We are commemorating World Food Day this month. Half the population in India do not eat food three times a day and India has 25% of the world’s hungry. The government, people, NGO’s and religious institutions have to work over time to ensure that everyone gets at least three decent meals a day. Even as FCI godowns hold rotting grains, food is wasted and thrown away, food is commodified and priced, even as food becomes a fashion statement, we fail to give food to the poor and continue to play the politics of caste, religion and gender in food and the right to food. On the bright side people help, noon day meal schemes are reasonably successful, food from five star hotels are routed to orphanages and rice and essentials are distributed to the needy. But is food all about charity or is food the right of people to exist, to be and to become? Does food also have a tinge of discrimination in the midst of the spices and condiments?
The media have now understood the commercial value of food and have several food shows, travel cum food shows, food competitions like Master Chef and festival coverage of food delicacies. There are also numerous cookery books, websites and blogs and thousands of restaurants catering to all sorts of palates and pockets. UTC also has a way where we get to discover new tastes and dishes. My exposure to different forms of food was through the many friends I had here. I was therefore introduced to different forms of South Indian, North East Indian and North Indian cuisine. It also dawned on me that that there were so many kinds and types of food. Friends were made and relationships cemented through this sharing of food. My earlier stint at one of our seminaries in Kerala also has several stories of sharing food. All strong relationships made here are relationships sealed by food and drink. The visits to Siddique Kabab Centre, Chandrika restaurant, railway canteen, several food carts in Vasanth Nagar and the numerous tea stalls in Shivaji Nagar also made theologizing strong, as eating from one another and with one another meant an acceptance of one another too. Spice or no spice, smell or no smell, bland or salty, each dish talked a story. The food sharing in UTC opened me up as a person and it became one of the key factors of whom I turned out to be. This then helped in forging a language of communicating with my mother in law. We started speaking the language of food and she accepted me not because I knew her language through words but seemed to show affinity and a liking to her language through food. This was a fundamental progress in my development as a human being. This same formula works for pastoral house visits as well where one becomes a family member if one eats the food given. I agree that there are certain privileges which make for this pampering. Otherwise theological students are not too lucky with food in houses always. There was a student who went to a house and was asked to finish a side dish that he was given. He initially thought it was out of love but later on was told by the old woman that she had made it a month ago and was waiting for someone to come and finish it. In school I would not eat all kinds of food, partly because my stomach did not agree with it and partly because I thought or was tutored to think it was not good for me.
We can have a different take of the feeding of the multitude by Jesus. Such a take concentrates on how it would be if we were the disciples in the story and in which way we would react. We can only assume how the disciples reacted to Jesus’ retort to “give them something to eat.” Any sermon usually goes the way of looking at who wrote the text, what was the context, when it was written and what could the text be speaking to us. But we can get newer insights by writing our playwright based on what we read into the text as well. The skit tried to do that by looking at what may be another way of looking at the same story. The disciples have already scripted their own ending even before Jesus tells them what to do. But they cannot tell Jesus about this as he won’t understand their inability to distribute. The interpretation is based on what we see in the church today.
The feeding of the multitude is found in all gospels and suggests an importance to the passage and what it seeks to tell us. This importance includes the Eucharistic symbolism especially with the symbol of the bread and fish, the tutorial to the disciples on what they are supposed to do with the people of God, the importance of fellowship and sharing and even Jesus the miracle worker. The church I belong to also gives much importance to the feeding account and we hear it several times round and it even comes to the extend that certain ministers then read a different portion and preach from it as they feel this is too monotonous. The similarity with the Eucharist which the minister also conducts and distributes is strong and in a similar understanding this also becomes monotonous for several.
The problem may actually lie in the fact that the interpretation has to be a bit more relevant for the present time. I propose five insights we could get from the passage. One, food is not just a crowd puller and stomach filler. Jesus was the numero uno crowd puller for the disciples. We usually think that Jesus chose his disciples. But it could also be that the disciples chose Jesus as well. But after being a part of the Jesus movement they also understood that he had a charisma to pull crowds. This was not something they could immediately substitute. But even Jesus understands that people can’t keep listening to him. They need rest, they need to be replenished, they need food. But the disciples could not completely come to understand this, partly because they panicked how so many could be fed and partly because there was a problem that the feeding would lead to other problems later. Food still remains a crowd puller. People are hired for political rallies with the promise of food, drink and money. Almost every meeting has some sort of snacks or ends with a bigger meal. It is part of our existence and without this we cease to exist. In UTC also food becomes an important component of our meetings and many a time that is the bigger crowd puller than the talk or sermon itself. Churches also follow the system of big and small meals to keep the crowd engaged. But one has to wonder whether food is used as a crowd puller in the passage as Jesus did not use it to pull crowds because they were already there. The basic characteristic of food is filling up the stomach. But the number of people in the Lukan account would have taken quite an effort to seat and to serve as well. The amount of food from which Jesus divides is also just too small to feed the people. And yet they are satisfied. This does suggest that instead of the amount of food that they ate it was the very act of eating which somehow satisfied them. Food as just a crowd puller and stomach filler is food given out of charity. But such giving is not complete giving as it only gives a temporary relief from hunger.
