Beatitudes: When Appetite is a Blessing

February 26, 1995


When Appetite Is A Blessing

I wondered one day how a new player on a college team was doing, and when I asked, the coach said: “I like him! He’s hungry!” We both knew he wasn’t talking about calories but about longing — a boy not content with what he was, eager to be more. Those of us in this room probably understand the metaphor better than the literal reality. Very few of us have gone to bed at night parched with thirst or gripped by hunger pains, or, worse yet, heard our children cry because we had no food for them. Even as a child in the years of the Great Depression I never once stopped to consider that my life might depend on the next meal. I just assumed the next meal would be there, and it always was. And to be honest with you, giving thanks at the table often took on a hollow sound since the issue was never really in doubt. I was more thankful for hot cornbread and black-eyed peas than I was for spinach but the idea that they might not be there at all never occurred to me.
Furthermore, it never occurred to me as a child to consider appetite one of life’s great blessings. My intake was so constant and so plentiful that I’m sure my parents worried more about financing it than viewing it as a blessing. And later, when there were three healthy children in my own family, I learned the truth of a comment I saw one day in a 16th century book of household economy that said: “Young children and chickens eat without ceasing.” I marvel at a grandson in Oklahoma City who eats more between meals than most of us do at mealtime, but behind my son’s predictable lament about the cost of feeding Blue I hear a note of joy because appetite is one of the signs of good health. And it’s a blessing simply because eating itself is such a basic and dependable pleasure. Being hungry, and then being satisfied at the table, is celebrated the world over, and in fact the favorite image for the kingdom in the message of Jesus is of a banquet, to which all who come hungry are satisfied.
The people to whom he spoke could feel the force of what he said better than we do. When they said “Give us this day our daily bread” it was not a ceremonial utter-ance as it was when we said the words in unison this morning. They lived on the edge of starvation, hunger a life and death matter — they could pray that prayer with real urgency. And when he spoke of thirst they could respond with an intensity most of us can only imagine. We turn on a tap, and the water flows instantly….all we want. But in the world of our Beatitude cisterns and wells and an occasional spring were centers of life. Families feuded over them, nations went to war to possess them. Most of us, on the other hand, could go for days, probably weeks, on food and water in the frig, in the freezer, and on the shelves, without starving. I’ve spent precious time trying to get the setting right for this particular prescription for happiness because it if isn’t right we fail utterly to understand it. When Jesus says he wants people to hunger and thirst after goodness, he’s not describing a vague preference for doing the right thing, that kind of antiseptic, let’s-be-nice-and-stay-out-of-trouble goodness that marks the average life. He’s declaring that God bestows his favors not on those of us who are self-sufficient , but on those of us who are starving for a better self.
I relate the words, inevitably, to the two professions in which I have spent my life: how in the university I spent far too much time trying to coax students into wanting something for which they had no consuming appetite , watching eagerly for the first faint signs of genuine hunger; and of how in churches people often come on mornings like this more from habit or social custom than because they are starving for the food of mind and heart. Many centuries before his fellow prophet came along to speak these Beatitudes, the Buddha understood that the noble life is not for dilettantes. He vowed that he would die in his tracks unless he could find the way of life. After he thought he had, a man came asking that he, too, might be shown. The Buddha, reading him perceptively I suppose, took him to a river where the man thought he was to be ritually cleansed. Instead, when they were well out into the stream the Buddha suddenly grabbed the man and held his head under water. When the man wrenched himself free in desperation, and got his head up , his Teacher asked him quietly: “When you thought you were drowning, what did you desire most?” And when, still gagging and gasping the man shouted, “Air!” the reply was: “When you want the way of life and goodness as much as you wanted air, you will find it.”
So, the later Prophet said, those who wish to follow his way of life have to leave self behind, risk losing some things to find a better self, and we are as likely to choke on that as the man was who came to the Buddha. Leave self behind? Have you ever seriously tried to consider how much of all we think and do and dream about centers upon self? What we would look like if a magic camera could show the true size of self in all our decisions? And whether, even if we saw the truth, we would wish urgently to make a change? What Christ offers is not for dabblers and testers of the water: one who can say cooly, “I’m rather interested in Christ, I think, and the theories he taught” is not in line for the happiness promised in this Beatitude. It may embarrass you by sounding a bit too emotional, but the disposition the Beatitude requires is summed up in Paul’s exultant cry, “For me, to live is Christ!”
No real need, of course, to be embarrassed. Paul was a brilliant man who would not ask you in the middle of a symphony performance if you had accepted Jesus as your personal Savior, or accost you on a street corner. But if you seemed hungry for a different kindof life, he would tell you eagerly what he found , and how it had come to shape everything he did. You would know, meeting him, that about Christianity one cannot be complacent. When that happens, churches fill up with good people not really interested in the good life itself, in the creation of a new kind of humanity — which is what church is all about — but only in certain facets of the institution: its governance, its social life, its aesthetic offerings, even the economic advantages possible through the contacts one makes. About some things we can be halfhearted and no harm is done. When we are halfhearted about the highest things, they turn rancid.