By Pat Magness
The front page of our local paper recently featured a photo of a bluebird balanced precariously on a slender branch, a large strawberry in its open beak, and scruffy-looking baby bluebirds to the right and left, both squawking for food. You might ask how a printed photograph could squawk, and all I can say is that I could tell these babies were hungry and I could hear them squawking right off the page.
I identify with that little bluebird. Much of my adult life has been consumed with feeding the hungry, sometimes the squawking hungry, sometimes the grateful hungry, and sometimes the silent millions of hungry. But over and over, year in and year out, I have found myself perched precariously, blessed with abundant resources, and trying to figure out how best to provide for others.
The Endless Task
My concern for feeding the hungry began when I had babies. And just about when I figured out how to keep babies well-fed and happy, suddenly I had a house full of teenage boys whose appetites are notoriously insatiable.
Lately, my personal efforts at feeding the hungry are most likely to be directed toward college students. Every year there is a new crop of Milligan students requiring even more pizza—or is it brownies?
And I am also blessed with visits from grandchildren who have their own special hungers and favorite foods. Feeding the hungry—which includes planning, shopping, preparing, serving, cleaning up, and even gardening—is not my main occupation, yet over the years it has been a central preoccupation, and it doesn’t seem to be letting up.
There are times—when I’m standing in line at the grocery store or working over a hot stove or watching people eat in 10 minutes what has taken hours to prepare—that I regret my preoccupation with food. There are days when I think it might be someone else’s turn to take over. Feeding people is such a mundane activity, with such ephemeral results, needing to be repeated at least three times every single day, that I sometimes get discouraged and begin to regard it as fairly meaningless. At those times, it is the example of Jesus that reminds me that feeding the hungry is a holy task, deeply connected with his life and ministry.
The Example of Jesus
From the beginning to the end of Jesus’ ministry, he was involved with hungry people. Jesus’ very first miracle took place at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. True, he wasn’t preparing the food, but when the guests began squawking, his mother turned to him to supply the needs. After some initial hesitation, Jesus stepped in and turned the water into wine—such delicious wine that the steward commented on its quality. It was at this feast—and in providing for the people at this feast—that Jesus first “revealed his glory” (John 2:11).
At the end of Jesus’ ministry, he was also at a feast with friends, a Passover feast. It was at his last supper with the disciples that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, the meal that characterizes his followers to this very day. Even as Jesus celebrated the first Lord’s Supper, he was also looking into the future, saying, “Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25).*
Jesus used the image of the feast in his teachings, too. On one occasion Jesus watched the guests at a banquet seek out the places of honor, and he used the opportunity to teach a lesson in humility, instructing his disciples that “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:7-11). This teaching is followed by another even more focused on feeding the hungry:
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous (Luke 14:12-14).
Of the relatively few incidents recorded of Jesus’ resurrected life on earth, at least two of them involve meals. After his resurrection, Jesus walked toward Emmaus with two mournful disciples. They did not recognize him by his voice or by his teachings; instead, he was “made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35).
In another postresurrection appearance, Jesus waited on the beach by a small fire and cooked breakfast for his disciples. After they finished breakfast, Jesus had a special message for Peter: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17).
While I understand that Jesus’ instructions to “feed my sheep” have a profoundly spiritual meaning, I also know that Jesus himself offered physical food—as well as spiritual food—to the hungry people around him. Two of Jesus’ well-known miracles are often referred to as “feeding the five thousand” and “feeding the four thousand.” The feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle recorded in all four gospels, which to me gives it a special emphasis.
As Mark records the story, Jesus tried to go off with his disciples to rest, saying, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). Instead of being left alone, they were followed by crowds. Instead of being irritated, Jesus “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (v. 34). He offered them true spiritual food.
His disciples eventually asked Jesus to send them away, but Jesus turned to them and said, “You give them something to eat.” At this point, Jesus was clearly talking about physical food, and he directed the disciples to feed the hungry crowds. They responded much as I would have—and much as I sometimes do—questioning how in the world they could possibly feed all the hungry people. Jesus told them first to see what they had, and then he ordered them to organize the people. Only then did Jesus perform the miracle of turning two fish and five loaves into enough food for 5,000 men, plus women and children.
It is worth noting that while Jesus provided the food, the disciples distributed it to the people. Jesus “blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people” (v. 41). Feeding the hungry was part of Jesus’ ministry, and it is part of the assignment he gives to his disciples.
“You Give Them Something to Eat”
As I have attempted to be a disciple of Jesus by feeding the hungry, I have been helped by a variety of people and organizations. Groups like IDES (International Disaster Emergency Services) and Food for the Hungry (and many others) provide a practical way for me to get my abundant resources to the people who need them most, whether in times of disaster and famine or in the daily, ordinary efforts to feed families in poorer areas of the world.
Participation in the CROP (Com-munities Responding to Overcome Poverty) walks to stop hunger has introduced me to many other Christians who are involved in feeding the hungry.
I have learned from cookbooks, like Cooking with Conscience and More-with-Less Cookbook and Recipes for a Small Planet, how to cook for family and friends in a way that conserves resources and promotes a “sharing” way of life.
The group Bread for the World has helped educate me about the political dimensions of hunger; from them I have learned there is plenty of food in the world to feed everyone if we have the will to share and distribute resources. Bread for the World is a Christian organization that lobbies Congress for laws that will benefit hungry people in the United States and around the world.
Recently some of my students began teaching me about the importance of locally grown food in ensuring that everyone in the world has healthy, sufficient resources; my backyard garden blooms in a whole new light these days.
I know I don’t have all the answers to the challenge of feeding the hungry people of the world, but I do know I want to obey Jesus’ words, “You give them something to eat.” Thus, I give and share and change my eating habits and lobby Congress and take food to potlucks and volunteer in soup kitchens.
And even while I am doing my best to respond, the task is so enormous that I often turn for comfort to some other words of Jesus: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26). I remember that God is the ultimate provider, even for bluebirds.
*All Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
Pat Magness is professor of humanities and English at Milligan College in Tennessee.