In my first food post, I mentioned that I believe it is anti-Christian to have a merely utilitarian relationship to one’s food. Maybe this is a bit of a stretch, but I think it’s worth considering.
I think that prior the fall, food was good and our relationship to it was utilitarian in the manner of good things taken for granted. This wasn’t wrong—eating was good, food was good, and we ate because our need for food was pure and good. We ate when we needed to, and it was good and nourishing. God had called it all good. Its existence was a reflection of God’s provision of good things for all our needs. The fall changed this by introducing (through the act of eating) corruption into man’s relationship with God, with himself, and with nature.
After the fall, eating became much more complicated. Eating could have negative effects—it was possible to eat the wrong thing, eating something spoiled or poisonous or harmful. Nothing was forbidden, but not everything was safe. We still ate for necessity, but the relationship of humans to food became not just a hearty utilitarian goodness, but was now a craving neediness driven by fear and insecurity. Our dependence on God for provision was not blissful as it had been prior to the fall—we were still just as dependent physically, but a rift now permeated our relationship to our food and we could no longer just eat good things and be full. We had to work hard for our food, growing it by warring with the land, and offering for our blood guilt sacrifices of the first fruits. Our dependence wasn’t just limited to our every day need to eat—it also required that we give up the first of the harvest and of the flocks to the altar fires, to satisfy the terms of our destroyed relationship with the Creator.
The law given to Moses refined this relationship (between God and man) in new ways and allowed for some better ways for man to draw near to God. But the law—designed to highlight man’s inability to atone for sin despite all good works—still emphasized that the fall had removed from us a pure and good relationship with food. Under the law, dietary restrictions were abundant, food was regulated and sacrificed, and the burden of guilt and work was heavy.
To this day, dietary restrictions are still the hallmarks of most law/deity appeasement-bound religions (Muslims, Hindus, practicing Jews, Mormons). Food is restricted and forbidden because man is not trustworthy with it, and eating the wrong thing is an easy way to taint oneself. Even absent religion, it’s a common part of secular culture to associate food with guilt or righteousness–eating is “indulgent” and eating too much or rich things is “sinful” or “being bad.” You “make up for it later” with exercise or eating disorders. Our relationship to food often (oddly) reflects our relationship to grace.
The most unique part of Christianity is our belief in the incarnation of Jesus. God becoming man, and thereby validating humanity, the human body, and human life by taking on a body and human needs—this is the most radical, paradoxical concept, especially for a religion that also teaches the utter otherness and holiness of God, and the depravity of man. The incarnation is polarizing, so opposed to the concept of God as other and man as fallen. Because we Christians hold this utterly illogical and bizarre thing to be true and because it is such a huge assumption, it necessarily effects every element of the faith. If Jesus was a man, he had to deal with sibling spats and learning to obey his parents. If Jesus was a man, he has a body and natural bodily functions (this may explain his sympathy on those suffering physical ailments as a major element of his earthly ministry). If Jesus was a man, he had to eat, sleep, and have social interaction.
To me, this reality—that God took on a fully human body and life—can be a real comfort for Christians suffering from depression, body image issues, eating disorders, sexual desire and sin, loneliness, and fear.
In the gospels, we see how the incarnation of Jesus meant that his humanity required him to relate to food, and here I lean in and start taking notes. How the sinless Son related to food is, to me, an obvious pattern of how the redeemed can relate well to food.
The most striking thing, I think, is how normal he was. He was hungry. He took account of others’ hunger. One of my favorite stories about this is in Luke’s rendition of his first appearance after the resurrection to his disciples—he arrives at the house, reassures them that he’s not a ghost, and the first thing he says is, “Have you anything to eat?” Jesus needed food and Jesus affirmed this need in others with great tenderness. When he fed the 5,000, it was out of compassion for their hunger. When he defended his disciples to the Pharisees for breaking the Sabbath, it was in defense of their hunger and eating the wheat kernels in the field: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Eating was more important than keeping the man-made religious laws.
Jesus ate almost exclusively in community. His tenderness toward the physical hunger of others is a repeated theme, and food and eating are like the punctuation marks of his ministry. He joined in with the community for celebrations, and was thoroughly engaged in the merrymaking. Jesus liked his food and drink with people. With “sinners,” usually, distressing the religious teachers with his hearty engagement with those who were seen as incontinent or debauched. The perceived sinful excesses of the quasi-religious were the good things that Jesus affirmed.
One of the most-used metaphors for the kingdom of heaven, in Jesus’s stories, is that of a wedding feast. In all of these, he is the bridegroom, and the bride or the guests are those who choose to welcome and follow him. This metaphor takes on flesh at the last supper, and at the meals eaten with his disciples after his ascension. The wedding feast is symbolic of God’s new relationship to his people—God is the overjoyed host who wants to bring in the whole community to have dinner with his Son, to celebrate the Son. The Son is the bridegroom inviting everyone to share his wedding feast. The Son is the manager of an estate, holding a feast of the best of the land to celebrate the harvest. The guests are the dirty, the prodigal, the faithful idiots, the poor, the outcasts. The least likely is the one called to sit at the right hand of the host.
And again and again, Jesus instructs his disciples to practice hospitality in the same way their Father in heaven does. Invite the poor, share your food, eat generously, feed the lonely. Food and community are inseparable in his mind. You eat to be with people, you are with people to eat. Your table is open to those in need. This isn’t just throwing food at anyone who walks in your door—this is a full familial welcome where everyone joins in, preparing, eating, cleaning up, talking, living.
The young church took this seriously (and lots of home churches do this today, too). Worship was centered around eating together. Breaking bread together was to build bonds of unity. Communion didn’t start as just a wafer and a sip of wine—it was often part of a full-out meal. And this, too, was the early church’s primary evangelistic tactic—you’d invite someone to dinner, and the church would gather, and the love and fellowship would be tangible. Jesus would be made real by the generosity and love there at the dinner table.
This sharing of the table was made even more open when the church decided to open up the table to Gentiles and to non-Kosher foods. We see Peter and his vision of the sheet, and then welcoming Cornelius into the fold. We see Paul rebuking Peter for only eating with Jews, like a Jew, to impress people. Paul rebukes the church for forcing guilt on each other in regard to meat sacrificed to idols—it’s not wrong, he says, but don’t make your friend sin if he thinks eating it is sin. Be generous to each other in the grey areas.
The establishment and meaning of communion engraves this further, but: Jesus ate, with people and relationships as the compass rose for how he used and related to food. Food is useful, but eating in community, with generosity, would seem to be the real purpose of eating. Not for energy, not for health, not for a certain BMI, not because he just had to. Because eating together is the most true way relationships are made.
[next in this series is a post on eating and communion]
Previously: Loving Your Food, Eating in Community