Thursday, February 3, 2011

Spiritual Obesity

Our nation, it seems, has a problem with childhood obesity. The First Lady has made combating that epidemic her top priority. As I read today’s Old Testament lesson (Isaiah 55:1-13) I wonder, though, whether the problem has more to do with human nature than with childhood eating habits. Through the prophet’s words, the Lord asks, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”

The question is one many ask of today’s generation: “Why do overweight people eat unhealthful foods? If they’re dying of obesity, why don’t they stop eating? Why do they keep going to places like McDonald's rather than eating more sensibly?” Although Isaiah was using food as a metaphor for spiritual sustenance, I think the reply to the question is the same then as it is now: “Because it tastes good.” People eat unhealthful foods (and practice other harmful habits) because it feels good. It doesn’t matter that I know better. I also know that a tub of ice cream tastes good, and that reality is a lot easier for me to grasp than the concept of calories and weight gain.

Even though he already knows the answer, God wants to know why his people keep chasing after those things that cannot satisfy them. And the image of “spending money for that which is not bread” is the perfect way to convey that human predilection for false nourishment. Imagine this: a mother surprises her six-year-old son by giving him a $100 bill and telling him to go buy the family’s groceries for the week. With what sort of goodies will he return? If given a choice (and long enough to screw it up), human beings will always make the wrong choice. Part of the human condition is preferring what feels good over what is good for us. (Welcome to humanity!)

But in the lesson from Isaiah, God seems to have something else in mind. He declares to his people, “[H]e who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Buying things without money sounds a lot like not buying something at all. It sounds like being given something. To me, it seems as if God has decided to circumvent that side of the divine-human exchange that involves us—at least that part of us that pretends to know what’s best for us. Instead, God offers, “I will make with you an everlasting covenant.” Not a covenant that will continue only as long as you make good choices. Not an agreement that depends upon your contribution to the exchange. Instead of allowing humanity to choose God, God is making a covenant with his people that only involves his choice of us.

I wonder whether the cycle of poor choices breaks down when we hear someone say, “No matter what choice you make, I still choose you.” In that case, we no longer find ourselves needing to make a choice at all. Sure, we can make a choice. We can even make a bad choice—and we do…all the time. But God has already chosen us. He isn’t waiting on us anymore. That hasn’t worked for a long time.

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