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New Horizons

You Are Not What You Eat

Ken B. Montgomery

“You are what you eat.” This saying was coined by German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach who claimed that humans are material beings and no more. Today, our obsession with food—its source, ingredients, preparation, and presentation—exposes a hunger for meaningfulness even in the material.

According to an article in New York Magazine, “food is now viewed as a legitimate option for a hobby, a topic of endless discussion, a playground for one-upmanship, and a measuring stick of cool” (March 25, 2012). As one food critic quips, “the unexamined meal is not worth eating.”

Can Christians be foodies? Certainly, Christians may enjoy food of all sorts as God’s gift (see Gen. 9:3; 1 Tim. 4:4). Such is the commendation of the sage preacher: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God” (Eccl. 2:24). Yet at the same time, believers are reminded that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).

Foodie-ism becomes dangerous when it assigns a transformative value to food that food inherently lacks. Do you look to what’s on the table to change and renew your inner nature in some way? Is what you consume your all-consuming focus? Are you serving your taste buds and seeking to satisfy your stomach at all costs? If so, being a foodie quickly begins to look like being a glutton. Peter writes, “Whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved” (2 Pet. 2:19).

Clean Food, Clean Heart?

As we read the gospel accounts, we find rather uncanny resemblances between foodie-ism and Pharisaism. The Pharisees were consistently critical of Jesus and his disciples regarding food and related matters—suspiciously observing what the Lord and his followers ate, how they ate it, and with whom they ate. The shared supposition of foodies and Pharisees is that filling ourselves with “clean” food will translate into making us “clean” people. If we take in what is good and pure, then we will produce what is good and pure. It’s that easy and simple.

Our Lord Jesus addresses this tacit ideology in Mark 7. He states, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (vs. 16). The reason? “Since it [food] enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled” (vs. 19). There is a play on words here: what you eat doesn’t go to your heart (Greek: kardia) but into your stomach (Greek: koilia). Food (whether “clean” or “unclean”) does not go to the center and seat of your being, but to your digestive system. Most English translations seek to be more civilized than what Jesus actually said, which is that what you eat ends up in your stomach, and is eventually expelled “into the loo,” as the British would put it.

Jesus then locates the source of impurity not in what is external to us (including meats and drinks), but in the fountainhead of our hearts: “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder…all these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:21, 23). What defiles and corrupts us is not in certain victuals but in our vital regions! Our Lord then zeroes in on what is truly full of toxins and poison: our inner nature, conceived and born in sin (see Psalm 51:5).

The Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn insightfully wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts” (The Gulag Archipelago, part 4, chapter 1).

Seeking True Food

As we minister the gospel in the context of the rise of foodie-ism, where celebrity chefs are the “gurus of this age” and many are devoting an overly obsessive attention to what is eaten, what can we take from the Lord’s teaching in this text?

First, there is now liberty to eat all manner of foods, because included in this instruction is Mark’s inspired observation that Jesus “declared all foods clean” (7:19). Christians should beware of assigning spiritual significance to one kind of food over another and avoid embracing any silly suggestions that the Bible prescribes a particular diet for individual believers. We need not be too persnickety about what we choose to eat, or in how we assess the dietary choices of our fellow Christians (see also Rom. 14).

Secondly, if guilt is not to be found in foods that are consumed, neither is cleansing from guilt to be sought in such either. All food has an expiration date, and our Lord commands us, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life” (John 6:27). What is that enduring food but the Word of God? It is through this Word that we experience the true inner catharsis, definitive purification: “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you” (John 15:3). The author of Hebrews exhorts the church: “It is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them” (Heb. 13:9). Here is milk to drink and meat to eat that does the church body good.

Thirdly, as the church gathers regularly to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we rejoice in partaking of a meal given to signify and seal our union with our Savior and with one another as brothers and sisters in God’s redeemed family. In other words, here is one antidote against the elitism and one-upmanship of foodie-ism and Pharisaism, for at this table all have the same status as saints in Christ, and there is no distinction (1 Cor. 12:13). In eating this bread and drinking this cup, all communicants together are engaged in gospel proclamation (1 Cor. 11:26), thereby nullifying all bragging-rights in ourselves and “pouring contempt on all (our) pride.”    

The author is pastor of Christ Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Marietta, Georgia. New Horizons, December 2019.

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