February 17, 2013
The Gospel reading for this week is Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, which takes place in between Jesus’ Baptism (see “Wade in the Water“) and His inaugural sermon (see “Right Here, Right Now: Inaugurating the Jubilee“). An entire book could easily be written about this Scripture and the nature of temptation; however, for the purposes of brevity, I am going to focus only on the first temptation:Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” (Luke 4:1-4).
Many theologians like to spiritualize this scripture, focusing on the symbol of bread as the substance that satisfies only worldly appetites. However, in the last few decades, the food industry has indeed developed the ability to make “food” out of mineral compounds – or at least to massively doctor food up with them. In his book Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, Michael Pollan lists some of the chemical food ingredients that have become commonplace in our diet: “Ethoxylated diglycerides? Cellulose? Xanthan gum? Calcium propionate? Ammonium sulfate? … The food scientists’ chemistry set is designed to extend shelf life, make old food look fresher and more appetizing than it really is, and get you to eat more” (2009).
The ability to make “food” out of things that are mined (like sodium) or that are massively over-processed and chemically-spiked (like corn, soy, wheat and rice products), has revolutionized the modern diet – in a very bad way. The whole point of breaking whole foods down into their chemical components, tinkering with then, then industrially mass-producing and mass-marketing them, is not to make people healthier – it’s to make money. Michael Pollan again observes “The business model of the food industry is organized around ‘adding value’ to cheap raw materials; its genius has been to figure out how to break these two big seeds [corn and soy] down into their chemical building blocks and then reassemble them in myriad packaged food products … Today these four crops [corn, soy, wheat and rice] account for two thirds of the calories we eat” (ibid.) This business model is now booming in developing countries like India, where the packaged food sector is likely to double its output to $30 billion by 2015 (INDOLINK consulting blog).
So why does the devil tempt Jesus to make bread out of rocks? Isn’t feeding masses of hungry people with cheap, readily-accessible food a good thing? Jesus’ response to the devil is very interesting: “One does not live by bread alone.” Again, this line is frequently interpreted as meaning that life is spiritual as well as material. However, we could also look at its meaning in terms of the ecology and economy of eating. When we are eating bread, we don’t just eat bread. We are consuming and fueling the industrial methods of producing the bread. We are consuming the labor by which the bread is made. We are consuming the fertilizers that are depleting the soil on which the grains are grown. We are consuming the mass media used to market the bread. We are consuming the “big box” grocery stores and agribusiness corporations that are putting family-owned stores and farms out of business. And, finally, we are consuming bread that is often just a nutritionally-poor lump of over-processed starch and sugars.
It would have been tempting for Jesus to use His powers to become, in effect, the first McDonald’s – “Over a million people fed!” However, I think the devil also knew that the one who controls what people eat also controls the people. Hunger was (and is) an extremely powerful social force. Jesus was not about control, He was about liberation: “… [YHWH] has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. [YHWH] has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Part of liberation means breaking the bondage that comes out of making bread from rocks, and making our own bread – out of recognizable ingredients – for a change. Maybe in this first week of Lent, we can think about changing how we consume, rather than just giving something else up.