Part XI of our series on Sharing Your Bread
We’re looking this week at the practice of fasting and in Monday’s post, we learned that a real fast isn’t just about not eating, but about sharing one’s bread (enjoying a meal) with the poor. That’s what the sheep are commended for in Matthew 25, the passage we’re looking at more closely today.
There’s something very important about Matthew 25:37 and it can only be found in the Greek. It has to do with the word that is typically translated only as “feed”; the Greek word ethrepsamen.
Ethrepsamen does not mean ladling soup into the bowls of homeless people who are shuffling through a rescue-mission meal line. It means something far more intimate than is conveyed by the English “feed.”
It means to nourish, support, nurture, and nurse like a mother breastfeeding an infant.
One only can be said to feed the poor when one holds them to one’s own chest and shares the substance of one’s own life with them as the token-and-pledge provision of host Jesus. So a fast is not merely a transfer of food but of deep love and care. The food is always the glorious least of what is offered.
Unfortunately, this kind of nourishment isn’t always given when Christians “feed” others. Consider the following blog entry in which the writer reports on sharing a can of chili with a homeless man. Christ appears in the story not as host but as a private inspiration to the giver, who appears to believe that Christ is content with a private apartment in the writer’s heart. Apparently the writer thinks that Christ’s appearance as host of the meal would be intrusive, detracting from the romance of the chili and chitchat, which the writer regards as a particularly poignant show of his own faith and proof that “God is so big.” As big as a can of chili!
Unfortunately for the homeless man, the story concludes with empty cans of chili being the only evidence of a big God. The writer returns to law school, the homeless man returns back behind the gas station perhaps for another ten years, and the writer’s longing is for another “very scary” encounter with the homeless. It is unclear what the homeless man longs for, or what Jesus longs for either:
I have been praying for an opportunity to show my faith. That is a very scary prayer to pray. Sometimes I want to take it back because I’m so scared.
Around noon today I left my house to go to the law school. On the way I remembered what we discussed about getting some cans of soup and having it ready for homeless people if they ask. When I pulled up to the gas station, there was a guy sitting on the sidewalk. We greeted each other on my way in, but that was it. I bought two cans of chili and some spoons. On the way out, he asked if I had some spare change. I asked if he was hungry and he said yes so I gave him a can of chili. Then, I asked him if he minded if I sat with him. We talked for about 10–15 minutes.
His name is Anthony. He’s been homeless for about 10 years. He was really fun to talk to. I enjoyed his company. He seemed to enjoy mine. I can hardly describe what I felt after I left him. It was a deep joy along with a deep pain. I ended up in the law school parking lot crying my eyes out. He told me he slept behind the Phillips 66 last night.
I didn’t share my faith with him, but I showed my faith to him. God is so big. I just asked him for an opportunity and there was Anthony sitting, waiting on me.
I hope to talk with him more. (Excerpted from The Whole Life Offering, p. 72)
When Christians share a meal with the poor, they are to host in Christ’s name. They regard Christ, not the poor, as the central figure of the meal. They recognize the poor as Christ’s favored guests, honoring Christ by sharing openly that they treat the poor with the same honor as they would treat Christ because he insists on it as the gracious host he is.
But they do not equate the poor with the Christ. God does not call Christians to be Christ to the poor, nor does he call the poor to be Christ to Christians. They are means of grace to each other; that is, they are ways that we—host and guest both—can come to see and know Christ more deeply through the other.
Sometimes we act as if it’s enough for Christ to be present at the meal by just being in our hearts or our minds, not in our conversation. But that robs everybody—guest, host, and Christ himself. Christ is the friend of humanity, not just a God who wants to make sure that everyone has a friend. Excluding Christ from the feast is the same as excluding the poor from it. It excludes the fellowship between God and his creation.
The Christian is never the host, just as the poor guest is never the guest of honor; Christ is both the host and the guest, yet in his generosity he shares the hosting privileges with the host and the invitation privileges with the guest. For the Christian, the feast is Christ’s open extension of hospitality and warm friendship-love to the specific guests whom Christ hosts at table. We eat with a real person, not with a generic human container of poverty, i.e. “the homeless.”
The meal is not undertaken in an effort to better understand the problems of the poor. The meal is not an interview enabling us to evaluate whether or not the guest “deserves” more help from us, nor is it a pity party where we mourn the guest’s victimhood. The meal is token and pledge that we will not withhold from our guest any portion of the gifts Christ has entrusted us to share on Christ’s behalf.
Jesus does not say, “Eat with the poor; figure out why they are poor; react accordingly.” He says, “Eat together in my name. Here’s the food. Share fellowship with each other and build relationships with me at the center.”
So we’re called to do more than distribute food commodities to the poor. We are called to nourish, support, and nurture—in body, soul, and spirit—all those whom Christ commands us to invite to his table. Food is necessary, but so is fellowship in Christ. So the Work of Mercy of sharing our bread cannot be satisfied by service at a food bank or soup kitchen, or by eating chili on the curb with a homeless person. These things can prepare us to share our own bread, but as we’ll see in our next post wherein we look at another story, “we must sit with them at the table.”
Have you ever eaten a meal with a homeless man or woman? What happened? What might you do different knowing what you know today?