Yesterday I wrote a post about the Philadelphia ban on outdoor feeding of the homeless. I wrote about how the issue here is not about hunger, it’s about choice. It’s also not a religious freedom issue, as some groups say. These feedings have been one way that Christians have tried to accomplish their call to serve the homeless. Banning these outdoor feedings does not ban our service, just one particular way we’ve done it. Lastly, I talked about how honoring someone’s dignity is more about acting for their greatest good more than it is about creating space for them to choose whatever they want.
Today, I want to talk about how this ban is actually good for the Gospel in this city.
Jesus & Outdoor Feeding
Many people, in editorials, comments, and cartoons, keep bringing Jesus into this discussion. I’ve heard several times now the joke about how, under this ban, Jesus would not have been able to preach the Sermon on the Mount in Philadelphia.
But if you look at the food-sharing that Jesus did, and in fact, in the whole Bible, you see some nuance here. Whenever Jesus could fit everyone inside, he seems to have actively worked to make it happen. Jesus eats with groups of people at Mary Magdelene’s house, Lazarus’ house, Zacheeus’ house, and in the “upper room” where he had the Last Supper.
In fact, the vast majority of Jesus’ ministry–food, teaching, and healing–all takes place inside temples, houses, and buildings. It’s also of note that one of Satan’s temptations of Jesus in the desert was to turn rock into bread for him to eat. He only ever had meals outside with people when there were too many to fit inside.
Also, looking at the book of Genesis, you see that the most important meals that take place where things go wrong, tend to be done outside (the Garden fruit, Cain/Abel’s offerings, Noah’s Vineyard, and Jacob’s stealing of Esau’s blessing). On the flip-side, the meals associated with the salvation of God’s people almost exclusively end up being inside (the Passover meal, the temple sacrifices, and even the Manna from the desert eventually ends up being placed in the Ark of the Covenant, kept in the middle of the Tabernacle/Temple).
I’ll be the first to admit that the above is a little weak and a little silly (though somewhat interesting, maybe?). I don’t expect anyone to build out a comprehensive theological view on outdoor feeding based on this. But, I do think it’s just as silly to base an exclusion of outside feeding based on these ideas as it is to base on exultation of outside feeding on other, similar ideas.
There is no “higher ethic” to feeding someone outdoors compared to indoors. In fact, if you want to talk biblically and to talk about how Jesus would most likely do it, I hope the above demonstrates it’s easier to build a case exalting indoor meals to the exclusion of outdoor.
A Theology of Food & Place
Though we can’t build a comprehensive theology of where to feed hungry people, I do believe there are some resources that the story of the Gospel has for us that can get us thinking theologically about this.
From the Garden fruit to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, food is seen as a material expression of much deeper aspects of our nature in the story of Redemption (most explicitly in the Garden Fruit, Passover Meal, Communion, and the heavenly Wedding Feast of the Lamb). Throughout Church history, fasting–refraining from food–has been a way to mark time, build discipline, focus hearts, meditate, and mourn. Sharing a meal with others is also the primary mark of hospitality towards strangers. It’s how we extend the work of God in our hearts towards others.
The hunger of our bodies for food points to the hunger of our souls for Christ. It hearkens towards his sustenance physically and spiritually: he himself is bread for our souls. Christians have a rich theology to help them view food. It is a sacrament through which they share Christ, his work having been done on themselves, and his work having been done for others.
If this is the function of food in our Story, we must then look at the context in which this Story unfolds to better understand how we might relate to this issue in Philadelphia. We need to look at our theology of place.
I’ve written before about how the opening chapters of the Bible show that God himself views this world as a “building” inside which he would work and appear and move.
Looking at the entire story of the Bible, you see that the story begins in a garden in this “building”–this “temple-world”–and ends with the City of God descending from the heavens and settling on earth so that God dwells among his people again. The Gospel begins in a garden and ends in a city.
Throughout the Bible, “being outside” is always seen as a picture of judgment, separation, isolation, trial, and not-yet-having-arrived; “being inside” is the picture of closeness, holiness, identity, and security. The Gospel begins outside and moves inside.
Further, this whole sweep of the story of God is to bring about shalom in the world. That word is commonly translated as “peace”, but in more accurately means “comprehensive wholeness”. The Garden of Eden was a place where material needs were met, but the City of God, at the end of the story, is a place where true, holistic, and comprehensive justice and care is extended to all. The Gospel begins with immediate material needs and moves towards comprehensive wholeness.
Preaching to the Choir
It’s my opinion that if our ministry of feeding the homeless in Philadelphia is truly centered around and shaped by the Gospel, it will be a ministry that takes people along the same story of the Gospel. It will move people from a life of “outside-ness” to “inside-ness”, while offering them the sacrament of food in which they can taste Christ and what he’s done for them.
This ban is one of the best chances the Church in Philadelphia has been offered to move people to the true dignity and security of being “inside” while also connecting them to the services necessary to bring about a level of shalom (“comprehensive wholeness”) into their lives.
This is exactly what the Mayor articulated in his FAQ on this, and this is exactly why Sister Mary Scullion of Project H.O.M.E. (who many consider the city’s “leading homeless advocate”) supports this measure (along with a couple of others).
I have many close and dear friends that are passionately against this ban. I hope with these ideas and the Story of the Gospel in our minds, we can see how this ban could be the catalyst for truly ministering to the neediest in our city; not in our own “pet” ways we’ve become accustomed to doing (and may have even seen some fruit in), but in the ways that truly and holistically love, dignify, serve, and feed our neediest brothers and sisters.