One day a man was hiking in the mountains when he came upon an exceedingly hungry grizzly bear. The bear raised up on its hind legs, let out a roar, and prepared to charge. Panicked, the hiker started to run, but he soon realized he’d never outrun the bear. Now, the hiker was, at best, a Christmas and Easter Episcopalian, so he didn’t rightly recall all those good, rich prayers from the Prayer Book, but he did drop to his knees and in his desperation pray, “Dear God, please make this bear a good Christian bear!” To the hiker’s surprise, in an instant the bear stopped charging, dropped to its own knees, reverently folded its paws, and began to pray. Just as the hiker was about to walk on in relief, however, he heard the bear say, “Thank you, Lord, for this meal I’m about to receive…”
It is safe to say that we live in a hunger-obsessed world, and the Gospel lessons last week, this week, and for the next several weeks are all about hunger. Last week, we read the only miracle story (other than the Resurrection itself) that appears in all four Gospels: the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Each Gospel tells the story differently, but they all agree on one thing: A huge crowd has followed Jesus and is hungry, and the disciples are a bit freaked out at the prospect of having to feed them all. What follows may be an example of Harry Potter-like wizardry on Jesus’ part, or it may be an example of miraculous generosity and change of heart on the part of people in the crowd who are hoarding their picnics. But either way, the Feeding of the Five Thousand in John’s Gospel and the extended speech Jesus gives following it—and which begins today—are a theological treatise on hunger.
The University of Michigan Health Science Center describes three aspects of hunger.[i] See if these resonate with you. The first aspect, hunger itself, is described as the “normal sensation that makes you want to eat. Your body tells your brain that your stomach is empty. This makes your stomach growl and gives you hunger pangs.” Makes sense. The second aspect is “fullness,” which is the “feeling of being satisfied. Your stomach tells your brain that it is full. Normally, this feeling causes you to stop eating and not think about food again for several hours.” That also makes sense. Would that these two descriptors told the whole story! But third, there is “appetite,” which is “a desire for food, usually after seeing, smelling, or thinking about food.” And here’s the coda, say the Michigan experts: “Even after you feel full, your appetite can make you keep eating.”
That’s revealing. At its root, hunger is not only about the need for sustenance. Hunger is about desire, and desire can be an insidious thing. Long after one feels full, desire can nevertheless create an insatiable appetite.
This can be physiological, of course, but it can also be existential. We all know that our hungers, our appetites, our cravings, our desires are about a whole lot more than chicken and dumplings. Our hunger can be for things rational and irrational, healthy and perverse. So, for what, besides food, are we hungry? Success, lust, wealth, esteem in the eyes of our fellows, material possessions, a yearning to be loved, vicarious living through our children, or some obsessive pursuit inexplicable to anyone else: Any of these and innumerable others can be the objects of our hunger, of the gnawing appetite that pangs within even after we know we should feel full.
No one in the past hundred years has understood and articulated this as brilliantly as C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters. The Screwtape Letters consists, as many will know, of the correspondence between the demon Screwtape and his apprentice Wormwood. The demons’ project is to encourage, to urge, the voracious appetites that drive us. The demons cultivate our desire to consume, and subsume, and absorb all that is around us so that the world becomes merely food for us, the object of our desire.
Throughout the book, the apprentice demon Wormwood attempts to corrupt his “patient,” a human who, like all of us, struggles with our appetites and desires. There are twists and turns, moments of hope and near-despair, but in the end Wormwood ultimately fails in his task. And as a failed demon, Wormwood then becomes food for his mentor demon Screwtape. In the end, the master says to the apprentice, “My dear, my very dear Wormwood, my poppet, my pigsnie…Rest assured that…I have always desired you…I think I they will give you to me now…Love you? Why, yes. As dainty a morsel as ever I grew fat on.”[ii]
The demons in Lewis’ book are characterized by their fantastical, voracious, insatiable hunger. In other words, they are us taken to an absurd extreme. The demons want to consume anything and everyone—including each other—into themselves. And as always, C.S. Lewis is both entrancing and discomfiting because his fable reads so true. Our own hungers sometimes border on the insatiable, to the point that we, too, may skirt the demonic.
The story of David and Bathsheba, which also began last week and continues today, is the quintessential biblical example of such hunger. Down through Christian history, Bathsheba has gotten a grossly unfair and unjustified bad rap, but make no mistake: David is the demon of this story. His hunger for another man’s wife—that of his friend and companion—is insatiable, and he uses irresistible kingly power to consume his heart’s desire. And the dessert of this unholy meal is Uriah’s murder at David’s behest.
King David, Screwtape, the innumerable, everyday, mundane examples of our own insatiable and destructive hunger…What is the remedy? The world has provided all sorts of band-aids, distractions, temporary existential diet pills that suppress our pangs and cravings. But our faith tells us that there is but one cure. Beginning with the Feeding of the Five Thousand and continuing through Jesus’ long discourse which begins today, Jesus reveals that he—who is the icon and embodiment of the presence of God among us and provided to us—is the bread of life. Reliance upon that bread and nothing else to fill our insatiable hunger, is the only relief from our craving for all those things that can never satisfy.
In our own day, just as when we combat our physical hunger with whatever gimmick or diet fad is in season, we can seek to satisfy our existential hungers with Oprah’s newest secular self-help program, or with new age spiritualities, or with a shallow, smorgasbord dabbling in different religious traditions that doesn’t respect the integrity of any of them. But just as with our physical hunger, when we do so we will repeatedly find ourselves frustrated, disappointed, and binging all over again. “I am the bread of life,” the Incarnate God says today. “Whoever comes to me will never go hungry.”
We know this. Our tradition has always known it. Whether we turn to St. Augustine, who famously said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in you”; or to the great mystics of the Church whose desire, greater than any demon’s, found its satiation in God; or to our modern, deeply spiritual twelve-step movement in which recovering addicts acknowledge the necessity of relying completely on a higher power in place of their substance or behavioral cravings; or to my own recent study and teaching about the cessation of clinging and living and loving both fully and non-attached, all speak to a redirection of the heart, the mind, the will, the appetite,to satisfy our hunger only and entirely in God. This is what the feeding of the famished crowd is all about. This is what Jesus means when he says he is the bread of life. This is not about believing the right things, and it is certainly not about moral rectitude and holier-than-thou living. It is about directing our hungers to the source of all and receiving back true sustenance. The only and true satiation is in God, in whom we are filled.
[i] https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/aa155258, emphasis mine.
[ii] Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters, pg. 171.