Friday, May 17, 2013

The Spirituality of Food

SCRIPTURE: John 4:31-38
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: May 17th, 2013

[I dedicate this issue of Sabbath Walk to all who have walked with us during our trip to Malaysia and Singapore from May 4th to May 13th.]
31Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” 33Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?” 34“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” (John 4:31-38)
Last week, I was visiting Malaysia and Singapore, with one of goals to eat as much as possible the local delicacies that I have been missing all these years. What brings the different ethnic groups together in this South East Asian region is basically food. There are superb offerings from all different racial groups. The Chinese have their char-kuay-teow and the chicken rice. The Malays have their spread of Nasi Padang and the famous Satay. The Indians have rojak and roti-prata. There are even food delicacies that comprise the best of different ethnic groups. For example, the Peranakans, Nonyas, Babas, and others are those who have managed to combine the best of Chinese, Malay, and Indian recipes into a very unique dish. Rich in spices and creative mix, the food is welcomed by many locals, and brings much pride not just to one ethnicity, but to all represented. In some way, I am rather thankful that I have not read this passage from John 4, about how Jesus responded to the question about food.

Jesus has a way to say the most counter-intuitive thing and still get away with it. Sometimes, when I read this passage, I cannot help but wonder if Jesus is being rude and insensitive to the genuine care of his disciples. After all, is it a very normal thing for us to be asking one another whether we have had our fill of food each day? Among many Asians, regardless of dialect groups, one of the most common greetings or conversational starters is to ask about a meal.

  • Mandarin: "Ning chi fan le mei you?" (Literal Translation: Have you eaten your rice yet?)
  • Cantonese: "Nei Sek Bao Mei ah?" (Literal Translation: You eaten yet?)
  • Hokkien: "Jiak Ba buay?" (Have you eaten yet?)
  • Malay: "Makan Belum?" (Literally: Eaten yet?)

It is culturally acceptable, and serves people well simply as part of our common human need for good food in our brief sojourn on earth.

Suppose it is dinner time, and we want to be a good host to Jesus. We then asks him if he has eaten yet, imagine our surprise to hear the words of Jesus coming back to us saying, "I have food to eat that you know nothing about."

Goodness. I dare not try that with my host. Who knows, I may not be invited back.

A) Good Food and God's Will

We all know that doing the will of God is #1 in the mind of Jesus. Everywhere he goes, he seeks to glorify God, to point people to God, to acknowledge the goodness of God, and to live-breathe-think-witness for God. Of course, with such a focus, we will not be so surprised when the answer to the disciples' concern is this: "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work."

Ok. That is Jesus. He has every right to say what is uppermost in his mind. It is this same man who has gone through 40 days in the wilderness with no food. At the height of his hunger, the devil tempts him with food, power, and riches. Having passed the tests and overcame the temptations, Jesus begins his ministry in zest and conviction. If he is able to fast well, he has overcome the temptation of food. This is in sharp contrast to Esau who gives up his own birthright to Jacob in exchange for food. While some interpreters have blamed Jacob for his art of deception, we cannot say that Esau is an innocent victim in the first place. The offer by Jacob was earnest. The acceptance by Esau was honest. It is in simple terms, an agreed transaction. Esau pays for the meat stew in exchange for giving up his birthright. Spiritually, this is serious. It means Esau is willing to give up something precious in the long term, just to satisfy his tummy cravings in the short term. Speaks a lot about the character of Esau.

If one is intent on doing God's will, one will apply this intent to all of life, not just a portion of it. Jesus has basically applied this desire to do God's will fully, comprehensively, and purposefully.

What about us? Surely, we are human after all. The saying goes, "To err is human, to blame it on others is even more human" reflects the state of the human condition. It can also be weird for us, even the most pious disciples, to say, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work."

Good grief. We are not angels. Neither are we so holy that we lack no earthly food. Come to think about it, there are at least three ways to reflect about the spirituality of food and eating. Fasting, Feasting, and Fellowshiping.

B) Spirituality of Food - Fasting

There is a time for everything, and that includes fasting. The author, Charles M Murphy writes:

"Food is an obsession in our culture, and I really think we need wisdom from the Church about eating.... It's a basic human activity and there is wisdom in this tradition of fasting, which is focused on God and not on ourselves." (Charles M. Murphy)

In fasting, we learn to deny ourselves the pleasure of food, so as to re-align ourselves toward what is more important. If Esau has this understanding in the first place, he will not have given in so easily to Jacob's temptation.

