Feasting and fasting (February 1, 2015)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Daniel 1:5,8-17; Matthew 6:16-18

Long ago the anonymous author of the book of Daniel knew something that many people today are just now finding out for themselves: Eating vegetables is very healthy. That was the food Daniel and his three friends requested when King Nebuchadnezzer offered to feed them from the variety of delicious foods available in the royal kitchen. To understand why Daniel and his friends refused to accept the king’s offer, we need to know why they were in Babylon and what King Nebuchadnezzer intended to do with them.

The first six chapters of the book of Daniel contain a collection of traditional stories about Daniel, a Jewish hero and savant. Daniel is a faithful and observant Jew whom God enables to resist foreign practices that were incompatible with his Jewish faith. The literary setting of these stories is the beginning of the Babylonian captivity of Israel in the sixth century BCE, but most interpreters are agreed that these traditional stories were combined considerably later with a collection of apocalyptic visions to form the book of Daniel in the second century BCE.

Our lesson begins by introducing Daniel and his three friends, some of the brightest and best young men of Israel who had been taken to Babylon as captives in 597 BCE. Their Hebrew names were replaced with Babylonian names: Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, which honor Babylonian gods. King Nebuchadnezzer intended to prepare them for service in his expanding Babylonian empire. They would learn the Babylonian language and culture, and after having been thoroughly indoctrinated, they would be expected to help Nebuchadnezzer control Israel as a dependent part of the Babylonian empire.

Daniel 1:8-17 — Daniel’s kind of feasting
To eat the royal food, which had not been prepared according to Jewish food laws (kosher), would have defiled Daniel and his friends. On the other hand, if they did not eat the royal rations and became unhealthy, their keeper, the palace master, would incur the wrath of King Nebuchadnezzer. That could cost him his position and quite possibly his life.

So Daniel proposed a 10-day experiment to see if a diet of vegetables would leave him and his friends in poorer condition than other captives who ate the royal food. After 10 days, the Israelite contingent “appeared better and fatter” than those who had eaten the royal food. So the palace master allowed the Israelite captives to eat their vegetables rather than the king’s fancy — but not kosher — food.

As a reward for remaining faithful to their Jewish identity, God gave Daniel and his three friends “knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom.” Furthermore, Daniel received the ability to understand dreams and visions.

Matthew 6:16-18 — Jesus’ kind of fasting
Jesus criticizes people who made their fasting obvious by looking gloomy and sullen. (The translation “disfigure their faces” could be misleading, since the Greek term does not suggest any physical harm to a person’s face.) He does not condemn the practice of fasting, but he rejects the self-righteous attitude of those who call attention to their fasting. Jesus encourages those who fast to pay attention to their personal appearance so that there is no visible indication that they are fasting. God knows what is not visible and hence hidden and secret, Jesus says. And God will reward pious behavior when it is done in the right way.

Both of the Scripture passages in today’s lesson suggest that eating in the right way is important. Whether that is feasting on vegetables rather than sumptuous kingly fare or fasting without making a public show, eating in the right way reflects a person’s values.

Although obesity and many food-related diseases remain unsolved health problems in the U.S. today, there is a rising tide of concern for healthy eating. Most restaurants and dining rooms now offer vegetarian dishes that present vegetables in creative and tasty ways. Daniel and his friends would feel at home — if the vegetarian meals were also kosher. And Jesus would approve — as long as the eating was done without self-righteousness.

For discussion
A common saying is “We are what we eat.” Do your feasting or fasting habits reflect good stewardship of your body and the earth’s resources? How would you compare Christian, Jewish and Muslim practices with regard to food? We have recently celebrated another holiday season. For some people, post-holiday resolutions to lose weight have already been forgotten. Do you think there is any relationship between your eating habits and your faith?