At the death of Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, the world of economics lost one of its most influential thinkers. He is perhaps best known for popularizing the saying “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” which is now a common English dictum.
Though consumer-trained eyes, we understand this phrase as Friedman intended: Anything billed “free of charge” still has a bill attached. It is both economic theory and lay opinion. Whatever goods and services are provided, someone must pay the cost. Thus, economically, we see that the world of business is first and foremost about profit and market share. And cynically, we suspect that every kind gesture or free gift has a hidden motive, cost, or expectation attached.
It was strange, then, to find myself thinking of “free lunches” as I was approaching the meal Christians call communion, the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist, which comes from the Greek eucharistia, meaning thanksgiving. I approached the altar, hands outstretched to receive a broken piece of unleavened bread and I wondered if my consumer mindset applied to this table as well? How much might this ‘free’ meal cost? Certainly the compulsion many feel to drudge up a sense of guilt at this table could be one sign of its costliness. But is this cost the host’s or a fee self-imposed? Extended in his invitation to the table is the very freedom this man said he came to offer: “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.”
Jesus spoke readily of the cost of the cross, but his is not a description of the kind of transaction consumer-hungry minds are quick to expect. He is clear that the cost is his, even as he both describes and extends meals in which everyone is invited: Go out into the streets and the hedges and invite everyone so that the table is filled. Behold, I stand at the door and knock, if any hear my voice and open the door, I will come and eat with them and them with me. I feel sorry for these people. They have been here with me for three days, and they have nothing left to eat. I won’t send them away hungry, or they will faint along the way.
Likewise, as the disciples gathered together in the upper room where they would participate in Jesus’s last supper and the first communion, Jesus told them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” He peculiarly describes himself as the host in more ways than one, as both the Bread of life at the table and the one who paid the cost that it might nourish his table of guests. Our consumption at this table holds a great deal in which to participate.
Unfortunately, we are at times like the poet Alison Luterman who admits it is quite possible not to participate, not to see or consume or desire the gift of the connection between what feeds us and the hands who made it possible. She writes eloquently,
“Strawberries are too delicate to be picked by machine. The perfectly ripe ones even bruise at too heavy a human touch. It hit her then that every strawberry she had ever eaten—every piece of fruit—had been picked by calloused human hands. Every piece of toast with jelly represented someone’s knees, someone’s aching back and hips, someone with a bandanna on her wrist to wipe away the sweat. Why had no one told her about this before?”
Holding the bread of Christ in our hands, we are indeed faced with a costly meal, which represents someone’s aching body. He makes this mysteriously blunt: “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’”
Stories of hunger, consumption, and desire pervade the world around us. It is either an odd coincidence or incredible gift that the same theme pervades the words of Jesus, but in a manner that counters and transforms both our hunger and our ideas of what it means to consume. The consumer of Christ at the table is not stockpiling one more product for personal use and fulfillment. Nor does he or she partake of a free service that requires a minimum purchase or comes with a small catch. The words are neither selfish nor small: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Those who come to this table cannot consume with the same disconnectedness with which we consume countless meals and materials. What is offered is a hospitality far more invigorating.
We are ushered into a community, an interconnected life, the Body of Christ himself, and it leaves an entirely different imagination of the world in our grasp. To put it in economic terms, the Christian makes the very countercultural claim that one can desire what one already has. Desire does not have to be incessant longing for what we lack. Every broken piece of bread represents nothing less than all we hold in Christ, and yet this is a gift we can receive again and again: one who gives himself freely, who gives everything away to present the hungry with an invitation to join him, to taste and see that God is good.
This free meal that Jesus presents can overturn our lives as consumers, turning our hunger and desire inside-out. As Augustine imagines the voice on high saying: “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you, like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.” Christ is unlike anything else we can consume or desire in this world. For all who are hungry, the Bread of Life is in hand.