One of the main megathemes of the Bible is that the word of God feeds us. When Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness and it is suggested that he could turn the stones into bread, it is our Lord’s reply, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
Later in John’s Eucharistic discourse, we have the cautionary words of our Lord spoken after the feeding of the five thousand: “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but that which endures to eternal life.”
I suppose that most of us are familiar with the hierarchy of needs that was developed by Abraham Maslow around 1943. It was his contention that unless the more basic level needs such as food, clothing, shelter, sleep and the like were being met, it would be impossible for a person or a group of persons to function at a higher level. The more basic needs have to be met first. One cannot presume to teach reading, writing and arithmetic to a classroom of hungry students who have not had breakfast. That is why some schools have a breakfast program. One cannot presume to preach a sermon when it is 95 degrees, when all are thinking about how hot and sweaty they are (even the preacher). According to common sense as written up by Abraham Maslow it is impossible to do these things without addressing the other needs first.
But there comes a moment when the basic needs, being met, there is yet a hunger within the human heart. Maslow’s hierarchy actually addresses this also; beyond the physiological needs, he identifies the need for self-esteem; love and acceptance; and self-actualization. That is rather much what Jesus taught in his famous passage on the Sermon on the Mount, in which he pointed out that life is more than “what we shall eat and what we shall drink and what shall we wear,” in which we are reminded we cannot add to the measure of our lives by worry and anxiety—in fact we can diminish the same by worry and anxiety.
Back in 1977 when I was serving as a chaplain at Saint Luke’s Hospital Milwaukee, that hospital was one of a handful that was pioneering cardiac bypass surgery. Because the procedure was new, it was generally the case that the person who had the surgery was in the hospital for about three weeks. It was discovered that one of the mitigating factors that affected recovery came in the second week, because it was at that point the patient had recovered enough to be worried about what the bill was going to be and how he/she was going to be able to afford to pay for all the treatment received. Part of the challenging aspect of the chaplain’s job was to try to bring a sense of interior peace to some people who were highly agitated. You cannot lengthen your life by anxiety; but you can diminish it.
In the reading from Amos, we have the solemn warning of a famine, not of bread or wine or oil, but of hearing the word of God. We live in times such as that and we see the consequences of that all around us, in every aspect of human life. The famine of hearing the word of God is just as debilitating to the human spirit as a famine of food. For without feeding the higher end of the hierarchy of needs, we never get to the level of building the self-esteem, the sense of love and belonging and self-actualization. The ills of our culture are profoundly spiritual. They are the consequence of living in a wasteland where most of us can have everything we might wish—that is everything but life and spirit. You know what they call it when they put you in a place where food, clothing and shelter are provided. One name for it is warehousing.
Like Mary in the Gospel, we need to learn to sit at the feet of Jesus. And that is very difficult to do in our time and place. Unless we find the time to sit and listen and to be fed spiritually, should we be surprised that we are still hungry?