Faith and Feeding the Hungry, Part I

With Unemployment and Hunger Surging due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, Thousands Line up at Food Pantries throughout America

Jesus of Nazareth’s Approach to Human Hunger

Feeding the hungry is about human beings helping other human beings with bodily needs. Today’s euphemism for it is “food insecurity,” which conceals the fact that during the Coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans are going hungry and cannot provide for their basic necessities.

Jesus, the Founder of the Christianity, while establishing an other-worldly religion of salvation, of eternal life with God in heaven, emphasizing the spiritual values of the kingdom of heaven, was also deeply concerned about moral issues pertaining to the earth, to the world humans now inhabit. In particular, Jesus was concerned about meeting the material or bodily needs of human beings, such as hunger.

Jesus’ Sacramental Approach to the Human Body

Jesus was sacramental in his approach to the human body. In other words, the outward human being makes contact with the inward human. For example, after Jesus healed a man, Jesus asked the religious leaders, “why are you angry with me for healing a man’s whole body on the Sabbath?” (John 7:23b, NIV). Jesus was concerned about a “man’s whole body.” The Greek may also be translated the “entire man” (NASB). For Jesus, body and soul form one human being, a whole person. He had compassion on people who had “nothing to eat,” feeding them (cf. Mark 8:1-9a, NIV). In feeding them, Jesus was doing “spiritual work,” for the way to a person’s soul is through his or her body.

Jesus’ Spiritual Presence in the Hungry or Needy

Jesus also taught that somehow, that is, spiritually or mystically, he is present in men, women and children that are hungry, in need of food, shelter and clothing, saying, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40, 45, NIV). The least of the brothers and sisters of Jesus are those persons who are vulnerable. They are the socially, psychologically or economically disadvantaged, such as the unemployed, the sick, the poor, the mentally and physically disabled. In Homily 50 on the Gospel of Matthew, St. John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople, shocked his people, appealing to Matthew 25:31-46, saying,

“Do you wish to honor Christ’s body? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not honor him on the inside [of the building] with silk garments and neglect him outside, where he is perishing from being cold and naked. For he who said, ‘This is my body’ (Matthew 26:28), … also said, ‘I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat’ (Matthew 25:42) and ‘Whatever you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me’ (Matthew 25:40). … What good is it if the [Eucharistic] table is overloaded with golden chalices, when your brother is dying of hunger? … Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left, you may adorn the altar as well.”

Many of Chrysostom’s own people, including his wealthy members, were offended by his sermons on poverty. They wanted to “get rid of him” and, eventually, they did, resulting in his exile and death. Like Chrysostom, Mother Teresa, now St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, cared for the hungry and homeless, referring to Matthew 25:31-46, calling them “Christ in a most distressing disguise.”

Faith’s Bearing on Human Concerns

Faith is not merely abstract or theoretical, believing all the right Christian doctrines to be saved. That would make faith purely passive, existing only inside a person’s head. Faith is also about life, living in the world in which human beings suffer, die and are in want of the basic necessities of life. James, an author of the New Testament, teaches that giving assent or saying “yes” to doctrinal truths is much easier than living those truths, putting them into practice. Faith, then, in order for it to be true Christian faith, is active in the world, doing good works; one of which is meeting the bodily needs of other human beings, such as feeding the hungry. In the words of Scripture,

“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:15-17, NIV).

The Human Issue of Feeding the Hungry

Feeding the hungry, far from discouraging work, encourages them to work. In fact, St. Paul tells believers that they “must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need” (Ephesians 4:28b, NIV). It is precisely, then, those who work that can “share with those in need.” Nor does Paul discourage feeding the hungry in his oft-quoted text, “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (II Thessalonians 3:10b, NKJV), because there is a crucial moral difference between “will not” and “cannot” work. That is to say, disability, misfortune or widespread unemployment may prevent men and women from finding employment to support themselves and their families. In such circumstances, they may need help from other human beings of goodwill.

Jesus does not teach his followers to be so heavenly-minded, so other-worldly, that they despise truly human values or expressions of being human, such as compassion or sympathy, empathy, kindness to others, concern for them, helping them and selfless acts of service to the community. All such values are expressions of human love. Of course, Jesus builds on human love, elevating it, but Jesus never rejects what is truly human. And surely it is human, worthy of human beings, to care about people who are struggling economically, especially during a pandemic.

Feeding the hungry, then, is neither a liberal nor conservative issue; it is neither a Democrat nor Republican issue; nor is it socialism. Rather, feeding the hungry is a human issue and it is sanctioned by Sacred Scripture, especially by Jesus himself. That is why people of faith should care about feeding the hungry and so many other human issues, concerns pertaining to this world, including all the “corporal [bodily] works of mercy,“ keeping in mind the words of St. John of the Cross, “In the evening of our life, we will be judged on our love.”


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