Monday, February 26, 2007

Stones into Bread

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"

The diet industry has transformed our ideas about temptation. Temptation is another word for food. Savory chocolate, fattening donuts and cakes, chips in every flavor you can imagine dipped into mountains of sour cream, ice cream melting on the tip of the tongue when we should be melting away those extra pounds. That Jesus is able to fast for forty days is heroic to a dieter. He is able to put aside his emotional need for food. He quotes from the books of Moses, from Deuteronomy, “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (8:2-3)

We know that eating when one is not supposed to is tempting, but what kind of a temptation is it, really? Does a successful diet make me humble? Or proud of my healthy, slimmed body? What is the harm of turning an old stone, a useless amalgamation of non-usable minerals into something nourishing and fine? Especially when someone is very, very hungry? Who’s ever going to miss one dumb stone?

When the diet industry has done such a good job of transforming fat people into thin people and made so many people into millionaires in the process, it can be very difficult to fathom why Jesus would refuse to turn an old stone into something nourishing and profitable. Think of all the transformations you’ve seen in your lifetime. Indeed, modernity is all about transforming slow, old, inefficient and uncertain ways into new, shiny and convenient ones. Technology, manufacturing, literature and film: all these transform raw materials into amazing products for me to consume. Living in the world I do, it’s hard for me to put myself in Jesus’ place. Perhaps I can resist turning a stone into bread to break my own fast, but what about this world’s hungry? I could feet a planet with these stones. I could make things right. And who would miss a few stones?

But when a few stones turn into millions and billions of stones, the very surface of the world begins to change. The desert disappears and I am suddenly faced with the Tragedy of the Commons. Unlike privately owned land, land owned in common is there for everyone’s benefit. I am free to take what it has to offer, and I should put something back, but when it does not directly benefit me, I often don't. Let somebody else clean up. I have a living to make. It’s just common space, after all. I got there first. That's fair.

But in God’s eyes, isn’t the whole earth our common space?

In the nineteenth century, both Russia and America got very rich on the Siberian, Alaskan and North American fur trade. There were all these seals and otters just living in the sea which no one owned. Forests teamed with sables, mink, muscrat, beaver. A hunter could grab some cheap native labor and take as much as he wanted. The profits were huge. Millions of otters, millions of seals and other fur bearers were hunted by these men on land and water that nobody owned, at least in the way the West understands ownership.Except that the seals and the otters nearly died out, and nobody asked them if they wished to be transformed into skins.

Today, as a result of a mass movement to turn stones into bread, the earth may be dying. Jesus saw this at the very beginning, saw where it was going and had the wisdom to say "No."

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