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Food, Farming & Faith
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"The Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci in the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milano

Food, Farming & Faith

 

The importance of food in the Christian faith and in the Holy Bible cannot be overstated.  From the Old Testament and through to the end of the New Testament food, the symbolic rituals associated with food, and the power derived therefrom are manifest.

 

The main themes are sacrifice, purity and community.

 

From the beginning of scripture the importance of food for our very survival is evident in the Book of Genesis.  The first man, Adam, is instructed in this way by the Lord: “I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food” (Genesis 1:29)(New King James Version, as are all other citations). 

 

Thus, it is clear that from the bible standpoint--in the beginning man was commanded to be vegetarian.  Only after the fall of man is the notion of man’s eating “clean” and “unclean” meat mentioned in the story of Noah.  Later, in the gospels (and the writings of the Apostle Paul also) Jesus pronounced all food clean (Mark 7:19; Luke 11:41). 

 

In Old Testament times, the importance of what we now call healthy foods is reinforced in the Book of Daniel when the prophet and his companions abstained from meat during their fast that preceded Daniel’s fateful interpretation of the dreams of King Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king (Daniel 1:8-17).  Because of this service, Daniel was appointed the most powerful official in the kingdom; second only to the king himself.  The connection between his diet and what he accomplished is clear but rarely discussed.

 

The primary focus of food in the Old Testament is the temple rituals of the ancient Israelites.  Moses anointed his brother Aaron as the chief priest using olive oil (Exodus 29:7).  After the crucifixion of Jesus Christ the anointing became one of the Holy Spirit.  The Hebrews’ use of mere olive oil in such a sacred role gives a hint of its importance.

 

To the ancient priestly class, the Levites, praise and worship of God was essentially synonymous with the sacrifice of food.  To be sure, some of the rules in the Book of Leviticus are geared toward sanitation and health.  Even this is noteworthy.

 

But on the surface, the main point of the ritual was to underscore the importance of faith in, and obedience to, our Creator above all material and fleshly needs, wants and desires.  The message was clearly: all one needs is the Lord.  Therefore, all were required to give not only ten-percent of what they earned (tithing) but there were many other mandatory rituals and sacrifices.

 

The religious class, unlike the other tribes of Israel, was not given a significant portion of the land that God promised them—so in a sense they had taken a vow of poverty (Deuteronomy 18:1-20).  As part of the ritual of sacrifice, some food was discarded, another part was burned on the fire thereby “giving it” to God, some was returned to the person making the offering after it was blessed by the priest; and finally, some was kept for the sustenance of the priests.

 

An often overlooked requirement that served as the foundation for the Jewish faith was the rule that firstfruits, the first produce from the harvest and any newly born livestock, be given to God.  These offerings went to Levites, widows and orphans (Deuteronomy 26:12-13).  By definition, due to the social hierarchy at the time, widows and orphans were poor because men were favored in work assignments because they were responsible for feeding their families.  Widows and orphans would have found it very difficult to find work.

 

Similarly, God’s “social security plan” is made clear with the rules surrounding gleaning outlined in the Book of Ruth and in the Law of Moses.  When a farmer harvested his crops, he was required to leave some to pick for the poor who followed behind (Deuteronomy 24:19-21).  This practice is still kept alive today by groups such as the Mid-Atlantic Gleaning Network (MAGNET).

 

Therefore, when taken as a whole we see that the obedient Israelite gave a significant portion of what we would call his “income” to the poor, and to the temple priests for them to survive.  Because this was a key part of the temple ritual, the temple being the literal “House of God” where He visited the high priest annually, caring for the poor is essentially a Commandment of God.

 

The focus on the harvest, food, and God being the source of all life that in turn keeps mankind alive on earth is reinforced continually throughout the Old Testament.  Of note, the Patriarch Abraham shared bread and wine with Melchizedek to celebrate being victorious in a battle to rescue a group that had been kidnapped (Genesis 14:18-20).  Some theologians believe that Melchizedek was an early spiritual manifestation of Christ.  This foreshadows the importance of communion to come after Jesus Christ’s Last Supper with his disciples.

