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Jesus' Hunger Strike

Luke 4:1-13

Luke 4:1-13 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 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. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,

and serve only him.’”

9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,

to protect you,’

11 and

‘On their hands they will bear you up,

so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.


At the end of the Summer of 1965, thousands of farm workers in California organized a strike against the owners of the grape farms where they worked. They wanted to be paid the federal minimum wage and for their bosses to stop using pesticides that made them sick. The strike lasted five years, but after the efforts of the workers and their communities (including in some cases their churches), they won a wage agreement that helped over 10,000 workers. This victory required a variety of strategies, but one of the most significant moments came in 1968, at a particularly low moment. That’s when one of the organizers, a devout Catholic named Cesar Chavez, tried to gain support for their cause by going on a hunger strike.

Chavez’s hunger strike in the California desert was a way of telling the truth about the world: in refusing to eat he showed solidarity with his neighbors who were already hungry and he told the bosses that the poor would not accept their meager wages anymore even at tremendous risk to themselves. The story of what he was doing spread all over the country; many, including Martin Luther King, Jr. voiced their support, which helped the workers hold on for two more years until they got what they needed. His fast wasn’t only about spiritual purification (though it was that too), but also resistance to the powers and solidarity with those who are not hungry by choice.

Lent as Hunger Strike

I’ve been thinking about that story this week since on Wednesday Christians all over the world began the season of Lent. Lent is a fast, a time when the church tells the story of a poor laborer named Jesus going into the wilderness to struggle against the boss of this world, the devil. The devil tempts him to cross the picket line with comfort and an ownership stake of his own and the promise that things will work out if he just goes along; but Jesus holds on because he’s come to organize a different world than the devil has arranged. In the devil’s world, the many go hungry while a few feast. Jesus fasts to break with that world so that we can begin moving toward another one.

I know that might sound like a strange way to talk about what Jesus is doing in the wilderness. I was always taught that fasting is as an inner, spiritual practice; we might all fast at the same time, but its really about me denying myself something I enjoy or am used to. This teaches me to restrain myself and it reminds me of my need for God. That can be a part of fasting, but I don’t think it really gets at what Jesus is doing here.

In this story, fasting isn’t just a denial of the self; it’s a denial of what is normal. Eating is never an individual act; our food comes from networks of production and consumption that order our entire world and our individual lives. This economy is so pervasive we hardly even think about it. How often do you remember the workers who grew your food when you’re in the produce section of the grocery store? They are mostly invisible, on the opposite end of a supply chain that we take as given, as normal. And because these patterns are normal, we don’t have to stop and ask if they’re good. Even if we wanted to, we would probably feel powerless against them, as though some kind of inertia keeps them in place.

Part of what a fast does is set that inertia in motion, making us name these unthought features of our lives. When something that I take for granted isn’t there anymore, I can see it for what it is and then maybe say I don’t want to be a part of this anymore. I don’t like the way this has become a part of me. A fast opens up the possibility that we can live differently. We can create new habits, tomorrow does not have to look the same as yesterday.

Jesus doesn’t fast to show us as individuals how to punish our flesh properly (in our time, I don’t think we need to be trained in how to hate our bodies; that is one of the givens of our world); he fasts to start rearranging what’s normal. The book of Isaiah puts it this way in chapter 58:

Is such the fast that I choose,

a day to humble oneself?

Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,

and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?

Will you call this a fast,

a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

That is the kind of fast that God desires; that’s what Lent could be for, a time to be honest about our histories of injustice, ancient, recent and present, communal and personal, so that together we do something different that is truly acceptable to the Lord. But in order to be free of those histories, we have to be honest about them.

The Opposite of Fasting

Jesus goes into the desert to fast so that he can tell the truth about the world. But when he gets there, the devil tempts him that this isn’t necessary. If fasting in the wilderness was an act of refusing what’s normal, then the temptation of the devil is to maintain, to leave in place. The temptation of the devil is to look back at our histories of hunger and the current injustices of our world and say, “Actually, that’s not so bad.”

The opposite of fasting, of honest confession and lament, is not pleasure; it’s nostalgia. When the children of Israel begin to wander in the wilderness, it’s not long after they’ve crossed the Red Sea that they begin to pine for Egypt. God gives a decisive “no” to their bondage and invites them to walk toward a land overflowing with milk and honey, but in the meantime, they’re not sure where their next meal is coming from. So they say, “Why did God bring us out here to starve? Back in Egypt we sat around pots of meat and our bellies were full.”

The primary temptation of the wilderness is the temptation to nostalgia, to retreat from new possibilities into what feels familiar. Instead of facing the hunger of the moment, and being honest that it was kind of scary and then moving forward toward the Promised Land, they imagine a pristine past that keeps them from dealing with their present.

