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bread by Tom Burke CC BY-NC 2.0
The Brink

Bread, Hunger, and Commensality: Food Symbols of Emancipation and Solidarity in the Theopolitical Imagination of Jesus in the Gospels

Bread is given to satisfy not only material hunger, but also to respond to emotional, political, and spiritual hunger: it expresses a desire for fraternal and sororal relationships, a desire for the Other.

When I give bread to the poor, they call me saint.

When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist

Herder Cámara


The religious symbol of food is multilayered, with a myriad of meanings, not only to theological and religious studies, but also to other fields, such as philosophy, anthropology, sociology, politics, and other studies in humanities and sciences. We offer here a brief theological exploration on the symbol of food as bread and bread as food, particularly in some biblical narratives, mostly within the Gospels, with references to Jesus’ envisioning food matters regarding bread, hunger and commensality. Jesus’ food practices and symbols are both theological as well as political, or theopolitical. A theological understanding of the figure of bread point out to a material gift coming from God that not only nourishes our bodies, but also inaugurates a sense of time and space that enables a politics founded upon “Eucharistic communities”, a body-politics of commensality. The main message of Jesus’ words and gestures regarding bread, hunger, and commensality can help us imagine and create a communal space of resistance and transformation, even in the midst experiences of contrast, in a world and planet that hungers. Bread is given to satisfy not only material hunger, but also to respond to emotional, political, and spiritual hunger: it expresses a desire for fraternal and sororal relationships, a desire for the Other. 

Jesus as Bread of Life

The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) provide a continuation and a theological turn, envisioning bread in resonance with the Hebrew Scriptures where God attends to our hunger God and invites to feed a hungry planet. Now, at the heart of the Gospels, the very source of food, God as bread, God as food. In Hebrew theology bread is an integral source of food, as well as it is a manna, more than material nutrition, bread from heaven. Manna=Food is also symbol of God with us, of making community with God which then is further translated and transformed into ritual spaces and various religious ceremonies. Jesus follows this manna Hebrew tradition where bread, as a gift from God, is not to become a private property, for it should be shared in community. Bread, then, represents a biblical tradition that understands food as an invitation to offer hospitality and care, particularly towards the most vulnerable in society: the poor, widows, foreigners, infants and the elderly. Giving bread to others, especially to those who live in a precarious situation and those who hunger, echoes God’s generosity, hospitality, and caring love. Jesus in the Gospels continues with this biblical tradition, and, also, integrates a vision of Sophia—God’s Wisdom—from the sapiential Hebrew texts, where Sophia is a symbol of God’s gift as wisdom that feeds the wise, prophets, and everyone who desires and loves God. Jesus’ message reiterates the Hebrew tradition that understands bread a reminder of his own “sophianic” nature that expresses divine and human desire for interhuman, interplanetary communion, as well as for making community with God.  

Before beginning his public message, Jesus fasts for forty days in the desert, following the tradition of the wandering Hebrew people in the desert in search of the promised land. During these forty days of fasting, Jesus goes hungry and is tempted to turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger, and, at the same time, to show his divine power. However, Jesus maintains the biblical Hebrew tradition that envisions the word of God as a source of sustenance, since humans do not live on bread alone (Mt 4, 1-4).  Jesus overcomes this temptation by feeding only on God, by re-signifying in his own flesh this passage from the book of Deuteronomy that considers everything that comes from the mouth of God as a full source of sustenance and empowerment.

Because of his subversive teachings, Jesus had many followers, but he also gained all sorts of enemies. Perhaps one of the most subversive messages are found in his many food symbols and provoking eating practices. The religious, economic, and political elites of his time criticized Jesus for eating and sharing the table with the undesirables of society: drunkards, prostitutes, pagans, foreigners, the sick, the disable, and the sinners (Lk 7, 34). Jesus subverts the scheme of societies founded upon exclusion, and, instead, promotes communities of inclusion based on practices of breaking and sharing bread with those who live in the diaspora. Not only are his eating practices a sign of subversion, but also his public message about the “kingdom of God” imagines a “queer” politics of radical inclusion, solidarity, and communion, particularly to the most vulnerable and marginalized in society. Mainly through out parables, Jesus imagines another possible world, a communal space and time where the blessed ones are those who hunger and thirst for justice (Mt 5, 3-12). Even some of his miracles, such as the multiplication of loaves and fish, or the transformation of water into wine, represent the imaginary of this theopolitics wherein God, humanity, and the planet become one community of love, solidarity, and resistance to hatred, violence, exploitation, and death as a final destiny.