 

The ministry of Jesus Christ of Nazareth is recounted in the New Testament gospels, and the Lord describes Himself as the “bread which came down from heaven” (John 6:41).  He says “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35, 48).  Hinting at the Lord’s Supper that he will ordain later, and that Paul will validate in 1 Corinthians (11:17-33), Jesus states that:

 

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man (referring to Himself) and drink His blood, you have no life in you.

 

(John 6:53 et. seq.)

 

Therefore, the taking of communion is equated with life itself.  Most Christians, mind you, completely ignore this.  So, far from being just symbolic, this eating ritual is central to Christian faith.  Most Americans are familiar with this—the bread symbolizing the flesh of Jesus; and the wine, His blood.  Many believers accept that it is much more than just symbolic.

 

The focus on food continues throughout.  Not only are meals often a theme of major teachings, but Jesus mentions them in many of His lesser-known sermons and parables.  Food is center stage in the multiplication of the loaves, the Parable of the Sower etc. 

 

 

When the Apostle Peter first has a vision and realizes that Gentiles are to be included in the salvation promised with the new faith his dream is focused on food (Acts chapter 10).  Indeed, many believe the reason all foods were made clean was to make it easier to convert non-Jews. 

 

Moreover, Paul makes clear that by giving thanks one sanctifies all food.  Saying grace, or the blessing, thus purifies what we eat (1 Timothy 4:4-5).

 

In the midst of the early conflicts between groups of Jews (led by Peter) and Gentiles (led by Paul) who all accepted the new faith and believed that Jesus Christ was the Messiah food played a central role once again. Of, the initial requirements for being a Christian (which were few) many still centered on food: how animals are butchered and the inappropriateness of consuming blood (Acts 15:20, 29).  Note, that the latter had been a rule since the flood in Noah’s time (Genesis 9:4).

 

More broadly, Jesus’ apostles take His teaching on not neglecting to care for the poor and suffering in our midst to its logical and compassionate conclusion after His death and resurrection.  Jesus did not merely associate Himself with those in pain, He is saying that He is embodied in them when He states: “inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40)

 

The early church would have Agape Feasts (agape means “love” in ancient Greek) to fellowship together as “families” to share food in communal meals.  The taking of communion was an important part of this.  These early believers were only following the teachings of those who witnessed the resurrection and its aftermath in the Book of Acts:

 

Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.  So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.

 

(Acts 2:44-46)

 

The virtual same language is repeated just a couple of chapters later:

 

Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.  And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all.  Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need.

 

(Acts 4:32-35)

 

The faith of these people resulted in an authentic community.  The whole became greater than the sum of its parts.  Anyone of Christian faith who doubts a believer’s obligation to give to the poor by sacrificing until it hurts is completely contradicted by these two passages.  Indeed, Jesus’ half-brother says it best in the second chapter of the Book of James as he stresses the importance of humility: “faith without (good) works is dead” (2:14-26).

 

The value of growing food in an urban setting through volunteer manual labor to provide for the community, to give back to the community, to build community and to teach the young through service learning naturally flows from these biblical passages.  People of faith are called upon to use Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul as models (1 Peter 2:21; 1 Corinthians 11:1).  They both lived humble, simple lives in agrarian communities.  Paul has instructed us to work with our hands (Ephesians 4:28; 1 Corinthians 4:12). 

 

They made the ultimate sacrifice by giving their lives so that the principles of love, peace, righteousness and justice could prevail.  What is the greater sacrifice?  Giving money from your pocket or your blood, sweat and tears in growing food for the least in our midst?

 

The clear connection between a faithful and obedient Christian’s personal sacrifice, the symbolism of sharing food, and the real life-giving power that derives from it is beyond doubt for those who believe—as even these few examples make clear.  For the believer, creating the kingdom of heaven here on earth is impossible without all of these things working in concert.

 

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LOVING YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOU LOVE  YOURSELF REQUIRES TOTAL LOVE, TOTAL FORGIVENESS, TOTAL BROTHERHOOD AND SUBVERTING THE DOMINANT PARADIGM