Food and mercy often go together. When I start getting a craving for some food I really like, like chips with guacamole, or a overstuffed chile relleno, then whoever brings it to me appears in my eyes as an angel of mercy. More seriously, “feeding the hungry” is the first of the corporal works of mercy, and the establishment of “soup kitchens” and other means of providing food have typically been at the forefront of the Church’s charitable work through the ages.
The Gospel of Luke, which has been called “The Gospel of Mercy,” arguably gives more attention to food and meals than any other Gospel. Perhaps it was in St. Luke’s character to take notice of the physical needs of people: after all, he was a physician by trade (Col. 4:14). There are at least ten meal scenes in the Gospel of Luke, and many more in his sequel, the Book of Acts. St. Luke seems to have arranged and narrated these meal scenes in such a way as always to point forward to Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist.
So, as concerned as Luke was about meeting the needs of the body, he knew as well as any Evangelist that “man does not live on bread alone” (Luke 4:4). We hunger for something far deeper than mere physical satisfaction. We were created with a yearning for God, a “divine hunger,” and sometimes it is the poor—those who truly are hungry and penniless—who become most aware of their own supernatural desire for God.
In the Gospel of Luke, every meal with Jesus is a foretaste of heaven, an experience in advance of that perfect satisfaction of every hunger that we will experience for eternity in the Father’s presence. Meals had been used throughout the Old Testament as a means of make covenants—that is, of establishing covenant bonds. For example, after Moses makes the covenant between God and Israel in Exod 24:1-8, the leaders of Israel go up on Mt. Sinai and enjoy a meal in God’s presence (Exod 25:9-11). They eat with God, because they are now the family of God. And families eat together.
In Luke, Jesus is building a new family of God in the course of his ministry, and meals are a big part of building the family. This family will be open not just to Israel but to all nations. It all builds towards Jesus’ establishment of the Eucharist, the family meal by which God mercifully satisfies the hunger of all humanity for God himself.
Dr. John Bergsma will be speaking at the 2016 Priests, Deacons, Seminarians Retreat this summer. Hope to see you there!