Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
August 02, 2020 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Isaiah 55:1-3 | Psalm 145:8-9;15-18
Romans 8:25;37-38 | Matthew 14:13-21
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
As I stand here preaching today, over thirty-seven million people in the United States, eleven million of whom are children, are hungry. Simply put, they are hungry because they don’t have enough money to go to the grocery and buy food like you and I do. Some of them receive food stamps, other government safety-net programs, and private charity, but widespread hunger is still a reality. Hunger is both a violation of human dignity and an obstacle to social, political, and economic progress.
There is really no physical reason for anyone to go hungry in the United States. The United States has over ten percent of all the farmable cropland on earth. It is also the best farmland on earth because it is centered on the thirty-fifth parallel, dead center of the temperate zone, and the interaction between the Gulf Stream and the arctic air currents assures appropriate moisture for crop growing most of the time. The result is that the United States produces a substantial portion of the world’s food supply. In fact, farms in the United States are so productive that its government pays farmers money to leave land fallow to support prices. And a substantial part of the United States corn crop is not used to feed either people or animals but converted into ethanol to run internal combustion engines. The United States is a net food exporter, and in fact, exports more food than anywhere else in the world. Any food that is imported into the United States is a matter of choice, not a necessity.
In fact, the United States has so much food that much of it is wasted. According to a two thousand fourteen study by the Environmental Protection Administration, the United States throws away more than thirty-eight million tons of food every year. That’s the weight of one-hundred-four Empire State Buildings, with a bit to spare. Within the past few months, dairy farmers flushed into sewers milk they can’t sell. Some crop farmers are subject to government marketing orders that limit the supply of fruits and vegetables for sale. They throw the food away rather than donate it to feed hungry people.
On the local level, grocery stores and restaurants routinely discard food they weren’t able to sell. Such food waste happens right here in Palm Springs. About a month ago, I went to the Ralphs store at Sunrise and Ramon to buy Deacon Sharon a piece of fried chicken for dinner. When I arrived, the deli counter had already closed, but I saw a big pile of cooked chicken in a box behind the counter. I asked the deli clerk for a wing and a breast. That clerk, however, told me I couldn’t buy it because all of that chicken was destined for a compost machine that produces fuel for the store’s ventilation system. I told the deli clerk that the chicken should be donated to organizations that feed hungry people who can’t afford to buy food, not put in a compost machine. Her response was, “they can go get a job.” Her thinking crystallizes the problem.
Her response told me that the hunger problem in the United States is a philosophical problem, not a food supply and production problem. It is a problem that reflects the value system of the United States uses to determine who gets fed and who does not. It is based on ideology, not on the availability of food. Here’s an example. Even during the present Covid pandemic, our conservative sisters and brothers still opposed the food stamp program. In the words of Republican Member of Congress Michael Conaway of Texas, “I don’t want to create a moral hazard for people to be on welfare.” People like Representative Conaway are the real moral hazard, not food stamps. For him, upholding an ideology is more important to him than human hunger. The fact is, however, the human body is unable to nourish itself on anyone’s moral principles. The human body needs food, not ideas, to survive.
The hunger problem in the United States is the philosophical relationship between food, work, and money. That poverty is the number one cause of hunger in the United States is undisputed. The disagreement is how to address the problem. Over and over, we hear the mantra from our conservative sisters and brothers, that if you don’t have money to buy food because you don’t want to work, you deserve to go hungry.
Religious people who espouse the views of Representative Conaway hang their hat on Second Thessalonians chapter three, verse ten, that says that people who don’t want to work shouldn’t eat. In today’s heated climate of disputes over universal healthcare and a social safety net, this verse has seemingly taken on a life of its own. I will address that issue head-on.
Second Thessalonians is what’s called a “deuteropauline letter.” That means it was in all likelihood not written by Saint Paul. Language to the effect that those unwilling to work should not eat is not found in Paul’s genuine writings or anywhere else in the New Testament.
But even if these words were, in fact, written by Saint Paul, his words do not carry the same authority as the teachings of Jesus. Just like under the United States Constitution Federal Law pre-empts state law when there is a conflict, so too must the words of Jesus pre-empt the words of Paul when they contradict each other.
