Readings: Psalm 63 (ESV); Isaiah 55
In Psalm 63, the writer juxtaposes images of scarcity and plenty to express his feelings about God. The wilderness of Judea, where even water (the most essential commodity of all) is in short supply, reflects his hunger and thirst for God’s presence. And remembering times past when he felt close to God reminds him of a lavish feast with “fat and rich food” (as the ESV has v5).
I like fat and rich food….
The culture of scarcity, where food and drink (not to mention clothes, shelter, means of transport, health) are in short supply for the great majority of ordinary people, is certainly the culture of the Bible, and indeed has been the culture of humankind in general throughout most of recorded history. My parents, coming to adulthood under rationing in the aftermath of the Second World War, were deeply marked by this scarcity culture, and to this day my mother is almost incapable of throwing leftover gravy away.
A pattern of scarcity and plenty, of fasting interleaved with occasional feasting, is deeply embedded in the Bible and in the Christian tradition. It is there from the beginning in the pattern of the week – 6 days of hard work and making do, followed by the feast of the sabbath – and in the great feasts of the Jewish and Christian traditions. At this very moment we are living through the fast days of Lent and preparing for the great feast of Easter.
In the post-war economic boom of the sixties, it seemed that here in the West we had finally abolished the old scarcity culture. Industrial mass production provided abundant good things - such as food, clothes, homes, cars, televisions – to ordinary people at affordable prices (or at least on easy terms). Fasting was over, as we established for ourselves a permanent feast.
But it is becoming clearer as the years go by that our declaration of permanent feast (at least for us in the West) is extremely dangerous – we are in danger of eating ourselves out of a planet. According to WWF 90% of the world’s large fish have already been fished out, and a group of experts recently warned that the world will run out of seafood by 2048. Deforestation in the Amazon is driven by our insatiable hunger for cheap beef, while the growing trade in bush-meat threatens many endangered species with extinction, including our closest relations the great apes. It seems we urgently need some self-imposed scarcity, before our feasting permanently damages the Earth’s capacity to sustain us and its other inhabitants.
Ursula LeGuin, my favourite sci-fi writer, and one of my favourite writers of any kind, wrote a wonderful utopian novel called The Dispossessed . She sets her story on two neighbouring worlds. One, called Urras, is lush, green, temperate, and abundant. The other, Anarres, is a dry, windy, desert world, that can barely sustain life at all. Against expectations, LeGuin places her utopian society on the desert world Anarres. Urras, the abundant world where there is more than enough for everyone, is a place of extreme wealth and poverty, of governments and stock markets, of armies and wars, police and prisons. In LeGuin’s vision, her little anarchist utopia requires a world of extreme scarcity to concentrate people’s minds on the essential things.
So perhaps scarcity is good for the soul….
But it’s possible to go too far in that direction. The 1987 film Babette’s Feast (dir. Gabriel Axel) is set in a deeply pious and ascetic community on the Danish coast. Two sisters take on a French maid, Babette, who is actually a highly skilled chef, but is reduced to preparing the sisters’ daily abstemious meal of dried fish or thin soup. When she wins a lottery prize, she spends the whole sum to produce one extravagent feast for the entire village. The film paints a lovely picture of this feast as a sign of grace, which breaks open lives frozen by long years of scarcity culture. Clive Marsh writes:
The practice of eating raises so many profound issues: whether to eat animals, how much to eat, how lavishly to eat, how much to spend on food, whether to eat alone, who to eat with, how much time to spend on such a seemingly functional activity. Babette’s Feast sharpens our engagement with such questions. And in its quiet, quaint, modest way it urges us to think about what we eat, where our food is from, who has prepared it, who we share it with (and why). And it confronts us with the possibility that the sharing of food in company, when time and care is devoted to the task of preparing and eating it, is a prime moment of divine disclosure in the contemporary world which we can only call “sacramental”.
Likewise, our reading from Isaiah 55 urges us to “eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” Isaiah’s feast (like Babette’s) is an image of God’s grace as a big meal for hungry people, given freely as a gift of love, not for purchase.
Jurgen Moltmann talks about the Sabbath as a feast of creation and a feast of redemption.
Every sabbath in time has an end. Every feast day becomes another working day. That is why Franz Rosenweig calls the weekly sabbath ‘the dream of completion, but only a dream’. Sabbath day, sabbath year, and Year of Jubilee point in time beyond the time of history, out into messianic time. It is only the sabbath at the end of history that will be ‘a feast without end’.
In the Bible’s vision, the sabbath is part of a pattern of scarcity and plenty. It’s the little feast day after 6 days of of hard work and short commons. But in our culture of permanent feast, when every day is a day of abundance, how can we make the sabbath different, except by making it a day of self-denial rather a feast day? Does this contribute to the difficult feelings that many Christians have about the sabbath? I know that for myself, too often the only way in which Sunday feels “special” is that it is a day of duties, rotas, and chores, at the end of which I feel tired and demoralized rather than rested and renewed.
I’m not sure that we are very good at doing sabbath in this church (or any church I have ever belonged to for that matter). The hard work – both in preparation and on the day – needed to put on this weekly “show” is running some of us ragged, and seems almost opposite to the ideal of a sabbath feast.
So maybe it’s time think again about how to pattern our week in a way that challenges the permanent feast of our culture, but also allows us to celebrate more truly the sabbath feast of God.