Worcester Chapel, 1 Feb 2015
‘Feed the Hungry’ (Second of the Seven Acts of Mercy)
The so-called ‘seven acts of mercy’ are often associated with Lenten works of charity, but as Lent does not begin until the middle of February, this sermon series clearly has a much broader remit. In fact, ‘works of mercy’ are not only known in the Christian faith, but they also play a vital part in other world faiths, not least Judaism and Islam, for each agrees that ‘mercy’ and ‘compassion’ lie at the very heart of true religion. It is important we recognise this, as this is one way of answering the popular criticism that religion causes nothing but bloodshed and fear. As the chaplain said in his sermon in First Week:
‘We are increasingly living today with a false portrayal of God as a violent might which must be imposed on others by force… But murder in the name of God is an aberration, a catastrophic consequence of a distorted notion of the divine. ‘When religion goes wrong, it goes very wrong’, as Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad, recently stated as he and his community fled their Church in Iraq because of terrorism.’
All too often religion can go horribly wrong. One reminder was only last week, when on ‘Holocaust Memorial Day’ we heard again the terrible accounts of survivors of Auschwitz. Another reminder was at the beginning of the week, in the news reports of the mass murderer Anders Breivik, who has been trying to orchestrate an uprising from his Norwegian prison cell: all in the crazed belief that Europe needs to be ‘re-Christianised’ and rescued from what he calls ‘Islamification’ – a belief which led him to slaughter and maim over one hundred people on the Norwegian island of Utoya in 2011. Other reminders of religion going ‘horribly wrong’ are the all too frequent attacks on both mosques and synagogues in Palestine and Israel, as well as on churches in Iraq, many of them disputes over ‘holy sites’. Add to this the ongoing horrific attacks by Boko Haram militants on Christians in northeast Nigeria, and it is all too obvious that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are each caught up with the effects of barbaric acts committed in the name of ‘religion’. It is easy to forget that ‘true religion’ is about mercy, and its terrible aberrations have little to do with what its founders once taught.
‘Mercy’ is a word used many times in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: each shares the common belief in a ‘Merciful God’, whose mercy is to be the inspiration for every believer. Take Judaism, for example: the phrase ‘the Lord is a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ is an early creed found several times in the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible. And in Christianity, the New Testament testifies repeatedly to a God who is ‘rich in mercy’: the parable of a father’s mercy towards his ‘prodigal son’ is just one illustration of the mercy which God offers to all who turn to him. And in Islam, too, ‘Most Merciful’ (al-Rahman) is one of the names of Allah, whilst ‘Compassionate’ (al -Rahmin) is repeatedly used in the Qur’an. Both derive from the Arabic root rahmat – ‘to have compassion’ or ‘to show mercy’. A very similar verb exists in Hebrew: raham means ‘to have mercy’. (Interestingly, in both Arabic and Hebrew the noun, ‘raham’ means ‘womb’, thus comparing ‘mercy’ with a mother’s love towards her child.) So all three faiths espouse that because God is merciful to us, we are to show mercy to others. In Judaism, the last six of the Ten Commandments can be seen as ‘acts of mercy’ to family and friends; in Christianity , ‘acts of mercy’ lie at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount (‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy’); and in Islam, ‘acts of mercy’ in the form of almsgiving (zakat) are the fourth of the Five Pillars of the Faith.
In Matthew 25, which is a key text in this sermon series, Jesus makes it clear that by showing mercy to others it is as if we do it to him. ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me’. A similar teaching is found in the Qur’an: the righteous are those who feed the poor , the orphan and the captive, saying ‘We feed you for the sake of God alone’. By being compassionate and merciful we are imitating the character of our God.
The particular act of mercy I have been asked to focus on is ‘feed the hungry’. I shall look at this in two ways, one practical, the other more theological. I shall ask, firstly, how do we give to the hungry? And, secondly, why do we give to them?
Statistics tell us that almost one in seven of the world’s population is hungry, and 90% of the hungry are predominantly in Asia, the Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa, and that 50% of the world’s wealth is held by 6% of the world’s population. So the people of the West have a huge debt to pay. Yet it is clear that few of us can literally ‘feed the hungry’: we have to use aid agencies as a medium. And we have to be discriminating: there is much truth in that Chinese proverb, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ There is of course spontaneous crisis aid, in times of terrible famine, but there is also educational aid, which builds for a better future. ‘Works of mercy’ have often to be about us using our minds as well as our hearts.
It is nevertheless all too easy to harden both our hearts and our minds against the hungry of the third world, for we never see them. So it should be very different when we hear the statistics about the number of people who go hungry in our own country, as the book by the Archbishop of York (On Rock or Sand?), published last week, argues; Archbishop Sentamu challenges both the Government and the Church to recognize how immediate and urgent the cycle of deprivation and hunger is in our own land. Yet even here, it can again be a case ‘out of sight, out of mind’: we can forget what we do not often directly encounter. So perhaps our greatest challenge is when we come across those who are hungry in our own neighbourhood, some of them on the streets of Oxford. Here again we face the choice of immediate crisis aid or longer term aid (through, for example, The Hub or the Gatehouse), and again we have to ‘feed the hungry’ with minds as well as our hearts. But that we should respond generously, in some way, to those who are hungry is a Christian, Jewish and Islamic imperative: how we do it and to whom we do it is very much an individual act of conscience.