This way of analyzing scripture is called the “Christological hermeneutic” and was used extensively by Martin Luther in his interpretation of scripture. In Luther’s words, scripture is “is the cradle that holds Christ.” Luther contended that If Scripture does not refer to Christ, it must not be held to be true Scripture. Luther’s understanding of the gospel became the basis for determining the relative authority of the various canonical writings. Luther said, “If Scripture is queen, Christ is King—even over Scripture!” The fact is, Jesus never, ever authored any statement whatsoever the people who don’t want to work should not be fed.
Also, quoting Second Thessalonians to justify letting lazy people starve is a true example of the devil quoting scripture for his own purposes out of context. Using scripture to justify inflicting human suffering is using scripture to accomplish an evil act. And moreover, in this instance, it separates the words of scripture from their intended context.
The author of Second Thessalonians addressed a small group of church workers so caught up in the expectation of the Second Coming of Jesus that they had neglected their missionary work, and instead had become disorderly troublemakers who wasted their time gossiping. The author was addressing particular people at a particular time in a particular place. It was not meant for universal societal application with the authority of a commandment.
What Jesus did and said tells us quite the opposite of this passage in Second Thessalonians. Today’s Gospel illustrates that. When Jesus arrived in a boat and went ashore, he was moved with pity. He cared about them as one human person empathizing with the situations of other people.
What mattered to Jesus when he fed the five-thousand or more people who had come to hear him preach was that they were hungry. He didn’t care why they were hungry. Their finances did not matter! None of those people paid a penny for their food. Instead, they experienced the abundance and generosity of God’s love. And Jesus didn’t ration the food: there were basket-loads of leftovers after everyone had eaten and been satisfied.
We also see the generosity of Jesus at the Cana wedding feast. When Jesus changed water into wine, he didn’t make just about enough, and it didn’t taste just about OK. It was the finest wine of the whole celebration – at the end of the ceremony when a lot of the guests wouldn’t have noticed anyway.
We are the children of a generous God. As Psalm 145 tells us, “The eyes of all look hopefully to you; you give them their food in due season. You open wide your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.”
We see God’s generosity in a universe dripping in variety, beauty, splendor, and majesty. God didn’t cut corners, cut costs, or do it on a budget. The world which God made is lavish and abundant. We live in a wonderful home created by God to provide us with all that we need.
Repeatedly throughout their history, as recounted in the Old Testament, God assures the people of Israel that they will always be blessed with God’s generous abundance. And as the New Testament author of First Timothy tells us, God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”
But despite the Prosperity Gospel preached by our Evangelical sisters and brothers, God does not rain down money upon us. Money is not part of God’s plan. Money is purely a human invention. Money is a medium of exchange to regulate transactions between persons, but money does not play any part in how God relates to humanity.
As Jesus tells us, one cannot serve God and money. In today’s first reading, the message is “You who have no money, receive grain and eat. Come without paying and without cost, drink wine, and milk.” Again, the message is God’s generosity.
With God, there is loving kindness and plenteous redemption. God is always there for us, to feed us, and to love us. God is always there for us to nourish us with love, money notwithstanding.
God calls us throughout scripture and the tradition of the church to relate to other people in the same way God relates to humanity. God created humanity in God’s image. God created us to be God-like. God created us to be full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, long-suffering, and of great goodness, as God is described in today’s psalm and repeatedly in throughout other psalms and elsewhere in scripture. Because God is that way, even if we approach God empty-handed with no money at all, God will still be generous to us. Whether we have money or we don’t, we come to God to be refreshed and nourished. God doesn’t care whether we are wealthy or poor. God loves us all just the same regardless of our finances or our work ethic.
We all depend on God’s generosity for survival. God created us to be generous. When we practice authentic generosity, we are lending ourselves and our capabilities as vehicles for God’s work. Our time, money, talents, resources, and our life itself were all given to us as gifts from God. God gave us these gifts so God may use us to be generous to others as God is generous to us.
Generosity is not only being willing to share your money and goods with others, but generosity is spiritual as well. God’s word is a powerful spiritual experience. The word of God is, in and of itself, a source of nourishment and rejuvenation. It is comparable to the richest part of the meal. It is, in fact, the true and primary source of God’s life-giving spirit.
Generosity of spirit is the openness and willingness to share our own ‘gifts’ freely with others, joyously and willingly, and without expectation of receiving anything in return. When we share in this way, we generate abundance and increase prosperity for all. This helps us make a difference and transform situations; generate creative and innovative solutions; lead by example; share our wisdom and knowledge for everyone’s benefit; explore and build connecting threads where there were none before, and to foster peace and harmony. And we can celebrate all that becomes possible as a result.
