Listening to Walter Brueggemann, it is impossible not to feel a sense of history. At 76 years old, as arguably the preeminent Old Testament scholar of our day, Brueggemann has written more than 58 books, many about the prophets of old. To hear him talk is to become convinced that you’re listening to one of those prophets, someone delivering a message directly from God. At a recent conference at Truett Seminary in Waco, TX, where the topic was prophetic preaching, I sat under his teaching for two days with a sense of reverence and gratefulness for the opportunity, and a growing understanding that what I was hearing would shape the way I approached the scriptures in future readings.
My first introduction to the work of Dr. Walter Brueggemann was back in 2003, with the release of a collection of his prayers, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth. I was helping out with Michael Card’s radio program at the time, and Mike had bought a stack to give copies to his friends that were coming by to do interviews for the program, friends like Sara Groves and Steve Green. After flipping through a copy, I immediately ordered one for myself, along with several copies to give away. I have since used it in various studies I’ve been a part of over the years where something different is needed to start us off, and am always moved by his words, always find a glimpse of the kind of person I want to be in the space between his words.
The second Brueggemann book I bought was The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness, and it has resided on my bedside table for the last four years, providing frequent encouragement and nudgings toward truth, a means that God has used to help me realign my priorities with His. Last Sunday morning, with a hot breakfast of farm-fresh eggs whipped and baked into a frittata in front of me, fresh mozzarella grated over the top of it, and a cup of espresso in my hand, I reread-for the tenth or twentieth time-one of my favorite sermons in the book, “What You Eat Is What You Get.” The text Brueggeman starts with is Proverbs 15:17, Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it, and with its discussion of the far-reaching impact of the choices we make, I thought the end of this sermon was an apt passage to highlight here on the Rabbit Room, particularly in light of our discussions of movies like Food, Inc. and the work of Wendell Berry.
We live between the nostalgia of what might have been, and a promise of what will surely be, when all are invited, the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame, the unacceptable, and us. All are welcomed, all at peace, all rejoicing, all loved, all fed, and just greens.
The wisdom teachers dare to assert that one of these meals is better than the other. There are choices to be made about diet, and one choice is not as good as another. Maybe we will conclude that herbs are not better than ox. In the world of social reality, however, what the proverb knows is that you cannot have only herbs or only ox. You get a whole world with each food, because food is a social reality in a social context. You cannot have just herbs or ox. You will get beef and strife, or greens and love, because what you eat is what you get. In choosing food we choose our style, our context, and our company, and our way in the world. In selecting our food, we act out our hopes and our yearnings. We tilt our life toward some satisfaction. One is better than the other-herbs with love, ox with strife-because herbs with love lets us be who we in fact are, lets us live as God would have us live, lets us be who we most yearn to be, in peace, safe, in love.
The choices of ox and herbs, of greens and beef, of love or strife, are not little family choices made in private when you go into the kitchen. They are big, far-ranging public choices concerning foreign policy and budget and land reform and dreams. We do not pick our food just before dinner. We pick our food by how we value life, and how we build policy and how we shape law, and how we arrange money, and how we permit poverty and hunger in a land of abundance. The proverb might envision life in the palace with too much meat, and the peasants with none. Perhaps the proverb is a picture of the wealthy man and Lazarus, or of wealthy North Americans overfed and Latin Americans at risk without land. Perhaps the image is of empty tables in the dust of Soweto and luxury stores in Johannesburg, perhaps of kosher affluence in Jerusalem and empty rice bowls in the Gaza Strip. We choose our food and we choose our life. We sit at the table, somewhere between nostalgia for the good old days and hope for what God has promised, somewhere between what might have been and what will surely be. And we make a choice. Mostly we choose our future not with our minds thinking clearly, but with our stomachs and appetites and ambitions, making or not making time to care, or time to love, or time for strife.