So what about the second issue – why do we give? Here our two readings throw some light on this. Deuteronomy 8 is an extract from a ‘sermon’ of Moses; first the ancient Israelites are reminded about God’s provision when they were miraculously fed with manna in the wilderness, and then they are warned that when they enter Canaan, a land of plenty, they are not to forget that the same God is their provider, and they are not to assume that the land and its produce are theirs by right. ‘And you shall eat and be full… Take heed lest you forget the Lord your God… Beware lest you say in your heart ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth’ (Deut.8:10-11). Hence having an abundance of food and wealth is quite acceptable: God is a generous giver, and the real issue is about how we view it and use it.
There is a passage in the Gospel of Luke which in part expands the teaching in Deuteronomy. It begins with Jesus teaching the disciples the Lord’s Prayer; you may recall the very first request is ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ (Luke 11:3). In Luke this incident is followed immediately by a parable of a man who seeks out his friend, late at night, to ask him for ‘three loaves of bread’ as he has unexpected visitors. The friend initially refuses to get out of bed to help: he is too well fed to bother with the needs of others. ‘Give us today our daily bread’ is not just a prayer for ourselves, but a prayer for others, too.
Our second reading today was the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. It has echoes of the sermon in Deuteronomy about God feeding his people with manna in the wilderness. This is the only one of Jesus’ miracles to be recorded in all four Gospels – indeed in Matthew and Mark it is reported twice – so we night deduce that something must have happened which had an effect on the different Gospel writers. Some have argued the small offering of five loaves and two small fish encouraged others in the crowd to share what they were holding back; others read it more literally. However one explains it, it is a reminder of how God can freely and abundantly provide for us in times of need. But it is also a reminder that we must give out of our plenty to serve those in need, and whoever does so, whatever their faith of creed, is reflecting to others the character of God the Merciful.
However, God’s resources are infinite, and ours certainly are not. But the implication is that we are required, nevertheless, to give as generously as we can. I think of two stories – both again in Luke’s Gospel, which of all the Gospels is the one which champions the cause of the poor and needy. One is of Jesus observing a poor widow putting two copper coins into the Temple treasury. Jesus commends her as follows: ‘She out of her poverty has put in all the living that she had’. She may not have given much, but she gave beyond her means (Luke 21:1-4). The other story occurs just before it, and concerns a rich young ruler, anxious to know how to inherit eternal life, who is challenged by Jesus not just to keep the commandments but to sell all that he has and distribute to the poor. ‘And then’, says Jesus, ‘You will have treasure in heaven. Come, follow me.’ But when the ruler hears these things, he becomes sad, for he was very rich (Luke 18:18-23). Whether rich or poor, what counts is being prepared to give abundantly out of whatever we have – for the simple reason that the God of mercy- the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – has given to us and so we owe Him, through others, His due.
I am acutely aware that, within half an hour of the end of this service, many of us will be dining in Hall or eating at home and the plight of the hungry may well be far from our minds. So is this a contradiction of what has been said tonight? Is this, in effect, ‘cheating’ the hungry and the poor? I think not. Here I draw from the Rule of Benedict, which is an ancient monastic rule which influenced the founding of our very first Chapel, built almost exactly on this site in 1484. Gloucester College, lasting from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, was very much a Benedictine foundation. The Benedictine Rule has often been seen as ‘living with contradictions’, and one of those, apposite for today, is the paradox of living with plenty and living in want. Saint Benedict – who is depicted twice in this chapel, once amongst the saints of the church, and once behind this lectern in an act of giving Gloucester College over to God – has a good deal to say about plenty and want. The Rule of Benedict speaks about feasting, and fasting; about kind and generous hospitality, and self-control; about times of celebration, and acts of compassion. Chapters 39 and 40 of the Rule, on ‘The Proper Amount of Food’ and ‘The Proper Amount of Drink’ make surprising reading.
As we heard in our reading last week, Jesus’ first appearance in his public ministry was at a wedding in Cana, and according to John’s Gospel his first public miracle was changing water into wine. So Jesus affirmed celebration and generous hospitality. Yet just before this, by contrast, we read in other Gospels that Jesus was in the desert, where, hungry and parched, he survived the temptation to turn stones into loaves of bread. So deprivation and plenty were both part of the rhythm of his ministry. So to live ‘in abundance’ is not to be despised: we could not respond practically to the command to ‘feed the hungry’ if we did not have the means to do so. This is what is meant by those words attributed to Moses in Deuteronomy: ‘And you shall eat and be full… but take heed lest you forget the Lord your God…’ So let us rejoice in what we have been given, but let us also discover in practice the words of Jesus, ‘Truly, I say to you, feed the hungry: and as you did it to one of the least my brethren, you did it unto me’. (Matt. 25:40).
Mercy and compassion lie at the heart of true religion, and the more we, as individuals, practice this – Jews, Christians and Muslims alike – the more we will expose as a lie those who use religion to try to take the world by force. ‘Acts of mercy’: these can prevent religion going ‘horribly wrong’. Amen.