When Jesus presents himself as the “bread of eternal life” (Jn 6), bread becomes a christic figure, prefiguring the Eucharistic banquet celebrated by Christians since the earliest times of Christianity. Jesus calls himself the true manna that feeds the life of the community, intensifying the bond between God and creation by means of sharing bread/food. This communitarian and commensal sense of bread is already implicit in the prayer of the Our Father, a prayer that Jesus teaches to his disciples (Mt 6, 9-13; Lk 11, 1-4). This prayer is paradigmatic of a hermeneutics performed by Jesus that glimpses daily bread as a gift offered by God, and as a reiteration of our fraternal-sororal communal filiation to God. Eucharistic celebrations are vestiges of the emergence of a liturgical and political practice that involves gestures such as the breaking and sharing of bread in communal contexts, collectively celebrating God’s presence given as food, in order to invite all to become food for others, to become Eucharistic.

The Eucharist imagines signs overlapping, to the point of cosmic dimensions. Death and life are intertwined; divine self-offering and the gift of the resurrection constitute one another; self-emptying as well as plenitude glimpsing a paradoxical gift wherein self-offering surpasses and exceeds death and sacrificial religion. The Last Supper narrates this interweaving, where the Paschal celebration of eating a lamb offered to God, becomes the self-offering of Jesus himself, as the Messiah paradoxically overcoming sacrificial religion. Now, the first ingestion of the forbidden fruit, for which Adam and Eve are expelled from paradise, begins to be imagined as a happy ingestion, where Christ, as the Eucharist, as the bread of eternal life, recreates the cosmos, reunifying the bond of love between God and humanity. These Eucharistic and cosmic vestiges representing God as the bread of eternal life appear in various resurrection narratives, where the risen Jesus is only recognized through his gestures of breaking and sharing bread to his disciples. Such are the cases found, for example, in the pericope of the road to Emmaus, in Luke 24. Another example of the cosmic and Eucharistic symbol of bread is found in the narratives of miraculous fishing; on the one hand, there are the miracles in the synoptic Gospels (Mt 4, 13-22; Mk 1, 26-20: Lk 5, 1-11); and other hand, there is the miraculous fishing narrated by the Gospel of John, after the resurrection of Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (Jn 21, 1-14). In this Johannine passage, the risen Jesus is also recognized by his disciples in a miraculous catch of fish in which Jesus reiterates his invitation to form communities nurtured by collective love and care.

During early Christian history, the earliest communities of followers of this messaged suffered persecution, torture, and martyrdom. They met clandestinely in catacombs to commemorate some stories, sayings, hymns, and food practices that re-enacted Jesus’ gestures of blessing the bread, breaking and sharing it, drinking wine from the same cup, praying the Our Father. Although they all are diverse, they are one body in Christ, an extravagant body-politics nurtured by the gift of the Holy Spirit invoked in the middle of a both a banquet of eros (desire) and agape (plenitude). Christ configures a political imagination of the body of Christ. Commensaility, at the Eucharistic sharing, expresses a body-politics wherein humanity, creation, and God become one body.  

Conclusion: Food, Emancipation, and Transformation

I conclude by reiterating that bread and food are central figures in the biblical tradition. It could even be suggested that the biblical texts introduce the symbol of bread as a political sign of emancipation and solidarity, particularly towards those who are most vulnerable, who suffer not only material hunger, but also hunger and thirst for justice, love, and care.

Bread symbolizes food as such, but also represents community life, and the link between creation and God. The biblical tradition about Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels insinuates food as a theopolitical figure, of food as bread and bread as food that triggers our imagination, hoping for a better world, another possible world. Our daily bread is a prayer, but it is as well a call to action, to become attentive of our daily practices that relate with the Other—whether a piece of bread, another person, creation, and/or God.

We live in a hungry planet. Not only there is a food crisis with the increasing of hunger around the world, particularly within the poorest nations, and most frequently amongst sexual, gendered, and racial minorities. Jesus in the Gospels subverts this cycle of violence and of a necro-politics that annihilates bodies of abjection. Instead, the theopolitics of Jesus imagines a politics of attending to many experiences of hunger; a politics of the wellbeing and a more livable life for humanity and the planet; a theopolitics of a shared and inclusive table, where God and creation are united in a festive praxis of commensality. Food matters are as well ecological matters, since they represent our relationship with vegetation, animal life, as well as our relationship with diverse ecosystems, air and water, soil and sky, the visible and the invisible.

“We are what we eat”, and our foodways or food practices, traditions, and alimentary expressions manifest they ways we care (or not) for ourselves, one another, and the planet. Hopefully, we shall be invoked and provoked by Jesus’ theopolitical message regarding God’s presence with us through foodways that express justice, inclusion, and care. May our food practices become a perplexing source of sustenance that make positive and nourishing transformations at micro and macro planetary dimensions.

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Bread, Hunger, and Commensality: Food Symbols of Emancipation and Solidarity in the Theopolitical Imagination of Jesus in the Gospels

Bread is given to satisfy not only material hunger, but also to respond to emotional, political, and spiritual hunger: it expresses a desire for fraternal and sororal relationships, a desire for the Other.

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