Two, food encourages group activity. It is something which people do in groups. The fellowship groups in UTC are evidence of that. We usually have several activities in groups and it includes singing, story telling, gossiping, and eating. To keep a group together, we need some activity whereby they will be interested to be together. Food sharing is such an activity which will keep people engaged. Jesus instructs the disciples to seat the people in groups of 50 and then distribute the food to them. The seating in groups may have helped in two ways. One, there was an anticipation as to what would happen next and two it brought a specific number of people together. For weddings these days also there is the style of being seated on tables and in groups. What happens is that there is the opportunity to converse and share the food at hand. The bible passage does say that the disciples were asked to give food and the crowd was seated in groups. But it could also be that the disciples distributed and then asked the specific groups to distribute among themselves. This gave the opportunity of conversing, distributing and sharing, and eating and conversing. The distribution of bread and fish leads to the people getting an opportunity to come together and be in conversation. This conversation may or may not happen otherwise. But when one is put into the face of the other there is likelihood to make an effort to converse or it may be that this will not happen despite looking at each other. Even if nothing of major importance would have been said, at least small talk was possible. If we see sharing of food as charity one does not need to see the face of the one on the other side. Faces then become only photo sessions which bring us glory. Trying for parity means an effort to see who and what the other person is.
Three, the Eucharist must go beyond symbolism. The feeding also symbolised the Eucharist especially because of the formula used while looking to heaven with the bread and fish. “He gave thanks and broke them” and the bread and fish used and the later symbolism of the bread and fish in the church suggest that the early church also understood this passage as a symbol of the Eucharist which was supposed to be followed by the disciples of Jesus. This has been continuing in the church till now. The Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church which I belong to also gives much importance to the Eucharist with every service being a Eucharist service. The concept of sharing from the same bread is still followed in a tradition that has spanned for centuries. But critically speaking the problem would be that the church has continued to see it as a symbolism which many a time does not manage to go beyond the symbolism. This has kept the church wrangled in theological disagreements with other churches and has seen the limiting of the Eucharist as a church limited, church member specific sharing. The Oriental Orthodox churches including my church see the Eucharist as the centre, start and end of worship and spiritual life. Any decision to commune with others is also influenced by this. If then certain sections of the church continue to misinterpret the Eucharist as mere symbolism it will never fulfill what Jesus may have wanted us to learn in the passage we are looking at. The passage is not mere symbolism. It is a call to share what little we have with everyone, irrespective of caste, colour, class, gender and race. Any misinterpretation of passages like the feeding of the multitude by Jesus puts the church at risk of not holding hands and sharing what we have with people beyond our limited boundaries. Symbolism also leads to charity rather than parity. We try to fulfill certain standards which will give us a certificate of charity but will never bring parity to those who seek to come to the table.
Four, who feeds the world? The World Food day had as its theme in 1998 “Women feed the world”. The feeding of the multitude does have a missing link. They are the women and children. Other accounts mention there were so many in number, apart from women and children. Jesus’ call to feed includes all who were there. But women are then absent by a very inconsequential mention later on. This again is the next problem of not having the Eucharist as one which is conducted and led by women. This takes away the credit of women as feeders of the world. This World Food Day, there was a showcase of women dalit farmers in Andhra, who are working towards preserving traditional agriculture practices. They are using their knowledge of traditional seeds to encourage biodiversity and thereby counter malnutrition and hunger. The government and the church though do not see the wisdom of such women and keep the conduct of the Eucharist a traditional man dominated bastion. 45% of women and children are still malnourished in India. The change in how the Eucharist is seen therefore cannot just be a church related thing. It is much more than that as the effects are more far reaching in how hunger affects women and children more. The absence of women and children in the feeding of the multitude text or rather the feeble presence of women and children in other similar texts proves to be more harmful than just being a church dogma. The charitable face of the church shows itself again to suggest that women were there. But were there remains an ‘also was there.’ Women and children need parity.
Finally, the 2012 theme of the World Food Day is “agricultural co-operatives as a key to feeding the world.” This leads to my final assertion from the text. Food has been commodified and is part of a multi billion dollar industry where genetically modified food will be sold to us at a premium and traditional crops will be phased out and given an early retirement. In this context food co-operatives are an answer to how we will manage to find a solution to food shortage. It is not only big co-operatives like Amul but other small co-operatives which can make a difference. Churches, seminaries and theological colleges can show the way by encouraging farming practices among community members. But equal participation has to be a key component of such initiatives as otherwise one cannot bring about successful co-operatives but rather limited co-operatives which are then not co-operatives. Such initiatives can also become true witnesses to the feeding of the multitude narrative and to God’s plan in it for us. It will be an effort whereby we not only produce for ourselves but also for the neighbourhood. The Eucharist will then be a much more expansive and liberal act where not only do we relate with the problem of denominationalism, but also caste, colour and even religion. Now we are still in the phase of charity where we still give what remains to others instead of giving from our own plate. The text can be used to recommit our call in theological colleges and churches. We are not just supposed to be a charitable organization or church doing ‘some’ charity but a larger movement which seeks a total re-organization of society and the church. Amen.
(Preached this sermon in UTC for Sunday evening worship on October 28, 2012).