Old Testament Reading:
New Testament Reading:
There is a thirst and a hunger that sooner or later steals
the soul of men and women. It is a thirst not for water, though
that is a consuming thirst; it is a hunger not even for love,
though that hunger gnaws like the worm of death. It is a hunger
and thirst for the sustenance unique to that highest part of the
human being: the soul, or if you prefer, the spirit.
Deuteronomy tells us, "One shall not live by bread alone, but
every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." But what if the
supply of that commodity should be cut off? Suppose, as Amos
says, there comes not a natural disaster, but a supernatural disaster: a
famine of the word of God. With what can you sustain
How does such a famine come to pass? It is not that there is
more of the enlivening word on which to feast. "Their sound is
gone out to all the world; there is no place where the voice of
them is not heard. Day unto day pours forth speech."
The word tolls in august silence as it has since the Morn of
Eternity. But we have grown deaf to it, till at last it has
become imperceptible to us, like one of those frequencies too
high for our ears, but which our dogs can hear just fine.
Heidegger described the resulting famine of the word of God
our day. It is a time of much and astute calculative thinking,
and equally a time when meditative thinking has become a lost and
esoteric art, like mummification.
Though in the prophecy of Amos we see people desperate to
the missing Word, I think that the famine conditions he speaks of
will sooner or later lull the one who starves as to the danger
of his position.
In a final gesture of mercy, Nature has decreed that those
freeze to death contract frostbite and feel an illusory warmth in
their last hours. In the same way, the body contains a famine
mechanism, whereby, once the dearth of food becomes evident, the
metabolic rate slows down to make the most of what it has left.
I think the same thing occurs in the realm of the spirit.
spiritual sustenance is denied us we begin by feeling an ache,
but as we become used to it, we feel less pain. We are slowly
starving nonetheless, but we no longer know it. And, dare I
suggest it?, we may actually perish spiritually and not know it.
That may sound absurd, but it is only the equivalent of
A patient loses all brain function but her heart continues
to beat, perhaps because of a life support machine, maybe not.
Are they legally alive or not? They are certainly alive in one
respect but not another.
The ancient Gnostics dared to say this: that there are a
many people who are spiritually dead, even though they are
vibrant when it comes to their physical and psychological parts.
Kierkegaard made pretty much the same point in The
Death. He said that the repentant Christian may seem to be a sick
and morose individual, but it is only because he has not yet sunk
into terminal frostbite like most of those around him! Everyone
else is far sicker! So sick in fact that they have become quite
accustomed to their malady and even enjoy it.
The dis-ease of the Christian is a final attempt to throw off
fever before it is too late. He seems sick only because he is not
so well adjusted to a sick society as everyone else is!
It is just such a state of sickness, of the false feeling of
anorexic surfeiting, that Jesus describes in the Gospel of Thomas, saying
I took my stand in the midst of the world, and in flesh I
appeared to them; I found them all drunk, I found none of
them athirst. And my soul was afflicted for the sons of men,
because they are blind in their heart and do not see that
empty they have come into the world and that empty they seek
to go out of the world again. But now they are drunk. When
they have shaken off their wine, then will they repent.
It is to just such an awakener from the spiritual stupor of
starvation that Jesus in Matthew's gospel promises, "Blessed are
those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall
Poor Matthew has taken a bit of heat for his redaction, that is,
his editorial rewriting of this saying. Most scholars think that
the saying originally stood as we read it in Luke 6:20, "Blessed
are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied." Similarly,
Thomas has, "Blessed are the hungry, for the belly of him who
desires will be filled" (saying 69b).
In a more socially conscious time we tend to look askance at
Matthew, as if he has taken a radical saying of peasant revolution and
turned it into something equivalent to "let them eat
But I will defend Matthew. We cannot know what his motive
but the result of his editorial work is a gem of spirituality. I
am glad we have the more down-to-earth version of Luke and Thomas, but we
cannot do well without Matthew's promise of escape
from spiritual famine.
Matthew serves notice that if we find ourselves in a parched
land, then we need not remain there. As Naomi and her sons went
from starving Israel
to Edom, as
Abraham went to Egypt
so may the soul that hungers and thirsts for righteousness find
surcease. There is a place to go. There is recourse. One need not
starve to death spiritually from a want of righteousness or of
spiritual bread. "They shall be filled."
