do to them. That is the Law and the prophets” (Mt 7:12; Wills’ translations). .
What Isaiah is saying is that the hungry must be fed even without being able to pay for their food and drink. Their hunger and thirst are payment enough. If at first blush, that makes no economic sense, in light of the gospel, it makes perfect sense. What Jesus enacts there has nothing that has to do with money or dietary laws: pro or con. Although he is weary and he needs to rest, he extends the same invitation to the many that Isaiah does: “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” Indeed, Jesus puts aside his own needs and feeds those who hear his word regardless of their origins or their purses. His seeking a brief respite finds him standing among the five thousand. Not only are his words the bread of a spiritual life, the loaves and fishes sustain bodily life. Jesus is neither Escoffier nor Julia Child, but his banquet is the gourmet nourishment we would all like to be ours..