Wednesday, October 04, 2006
This morning's lectionary gospel is Luke 5:27-39, concerning Jesus calling Levi, the tax-collector, who promptly throws a big banquet with Jesus as the guest of honor. I have heard it said that the gospel of Luke is the gospel of eating... every time the reader turns around, Jesus is reclining at one table or another. This passage offers the rationale for that ongoing feast.
First, Jesus is criticized for "eating with tax collectors and sinners." Tax collectors, it should be understood, are portrayed in the gospels as the ultimate traitors in Rome-occupied territory. These are Jews who are "collaborators" in that they deal with the unclean Romans and their unclean money, collecting unjust taxes from their fellow Jews. Jesus addresses the issue of the often colorful guest list with the reasonable retort that people who are well don't need physicians, but the sick do. Then follows this passage, in which the issue of fasting is addressed head on.
Then they said to him, "John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink." Jesus said to them, "You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days." He also told them a parable: "No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, 'The old is good.'" Luke 5:33-39
This, of course, is fasting season for other children of Abraham. Jews have just completed their Yom Kippur (Day of At-One-Ment) fast, and Muslims are in the midst of their month-long fast of Ramadan. Jesus is here rejecting the idea of fasting because, in his words, "the bridegroom is with the wedding guests." Here is the fundamental argument that Luke presents in favor of the celebratory, open-table fellowship celebrated by Jesus. The feast has been spread, it's time to join the celebration. Christians do this (in theory) every time we sit down to communion together.
However, it is worth considering the rest of Jesus' words: "the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days." I am feeling acutely the absence of Jesus these days. The bridegroom has left the building, folks, and it may be that a fast is officially in order. I have been reading lately about churches that are embracing ancient practices such as fasting to generate spiritual growth in their members. I have to come clean here: Like many women, I have a lifelong struggle in terms of my relationship with food. (And as I write that very phrase, "relationship with food," it strikes me that it is a disordered way to experience something that is meant for pleasure, yes, but essentially for fuel.) Fasting is complicated for me. It appeals, but perhaps for the wrong reasons (Drop! Pounds! Quickly!).
I have also been reading the Velveteen Rabbi, as I have already mentioned in these pages. I love what she said about the Yom Kippur fast, and I share it here:
A teaching from Philo, as retold by Reb Shefa Gold: We Jews love to eat. We eat all year long! And then we need a whole day of fasting in order to properly say the birkat ha-mazon, the grace after meals, so that we might truly feel gratitude and bless all that we have eaten. In this sense, all of Yom Kippur is one spontaneous upwelling of blessing.
At the end of the Kol Nidre prayer, at the very beginning of Yom Kippur as the sun is just going down, we recite the words "vayomer Adonai, salachti kid'varecha," "And God said, I have forgiven you, as I have promised." The whole holiday begins with forgiveness. We're always already forgiven. We just need the 25-hour experience of the day in order to really feel that in our bones.
I have read that many Christian communities are joining in the Ramadan fast this month in order to show solidarity with Muslims in view of recent events, papal and otherwise. I would suggest that a fast can join us with all children of Abraham, Jews, Muslims and Christians, as well as those outside the Abrahamic fold. We can all use the experience of knowing our lives to be "one spontaneous upswelling of blessing." Perhaps, in these days, fasting is the new wine we need.