Feeding the Hungry

The Revd Dr William Lamb
The Eighth Sunday after Trinity


Sung Eucharist

Isaiah 55.1-5.     Matthew 14.13-21

In 1964, the Italian film-maker, Pier Paulo Pasolini released his film The Gospel according to St Matthew. On the face of it, it was an odd subject for a Marxist and a political activist. The film was made on a budget, well more of a shoestring. Pasolini’s own mother was prevailed upon to play the Blessed Virgin Mary. The cast was largely made up of peasants from the Italian countryside.

At a time when Hollywood was producing lavish films on biblical themes, Pasolini’s film did not necessarily meet with universal claim. Although the film was praised by Catholic organisations, some critics were rather scathing about its perceived piety. The fact that the film was produced on a shoestring perhaps becomes most prominent in Pasolini’s portrayal of the feeding of the 5,000. In the film, a small group of actors appear sitting on a sand dune beside a beach. There were so few actors in the scene that one critic dubbed it the ‘Feeding of the 50’. Perhaps with a certain prescience, Pasolini was imagining the feeding of the 5,000 with the benefit of social distancing.

Or was he seeking to capture something else? One of the things that Pasolini captures in the film is a sense of scarcity and deprivation. The landscape is often bare and deserted. People are poor. You can see the effects of poor nutrition and healthcare in the faces of the characters. In some respects, Pasolini manages to create a surprisingly faithful and unadorned version of Matthew’s narrative. We know that conditions in first century Galilee was harsh. The area was ruled by Herod Antipas, a vacillating puppet of Roman Imperial power. Antipas was the son of Herod the Great, and Matthew is doing something quite interesting in his narrative. Right at the beginning in the description of Jesus’ birth, a contrast is drawn between Herod the Great and Joseph, to whom Mary is betrothed. Herod murders innocent children. Joseph is described as ‘a righteous man’ and ensures the safety of Mary and the child, Jesus. And yet, here another contrast is being drawn between Herod Antipas, who entertains his guests with feasting and dancing, while Jesus provides food for the hungry.

The images are caught well by Pasolini. There is the scene of Herod Antipas pacifying Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, in order to save face in front of his guests. Food is simply a pretext for entertainment, lavish hospitality to satisfy human greed. Immediately, the scene cuts to the feeding of the 5,000. Pasolini is simply reproducing Matthew’s narrative, but we are so used to the different sections of the gospel being cut up Sunday by Sunday that we lose sight of the great sweep of the narrative. The self-serving cruelty of Antipas is contrasted with the self-sacrifice of Jesus, who has ‘compassion’ for the crowds. In making this contrast, Matthew is alerting us to two questions: what does true leadership look like? What does the justice of God’s kingdom look like?

The Greek word used by Matthew at this point describes ‘compassion’ in vivid terms. This is not ‘just feeling a bit sorry for someone’. Matthew is describing that gut-wrenching feeling in the pit of your stomach, when you are confronted by cruelty or injustice. We see the crowds overwhelmed by poverty and scarcity. And the story shows us not only the damage that poverty, scarcity, and austerity can do to our physical and material needs. It also shows us their corrosive effect on our minds, on our imagination and our reasoning.

Jesus has compassion for the crowds, and tells the disciples to give them something to eat. The disciples reply ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish’. Overwhelmed by scarcity, all the disciples can see is nothing. Of course, we have a tendency to live with a mind-set of fear and scarcity; we fear that we do not have enough to feed the poor or care for the most vulnerable in our society. We respond with incredulity to the idea that we might be able to address the challenges of food poverty in our world.

But Jesus challenges our imagination. He shows the disciples and us that ‘compassion’ is the starting point for reimagining a world in which bread can be shared. Matthew throws no light upon the working of the miracle, except in telling us that Jesus ‘gave thanks’ over the bread. But as we give thanks in this sacrament of the Eucharist, echoing the words of Jesus himself, we are reminded that our whole life becomes a sacrament of blessing to ourselves and others when we give thanks for it to our Creator.

But there is more – one of the characteristics of this story is that it alerts us to the fact that even though the horizons of our imagination are limited by poverty and scarcity, the baskets of crumbs that are collected reveal an abundance and generosity. We live in a world where market forces create ever greater extremes of wealth and poverty.

Kate Raworth, an economist who has worked with OXFAM over recent years, points out that humanity faces some serious challenges in the twenty-first century. We need to learn to balance the threat of human deprivation against the evident threat to the future of our environment. In her book, she describes this in terms of ‘doughnut economics’ – human flourishing lies between two concentric circles: a social foundation, which attends to basic human needs, and an ecological ceiling, beyond which lies environmental catastrophe. Like many economists, she sees that ultimately endless economic growth will only bring ecological destruction. She challenges economists and political leaders to develop strategies which will focus on a more sustainable distribution of wealth and income.  

This is precisely what Isaiah is hinting at in our Old Testament reading. Both of our stories from scripture challenge us to imagine how we can create the conditions that will allow everyone to eat and be satisfied. Curiously, and much to the perplexity of Pasolini’s critics,  they both point to an emphasis on distribution. As we come to appreciate the need to safeguard the future of the planet, this is an accent which perhaps now is beginning to transcend the old binaries of left and right. We are beginning to see that if we are to continue to enjoy the abundance of the fruits of the earth, this abundance will need to be shared.

Next week, on Wednesday evening, we will hear more about food poverty in our own city, when Jane Benyon will speak about the Community Emergency Foodbank and I encourage you to take part in that discussion. Perhaps all of us have learned in recent months that the potential perils associated with compromising our food security can have an impact on every single one of us.

The film-maker, Pasolini, was rather embarrassed to be praised by prelates for his film on Matthew’s gospel. He complained in later life of its ‘pietism’, but he catches something vital and important in his reading of the gospel. He sees the faces of crowds and crowds of people disfigured by human need, and he recognizes in the story which Matthew tells the description of one who challenges us to imagine a world in which the hungry will be fed and the hearts of all will be satisfied. Is that ‘empty piety’? Or do we find in the gut-wrenching ‘compassion’ of Jesus an intimation of hope, a sign of God’s justice?