Thomas Aquinas lists three purposes for fasting: chastity, contemplation, and penitence. Of chastity, it allows one to stay pious and retains purity of focus on that one thing, like Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:5. Of contemplation, it frees one to yearn to see God, like Daniel's three week fast that culminates in the vision of God (Daniel 10:3). Of penitence, one fasts in order to demonstrate remorse for sins, like the prophet Joel (Joel 2:12).

One thing about fasting is that it cannot be a sole activity on its own. It needs to be supplemented with two other exercises: Prayer and good works. The Jews have a lot to teach us with regards to this. In Tobit 6:5, we read "Prayer with fasting and alms with uprightness are better than riches with iniquity."

Through fasting, we learn to look on the needs of others more than our own. We learn to be more aware of our sins. We will gradually realize that our need for God is far more necessary than our need for food.

C) Spirituality of Food - Feasting

People come together very readily when there is food. I note that in my years at various churches. Whenever there is food, there the people will be. This is not exactly a bad thing. Food is a cultural phenomenon. Good food brings people together. Great food often means wonderful fellowship. Authors Les and Leslie Parrott have even classify the time of eating as "The Hour That Matters Most." They note that the one thing American families need most in the present time, is eating together. They lament the fast-food culture in America. While it makes it easy for anyone anywhere to get food anytime, the present of fast-food essentially removes the opportunities for interactions and good old family talk. The Parrotts also highlight the lost art of home cooked meals. Not only are people using their kitchen less, they also miss out on a homely environment for their own family members. Thus, the Parrotts hope to create a movement that promotes family togetherness, cook healthy home-cooked meals, and over time, improve the level of health and good eating.

Good feasting means a good measure of togetherness and happy moments. Eating is more than just a meal. In his answer to his disciples, Jesus is saying that food is not just something to satisfy the tummy. The soul needs to be fed as well. This desire is a common one. Feasting is not just about eating. It is about enjoying a meal in togetherness and in unity.

"Our biggest assumption about you is that you'd do most anything to make your home a comforting refuge for your family. You want a home that is anchored in connection, buoyed by support, and filled with laughter. In short, you want your family to thrive." (Les and Leslie Parrot, The Hour That Matters Most, Carols Streams, IL: Tyndale, 2011, xvi)

That is also my assumption for you.

D) Spirituality of Food - Fellowshiping

During my time in Malaysia and Singapore, I have non-stop interactions with people, with food mainly as an excuse rather than a dietary requirement. In the morning, I will walk out to the market with my wife, chatting freely about life, living, and everything in between. We place our orders with the hawkers, occasionally adding in a word of observation about the environment, the people, and the tough working environments. Sometimes, we even get a bigger plate of food after a jovial conversation. During lunch time, several of our dear church friends and loved ones will contact us, offering to drive us to anywhere we want, according to what our appetites are craving. We leave nothing unturned. We are also thankful for our dear brothers and sisters who willingly endured to heat, patiently waiting in the hour long lines, and lovingly bringing piping hot nasi lemak for us to eat in a comfortable air-conditioned house. We ate. We laughed. We shared. Precious moments that we will be willing to pay restaurant prices for hawker food.

In the evening, our schedules are packed with dinner invitations. Every single evening we were booked out. The only limitation is our capacity to stomach everything the menu has to offer. We ate all kinds of food, at various places, with different people. Through it all, the joys of fellowship make up for the stresses of life.

Life is not just about eating, just like the Christian life is not just about Bible study. Life is about loving God, loving people, and serving all. Our trip may be short in length, but it is certainly long in memories.

E) Concluding Thoughts

When I think about eating, I want to remember these three things. In fasting, I am reminded that food is not just about eating. It is also about the act of refraining for a greater cause. Occasional fasting not only gives our stomachs a rest, it enables us to complement it with prayer and good deeds, following the ways of Jesus, whose food is to fulfill the will of God. Having said that, Christians are part of a culture. In many places throughout the world, feasting over food is a way of life. In feasting, we need not be too afraid to enjoy a good meal. Jesus himself has gone to wedding dinners as well as meals with ordinary people. Feasting brings people together. It is much better than eating fast-food alone. Third, fellowshiping is key to eating well and eating joyfully. It shows us again that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God. The Word of God unites believers.

My friends, enjoy a good meal with friends and loved ones. Remember to fast regularly too. Finally, thinking of fellowship reminds me also of the Great meal the Church celebrates together: The Holy Communion. Feast. Fast. Fellowship. That's my brief take on the spirituality of eating.

THOUGHT: "When we break bread together, we symbolically enact the basic truth that we are most complete when we are together." (Wendy Wright)


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