Sunday, March 06, 2016

Watching What We Eat

4th Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday) (C)

My dear friends, as you probably already know, some people actually believe that we are what we eat. Of course, they don’t mean it literally. Otherwise, imagine what would happen if you were to eat a beef steak. Or a pork chop. Or haggis. Or ayam buah keluak… No, when people say we are what we eat, they mean that our diet has a profound effect on our physical, mental, and even emotional health. That the things we put into our stomachs somehow determine the kind of people we become.

For example, I recently watched a TEDx talk by Hether Crawford. A personal trainer who’s also a wife and mother of two. She shares her experience of how, by cutting back on things like soft drinks and fast food, and by eating more freshly-cooked meals, her family was able to reduce illness, and to increase productivity. Important adjustments to their diet led to dramatic improvements in the quality of their lives. For the Crawfords, this experience is sufficient proof that we are indeed what we eat

What do you think, sisters and brothers? Do you agree?

I am, of course, neither a doctor nor a nutritionist. I can offer no expert opinion one way or the other. I can’t say for sure how medically accurate is the belief that we are what we eat. But I think there is a sense in which it is spiritually true. In fact, this is precisely what we find in our Mass readings today: The close spiritual connection between food and flourishing. Between eating and rejoicing.

In the first reading, the people of Israel undergo an important change in their diet. While they were in Egypt, they had eaten only what their Egyptian masters provided. And while wandering in the wilderness, they had eaten manna given by God. Food that they gathered everyday. But now, having finally settled in the land of Canaan, the Promised Land, they have been able to plant and harvest their own crops. They experience the satisfaction of filling their bellies with food for which their own hands have worked. This is the key shift. From working only as slaves of others. To relying only on the charity of Another. To finally enjoying the fruits of their own free labour.

And this change has a significant impact on them. Although we don’t know anything about its exact nutritional effects, the reading tells us that the shift in diet makes a tremendous psychological, emotional and spiritual difference. For God tells Joshua: Today, I have taken the shame of Egypt away from them. For the Israelites, the eating of home-grown food leads to the lifting of the shame of slavery.

We see something similar in the gospel. We know the story well. The Parable of the Prodigal Son. But what we may not notice is the change of diet. When the younger son is far from home, he feeds on things that do not nourish but, instead, enslave him. His life of debauchery leads him only as far as the desperate doors of starvation. Here am I dying of hunger! He exclaims to himself, after having come to his senses. Which is why he decides to leave this place and go to my father. Fortunately for him, his father welcomes him warmly. Ushers him into the family home. And treats him to a lavish mouth-watering feast. 

From starvation to satisfaction. From distant debauchery to a home-cooked meal. This is the radical change in diet that the younger son undergoes. And, as it was for the Israelites in the first reading, so too for him. The eating of home-cooked food leads to the lifting of the shame of slavery. For he had originally been willing to be taken for no more than a servant. I no longer deserve to be called your son, he had planned to say to his father. Treat me as one of your paid servants. But his father had other ideas. He restores to the boy the dignity of his sonship. Enabling him to join the celebration. To share his father’s joy.

And what about the elder son? Notice that he also badly needs a change of diet. For although, unlike his brother, he hasn’t gone far away. He too has been feeding on things that enslave him. On things that leave him malnourished. Why else is he unable to join the party? Why else can he not share in the joy? And why else does he speak to his father with such venom? Look, all these years I have slaved for you… All these years... the elder son has considered himself no more than an oppressed labourer. And his father his oppressor. All these years... he has been feeding on the bitter herbs of anger and resentment. Poisonous foods that have stunted his growth.

So that when his father comes out to beg him to join the party, the old man is really inviting him to change his diet. To exchange slavery for sonship. Jealousy and resentment for joy. And this invitation to the older son in the parable is, in reality, addressed to the Pharisees and scribes. For they are the ones unable to rejoice when sinners return to God. Pious and religious though they may appear to be, they have really been eating all the wrong kinds of food. A diet that makes them allergic even to joy.

But perhaps we should not be too quick to point fingers at them. At least, I know that I should not. For I’m painfully aware that there is, hidden also in me, a scribe and a Pharisee. There are ways in which I often find myself eating the wrong foods. Preferring to feed on anger and resentment. On jealousy and envy. Instead of on the mercy and compassion offered by the Lord. And whenever this happens, I fail to realise and to receive the great gift that God offers us in Christ Jesus.

The gift about which the second reading speaks so movingly. When it tells us that God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, not holding men’s faults against them, and he has entrusted to us the news that they are reconciled. This, my dear friends, is the cause of our joy. This is the precious reconciliation won for us by Christ on the Cross. This is what we are preparing in Lent to receive at Easter. The satisfaction of home-coming. The joy that is our privilege not just to receive. But also to proclaim and to share with others. For we are ambassadors for Christ; it is as though God were appealing through us, and the appeal that we make in Christ’s name is: be reconciled to God. Enter into the Father’s house. Feed on the Father’s food. Share in the Father’s joy.

This, my dear friends, is the call addressed to us today. On this 4th Sunday of Lent. Which we call Laetare (Rejoice!) Sunday.

Sisters and brothers, if it is indeed true that we are what we eat, then what must you eat? In what ways do you need to change your diet? In order to enter the Father's joy today?

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