Jesus was a Middle Eastern refugee, according to the Gospel of Matthew. Abraham was a Middle Eastern refugee – specifically a Syrian one- according to the Torah. The entire Exodus narrative is the story of the people who would become ancient Israel as refugees wandering in the desert. And the entirety of the Bible obsesses over welcoming foreigners and offering hospitality to strangers.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, “Globally, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. If this were the population of a country, it would be the world’s 24th biggest. ‘We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before,’ said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres.”1 And, sadly, it appears that many US politicians are responding to terrorist attacks around the world with fear of refugees themselves – instead of with a desire to adapt to the needs of the displaced and to change the realities of our broken world.
It is hard, initially, to talk about “don’t worry about what you’ll eat or drink or wear” when the world has never seen so many displaced people who don’t have access to food or water or clothing. It is ALSO hard to talk about it after having been at our Community Breakfast, and seen the beautiful faces of our guests, who don’t have adequate access to food or water or clothing either.
This is a hard text to preach while acknowledging the realities of the world, but I think it started out that way. The Jesus Seminar, who are pretty picky about what they think Jesus did and didn’t say, wrote this about the passage, “Among the more important things Jesus said are a series of pronouncements on anxieties and fretting. It is possible that we have before us the longest connected discourse that can be directly attributed to Jesus, with the exception of some of the longer narrative parables.”2They also aknowledge the assumed audience, “The string of sayings is addressed to those who are preoccupied with day-to-day existence rather than with political or apocalyptic crises.”3
That is, Jesus was talking to people who were struggling to have enough to eat and telling them not to worry about food. (But he wasn’t talking to refugees.) The aspects of this passage that make it difficult to preach are inherent to it, not a modern challenge of it. Furthermore, it is consistent with how Jesus spoke and what he taught. To go back to the Jesus seminar, and their reasoning for believing in the authenticity of this passage, “these formulations betray the stamp of Jesus’ speech and connect with other sayings stemming from him: congratulations to the hungry (Luke 6:21), petitions for the day’s bread (Matt 6:11), and the certainty that those who ask will receive (Luke 11:10), to cite but a few examples.”4 This SOUNDS LIKE Jesus.
Jesus tells hungry people not to worry about bread.
What the heck, Jesus?
I figure there are a few ways to understand this:
- We could assume that Jesus doesn’t care about human life and thinks the whole purpose of everything is the spiritual realm and/or access to heaven.
- We could assume that God does take care of God’s people, that Jesus’ teaching is true, and that if people are dying of starvation it indicates that God actually doesn’t like them. (Or that they sinned or some other justification for God’s lack of affection.)
- We could explain it all away with a conversation about the lack of human capacity to understand Divine Will.
(Please note that I don’t find these options valid enough to bother refuting them. If you need help with that though, let me know, and we can go through them.)
Personally, I’m going to go with the fourth option.
4. Maybe Jesus means it. Maybe paying attention to what you don’t have and worrying over how you’ll get it is a waste of life. Maybe worrying is more of a problem than even hunger and maybe this applies to a lot of aspects of life. Maybe, even, focusing on what you do have and being grateful for it will make more of a difference than having more. (Not to say I’m not still at “What the heck Jesus?” but MAYBE…)
Studies say that we gain more from giving than we do from keeping. In one of my favorites, researchers gave college students $5 and either instructed them to spend it on themselves or on others. They nearly universally went to Starbucks, which would make an interesting study in itself. In any case, in spending the money on themselves, there was a burst of happiness that lasted for a few minutes. The burst of joy that came from spending a gift on others lasted several days.
In concentration camps the power of that phenomenon showed up more powerfully. The people in concentration camps were given starvation level meals. They didn’t have enough to live, and yet the people who choose to share their INSUFFICIENT food with others (usually ones who needed it more) ended up living LONGER. Food, it turns out, is not the most important thing. It may be that hope is. It may be that connection is. It may be that making a contribution to someone else’s well being is. It may be that caring enough to try is. I don’t know. I don’t know how it works, but it does.
And I’m pretty sure that Jesus’ ministry, which happened among people who didn’t have enough to eat anyway, was mostly about freeing people from fear so that they could share and work together and although it doesn’t really make sense if you look at it economically: when a whole group of people who don’t have enough combine their resources, there is MORE than enough. That seems to prove economics wrong.
But I think that may have been the truth that Jesus was getting at. There really is more to life than food and clothing. And, obviously, worrying doesn’t help ONE LITTLE BIT. And, clearly, God wishes for us all to have enough. Yet we know that not everyone does – not every close. And yet, there are also many people in the world who have enough food, water, and clothing and live entirely meaningless lives. I think building a just society and a just world is the responsibility of us as the followers of Jesus (and as people of faith more broadly.) I think we have failed in many ways, just as we have succeeded in many ways. I don’t think everyone is going to have enough to eat – this year. But maybe the year will come when we all will.
In the any case, life IS more than food, and the body IS more than clothing. And there are many, many things to be grateful for. This week I read a book by Joan Chittister and Rowan Williams entitled Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia For All That Is. One of the chapters is on gratitude and singing alleluia for poverty, which is not something I’d spend a lot of time thinking about. Apparently, Socrates said that the richest person is the one who is content with the least and Epicurus said “Wealth consists in not having great possessions but in having few wants.”5 Joan Chittester says:
Poverty brings with it a spiritual vision the lack of which may in the end underlie the final corrosion of this wealthy society in which we live. Poverty stretches us to a vision of life that extends beyond the countinghouse, beyond the glutting of our lives with things. Poverty enables a person to see life in all its dimensions, to taste it in all its sweetness, and to recognize its vacuousness. It enables a person to choose between what is real and what is not about a life lived in midst of plastic and sparkles, of the lasting and the ephemeral, of the dehumanizing and the excessive. It reminds us of what is necessary and what is nothing but fluff, nothing but indulgence, nothing but consumption for the sake of show. Poverty keeps us real.
I do not applaud poverty or recommend it or justify it or minimize its struggles and its cruelty. I do not glorify the “happy poor.” But I do see that a bit less engorgement and a bit more sufficiency in a society long ago surfeited and satiated by the unnecessary could, would, make the whole world richer. 6
It isn’t all about feeding physical hunger, because physical satiation isn’t enough for us as humans. We are more. A lack of food is a problem – a justice issue – a thing to try to change. But food isn’t enough. Food, water, and clothes aren’t enough. Maybe Jesus was just telling the truth.
So even now, when the world sometimes feels like it is falling apart at the seams, when so many are hungry, when so little justice is to be found, we still hear Jesus saying, “don’t worry about it!”. What do we do?
We can notice what we have – whatever it is and be grateful. It will multiply the effect of whatever we have – both in our lives and in the lives around us. Gratitude is an antithesis of fear and worry, it is a sister of hospitality and care, it is a way of following Jesus’ commands:
Strive to respond with gratitude; pay attention to the goodness. It all matters. It changes you! Thanks be to God. Amen
2Robert W. Funk, Roy W Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Autthentic Words of Jesus (HarperOneUSA, 1993), page 152.
3Funk et al, page 153.
4Funk et al, page 153.
5For the first, I got rid of male language, it is thus not a true quote.
6 Joan Chittister and Rowan Williams entitled Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia For All That Is(Liturgical Press: Collegeveille, MN, 2010.) page 28.
Rev. Sara E. Baron
First United Methodist Church of Schenectady
603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305
November 22, 2015