I admit, I’ll a bit obsessed with The Netflix show Orange is the New Black. The show is set in a women’s prison.It’s part exaggerated satire and part serious social commentary. Gradually, we learn about the lives of the women before they entered prison.Today, I’m thinking about Taystee, a young African American woman who spent her childhood in a group foster home. One day, the preteen Taystee is hanging out in the park during an adoption fair.She tries to impress some potential adoptive parents but instead ends up scaring them away with her aggressive manner. Sitting sadly on a park bench, she’s approached by a well-dressed womannamed Vee.Vee runs a heroin business; she invites Taystee to work for her.In return, Vee will take care of her.A flashback several years later shows a scene in Vee’s apartment.Vee’s right hand man, RJ, sits at the kitchen table packaging heroin.Taystee bursts in the door with her arms full of craft supplies, and ideas about how to market their drugs more creatively.Vee, meanwhile, cooks dinner, sarcastically mocking Taystee’s enthusiasmwhile stirring homemade butternut squash soup and pulling a loaf of whole grain flax seed bread out of the oven.Taystee’s face takes on an expression of blissas she beholds the food. She beams as she sets the table for their shared dinner.The scene is sweet, sad, and terribly ironic in its portrayal of this young woman’s hunger for a meal and all that it symbolizes: home, family, belonging. (Season 2, Episode 2)
Professor Warren Carter reminds us that hunger is also the context for our Gospel story, and in fact, for Jesus’ entire ministry. He writes:
“The [Roman] empire was very hierarchical in its social structure with a small group of ruling elites who enjoyed abundant variety and good quality of food. But most of the population lived around, at, or below subsistence level with inadequate calorific and nutritional intake…. Food access reflected the elite’s access to power that controlled resources. The lack of food was one of the ways many people experienced the injustice of this disparity of power. It is also one of the reasons we see so many sick people in the gospels. Diseases of deprivation (inadequate nutrition) and diseases of contagion (inadequate immunity) were rife.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org
In the Gospel of Matthew, the setting of our story of the loaves and fishes is striking: both its physical location and its placement in the narrative. Jesus hears the news of John the Baptist’s murder at Herod’s birthday bash and then he withdrew to a deserted place. In traveling to the wilderness, Jesus removed himself from the scope of Herod’s control, declaring his independence from Rome. And when the people followed Jesus out into the desert, his ministry of healing and feeding created a community not bound by the norms of empire. The empire’s rulers cultivated conditions of hunger and sickness but Jesus offered equality of access to creation’s bounty: an open-air picnic, food for all: blessed, broken and shared.
I just heard about Michael Pollan’s new book, Cooked. In the introduction, Pollan writes
“In ancient Greece, the word for “cook,” “butcher,” and “priest” was the same—mageiros—and the word shares an etymological root with “magic.” I would watch, rapt, when my mother conjured her most magical dishes, like the tightly wrapped packages of fried chicken Kiev that, when cut open with a sharp knife, liberated a pool of melted butter and an aromatic gust of herbs. But watching an everyday pan of eggs get scrambled was nearly as riveting a spectacle, as the slimy yellow goop suddenly leapt into the form of savory gold nuggets. Even the most ordinary dish follows a satisfying arc of transformation, magically becoming something more than the sum of its ordinary parts.” (Introduction, p.4)
Pollan explains that his mother taught him how to cook, and he did so capably, but never had much interest in cooking, never thought of it as important. The book is an account of Pollan’s learnings when he decides to research in depth the processes by which cooks transform food into meals. In the course of this project, he becomes convinced that cooking is actually the most important thing we can do to improve the health of our bodies, to help reform American food system and to deepen our understanding of our human place in the natural world.
I’ll need to read the whole book in order to evaluate his argument fully. But as a follower of Jesus, it makes sense to me that cooking is a central act of our humanity, and that it this everyday work and enjoyment creates conditions that allow us to be healthy, and to live in just relationship with nature and with our neighbors. After all, Jesus spent a great deal of his ministry at the table. He fed the crowds, ate in the homes of the poor and powerful, told stories about wedding feasts and great banquets and finally, at the last, culminating supper with his disciples, he made utterly clear the importance of eating and drinking. Whether it is a picnic on a hillside or a Passover dinner in the upper room, the meal is the act that embodies Jesus’ message, which binds his community into one body, and which reveals the mystery of his ongoing presence among us.
Yesterday’s Star Tribune carried a photo from Gaza. The setting is a rough dirt road with scraps of metal and concrete littering the background. At the center of the picture a man lays on his side, shoeless, a dazed expression in his eyes, one hand raised as if moving to cover his face. Next to him sprawls a wheelchair, tipped to its side, its wheels bent. The man’s torso rests on a tattered blanket that covers the body of his 17-year-old sister. The caption of the photo explains: “[The man] said his family had to leave her behind when fleeing Israeli firing nine days earlier because they could not push her wheelchair quickly enough for a safe escape.”(Saturday, August 2, 2014 Star Tribune) There is no moral high ground here, as the Israeli military (funded by the US government) bombs schools and kills civilians and Hamas uses the deaths of innocent ones such as this 17-year-old to fuel support for their agendas.
The crowd in the wilderness that day with Jesus also faced difficult and desperate times. People were hungry that evening and likely too poor to purchase food, and yet the disciples wanted to send them away to buy dinner. But Jesus resisted the commodification of food, which brings a life of malnutrition and sickness for many. Perhaps he had in mind the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, and you that have no money,come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” “You give them something to eat,” Jesus instructed his disciples. The disciples protested: they had nothing to work with. Nothing but five loaves and two fish.
Jesus, on the other hand, evaluated the situation, and the resources available, differently. He trusted in God to provide what was needed. Looking up to heaven, he blessed the few morsels of food. He knew that God is the source of all nourishment, the provider of the magic that cooks food into a meal. He also realized that God works this transformation through human hands. Jesus perceived abundance in the people themselves. He saw the assets they brought which could be mobilized in order to provide enough for all. The hands of the disciples passed along the food to the hands of the crowd. In turn, the crowd’s hands distributed the meal to every last hungry person.
While the empire labels people powerless, helpless, and worthless, Jesus counters with his word of encouragement. He speaks us as people brought together by our common hunger of body and spirit: you give [one another] something to eat. He offers us courage to withdraw from the influence of tyrants who wield power without justice or love, emperors of fear and violence and greed who rule all around us and reign within us. He teaches us, instead, to trust in the one who provides abundantly. He invites us into the divine magic of the meal: bless, break, and share. Eat, heal and belong.