There are two big problems with this: first of all, nostalgia tends to be inaccurate. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt. Pharaoh worked them to death and killed a whole generation of their sons. They did not sit around pots of meat and eat their fill. The reminiscing they do is fantasy. A writer named Fred Jameson says that nostalgia works by creating a sense of a past that erases history in order to maintain the present. Nostalgia is really just a feeling of “pastness” that’s designed to insulate us from the changes of time (the changes which history describes and often justifies). There is no pristine past—there’s no 1950’s small town without segregation, there’s no Christendom without colonization, there’s no perfect early church that we can go back to—but nostalgia lets us imagine there was so that we don’t have to let go of anything now.

I think the best recent example of nostalgia might be The Andy Griffith Show. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, “My childhood was just like growing up in Mayberry.” I’ve heard people say that about growing up in this church. Andy Griffith himself said that he wanted the show to evoke nostalgia, and it became so popular because it aired from 1960-1968, when the historical realities of that time were filled with massive change: the threat of nuclear war at its most feverish, the slaughter of the Vietnam War; but also the women’s liberation movement; desegregation and the Civil Rights Act; the beginnings of environmental activism; and Cesar Chavez’s farm workers movement. “Mayberry” was invented so that a growing white middle class could feel an escape from the changes of their time. The show manufactures a “pastness” that worked because it let people escape (or oppose) the way the world was changing.

And this is the other problem with nostalgia: its a mirage. The Israelites are in the desert. They’re not going back to Egypt. They wouldn’t really want to and what, is God going to re-open the Red Sea so they can walk back into bondage? No, but while they fixate on their flesh pots they can’t get moving. That’s the real temptation of nostalgia, that instead of breaking with the present and going where God is calling us to go, instead of allowing or encouraging change for the good, we hold onto a certain kind of present and it just leaves us stuck.

God’s Kingdom in Motion

This is why it’s so important that Jesus presses on. The devil tempts him to maintain the way things are. Just like the Israelites, Jesus was hungry. He’s uncomfortable, he’s irritated, he’s dissatisfied. And the devil says to him, “Hey, remember food? Remember when you had as much of it as you needed. Turn these stones into bread. Eat. Don’t be uncomfortable, don’t be dissatisfied. Don’t worry about the way things are going wrong. Life’s too short, don’t let yourself get all worked up with negativity.”

And then the Devil says, “Yeah the kingdom of God, you’re right, that sounds great. You can be a king after God’s own heart just like David, he did everything right! Here’s the throne. We’ll take Caesar right off there, he kept it warm for you. We’ve got this whole world organized—the colonies, the slaves, the roads—we just need someone like you with a real heart to manage it, who has the guts to change the system from within.”

And lastly he says, “You’ve just got to give yourself over. The way the world works, the normal, the status quo, it’s natural, it’s like gravity. I know the Bible says all that stuff about loving your neighbor and taking care of the environment but you’ve got to live in the real world. Take the leap, go with the flow, and if that doesn’t make sense, you know God is good, everything works out in the end.” Don’t fast, don’t lament, don’t try to change things too drastically.

But Jesus says, “We do not live on bread alone. There are some things that are worth our hunger. There are some dissatisfactions that should be explored and expanded rather than numbed with bread and circus.”

And then he says, “Worship the Lord your God alone. My kingdom is not from this world. It erupts and interrupts and doesn’t follow in succession. I’m not singing the next verse of the same miserable song; I come to silence that song so we can break into a new chorus. I don’t want your throne because I already have one, and it’s not where you think it is.”

And finally he says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test. Maybe we shouldn’t live in such a way that we need God to be this deus ex machina who gets us out of our own worst consequences. Maybe real faith calls us to live in a way that doesn’t bring about those consequences in the first place. Maybe we can break these patterns instead of being drawn into them.”

At every step of the way, the devil says, let’s keep things the same and at every step of the way Jesus answers, “No, God’s doing a new thing here. I’m not making bread until it feeds thousands, not just one. I’m not having a kingdom that preserves the old injustices and inequalities. I’m making things new so that you don’t have to test God; God’s love will be evident in your love for one another. And in that new world, I’m going to feed the many, we’re going to hold all things in common, and my love for you will burn like the sun so that you never have to test it.”

There is a promised land beyond this wilderness, but we have to be honest about where we are now if we want to get there. So we enter Lent not to beat ourselves up, but to take the time to tell the truth about our world, to refuse being numbed by what we’ve been taught is normal, to reject the nostalgia that gaslights us into saying things are OK when they are not. Like Jesus, we step into the break and let our hunger grow. It is uncomfortable, even painful, but the promised land on the other side of this wilderness is worth our hunger. But we’ll only get there by God’s grace and our struggle. Amen.

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