How can they not be?
What can prevent your gaining the added
righteousness and spiritual growth you want?
The fact is that by coming to desire it you are already being
filled! You have not only taken the first step, you have covered
most of the distance!
Here is the great paradox of spiritual satisfaction: it is,
Derrida might say, the empty trace, the shadow, the cinder, of dissatisfaction!
You see, the fullness of the spirit is absence. It is
and receptivity is an always-emptiness. It is only when one
says, "Fill my cup, Lord, I lift it up, Lord, Come and quench
this longing of my soul," that one can truly say, "My cup runneth
The New Testament, I think, is fairly clear on this. Listen.
The Angel-Messiah of the Apocalypse says to the church at
Laodicea, "I know your works;
you are neither hot nor cold. Would that you were one or the other! But because
neither, I will vomit you forth. You say, 'I am rich, I have
prospered, and I need nothing;' not knowing you are pitiful
wretches, poor, blind, and naked" (Revelation -17).
the self-assured complacency of the Corinthians:
"Already you are filled! Already you have become rich! With
out us you have become kings! And would that you did reign,
so that we might reign with you!" (1 Corinthians 4:8)
Jesus warns of the slow and imperceptible process of spiritual
slippage that can occur in the spiritual life--until one
day there is no spiritual life. "The kingdom of the Father is
like a woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she
was walking on a distant road, the
handle of the jar broke. The meal streamed out behind her on the road. She did
know; she had noticed no accident. After she came into her
house, she put the jar down and found it empty" (Thomas, 97).
In the spiritual life, hunger and thirst are the only sign of
health and safety, because, as Schleiermacher knew, spirituality
is receptivity. Really, it is the same with any learning. This is
recognized as the mark of wisdom that one should first recognize
one's utter ignorance. Once, during my first incarnation at Drew,
I had as a classmate a woman who was always trying to reduce new
material to the familiar proportions of some idea she already
knew. "That's pretty much the same as so-&-so, right?"
She didn't want to have to exert the effort to stretch her
around a new concept. So if she could maneuver the professor into
admitting that some theory really boiled down to this or that
familiar notion, then she figured she already had that one covered
and she could relax. Only this way she didn't learn anything.
If you want to learn anything, you have to be honest with your
self that there is a lot you don't know and that you need to
know. If you want to get somewhere, you have to realize you're
not there already! I don't know about you, but if I'm on a long
trip, and I see I've still got a long way to go, maybe longer
than I had thought, my reaction is not to slow down and say, "Why
bother!" Rather, I start to speed up!
And that's the way it is in the spiritual journey, too. It is
only the one who knows herself to be "poor in spirit" who may
even hope to attain to "the spiritual riches that are in Christ
You can't grow spiritually and then stop. By definition,
is an ongoing process. There will never be a point where you will
have finally arrived. If you stop it means you are stalled--or
And to keep going you must continually make yourself aware of
far you have yet to go. You cannot become satisfied, for in the
moment you do, you starve. To keep filling up, you must stay
empty! "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteous
ness, for they shall be filled." How? Slowly, like an hour-glass.
It fills up grain by grain, as each slips through a narrow hole.
That is an apt analogy, I think, because we are such unspiritual
creatures, our minds so distracted by the flesh and the world
around us, that we can deal with only one spiritual insight or
experience at a time.
And this gradualness of spiritual growth may seem
may be so slow in coming that you feel frustrated. You may not be
able to see any growth going on at all. But others will see.
And it will happen faster the less you concentrate on it.
Introspection is the last thing you need. Don't focus on the
stomach pangs, but on where to find the bread!
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for
they shall be filled." Where, you may ask, is the bread line?
Open your Bible. Read in the Psalms, the Proverbs, the Gospels. I
think you will not be long in finding something to suit your
palette, and more importantly, to nourish your soul, even if it
may at first seem strong medicine.
And the eucharist. Surely that is spiritual nourishment. But
course there is also looming quickly on the horizon our congregational
retreat. I am asking you to plan to approach it in the
spirit of receptivity, open to spiritual counsel and opportunity.
Don't just look at it as another wearying discussion of church
policy or planning. Go as one hungered invited to the table.
Robert M. Price
Robert M Price
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