So why can’t people be generous with each other? The answer is the human sins of selfishness and greed, caring more about our bank accounts than human persons. The power structure of the United States does not promote a sense of shared responsibility towards those who are under-nourished. Instead, it promotes a culture of individualism, where each person puts themselves first. The United States has hungry people because those in positions of power look out primarily for themselves. They consider the interests of others only when doing so is in their self-interest.
In March two-thousand-seventeen, the United Nations voted on whether food was a human right. The United States voted NO. The explanation by the United Nations Ambassador, Nikki Haley, for that vote tells us much about the thinking of the United States power structure. Basically, the government’s position is that the United States supports access to food, but not an enforceable obligation to provide food to hungry people. In other words, food should be available, but if you don’t have enough money to afford it or get it from a charity, you’re out of luck.
The statement explaining the NO vote mentioned that the United States was NOT a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. That Covenant contains a strong statement establishing the right of every person to an adequate standard of living for self and family, including adequate food, clothing, and housing. That the United States willingly ratifies treaties on trade, but not very often those guaranteeing human rights, says something very unfavorable about the priorities of the United States. At the end of the day, money is number one for those in power.
Jesus, however, calls us to a very different way of thinking. Jesus wants us to think of life as abundant. In John’s Gospel, Jesus told us that he came to us so that we might have life, and have life abundantly. In today’s Gospel from Matthew, we see the abundance of life in Jesus firsthand where everyone got enough to eat and then some.
With Jesus, we do not think of the world in the language of scarcity, but the language of abundance. This word “abundant” in Greek is perisson, meaning “exceedingly, very highly, beyond measure, more, superfluous, a quantity so abundant as to be considerably more than what one would expect or anticipate.” In short, Jesus promises us a life far better than we could ever imagine.
But the promise of a good life with did not mean lavish homes, expensive cars, worldwide cruises, and more money than we can imagine. Jesus, being divine as well as human, could have had anything he wanted, but the truth is, he was homeless. The Gospels explicitly tell us that foxes have holes, but the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. When one considers economic, academic, and social status, most Christians do not come from the privileged classes.
If Christianity were the road to riches, Jesus would have been wealthy indeed. The United States population is about three hundred thirty million people, according to the latest statistics. The country is sixty-five percent Christian. That means about two hundred fourteen million. According to Feeding America dot org, about eleven percent of the United States is food insecure.
When you put these facts together, over twenty-three million of your fellow Christians don’t get enough nourishing food to eat. Very few, if any, of them are hungry because they are lazy. To blame the victim by saying, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is cruel when most of them do not have boots, and I mean by that, the tools to change their life situation. Very, very few people are capable of the rags-to-riches journey glorified in popular culture.
The language of Jesus nowhere reflects the language of capitalism that glorifies hard work as the way to happiness. What Jesus does show us is to live with compassion and empathy for other people. Not once did Jesus tell anyone down on their luck to “go get a job” as that Ralphs grocery clerk did. Jesus responded by showing the generosity and abundance of God, and so should we.
As today’s second reading tells us, nothing will ever separate us from the love of God shown in Jesus. Not even famine. We should never allow the United States culture of individualism to separate us from loving our fellow humans who hunger for survival. Rather, we are to be like the disciples in today’s Gospel, who distributed the produce of God’s fields to feed hungry people and to collect what is left over to feed even more people.
Jesus did not waste food. We should not either. Food is meant for nourishment, not composting operations, and not vehicle fuel. The way the United States handles food should be a moral decision geared towards those in need, not a business decision to make a few people wealthy. And food should never, ever be withheld to vindicate a philosophical principle or to punish someone.
Today’s Gospel establishes that food is a human right for hungry people. When we feed hungry people, we satisfy God’s demand for justice in the way we treat others. When a country cuts food stamps and similar programs, that country is doing the work of the devil. God wants us to be generous, not stingy with others, particularly those who are in need. The message of Jesus is very simple: feed hungry people, don’t judge them. All that matters is that they are hungry. Your blame-the-victim opinions about why they are hungry don’t count.
Remember what Jesus says about food and life: “I am the bread of life. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Jesus gives generously to us in his promise of abundant eternal life. The promises of God, that he will feed us and we will live, are fulfilled in the bread of life that is Jesus. AMEN.