July 19, 2020
This passage is a vegetarian’s dream. If you’re a vegetarian, this is all the ammunition you need to tell your friends “I told you so.” In our story we find Daniel and his three friends choosing not to eat from the king’s banquet table, but instead choosing a simple diet of vegetables and water, and in so doing they receive God’s blessing. This seems like a strange story to include in our sacred text, because we can most likely assume that the purpose of this story is not simply to demonstrate the health benefits of vegetarianism. There’s probably something more going on here than what we see on the surface. But first, how did we get here?
“It was the third year of King Jehoiakim’s reign in Judah when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon declared war on Jerusalem and besieged the city.” The capital of Israel has just been laid siege to and overrun by the world superpower at the time, Babylon. The Northern Kingdom of Israel was already conquered some 150 years earlier, and now the Southern Kingdom, Judah, is done for. The final vestiges of Israelite culture, power and land are stripped from them, and all of the able-bodied, intelligent or useful men are marched 700 miles across the desert to live in exile in Babylon. This was a common practice in the Ancient Near-East. When you conquered a nation, you would strip it of anyone who is capable of rebuilding or resisting the new rule and you instead would put them to use serving your own nation.
Daniel is one of these able-bodied, intelligent, and well-educated young men who is too much of a threat to leave behind in Jerusalem and is a good prospect to serve the Babylonian king. So Daniel is marched off to Babylon, taken away from his Israelite kin, stripped of his Jewish name and given a new Babylonian name, Belteshazzar. For all intents and purposes, Daniel is a Babylonian now. He lives in Babylon, he has a Babylonian name, he must follow Babylonian customs and he is of course expected to worship the Babylonian gods.
But Daniel’s position in Babylon is not all bad. He is selected to be trained for the king’s court, and this means he gets to eat from the king’s table. Daniel is given access to all of the richest food and the most expensive wine that Babylon has to offer. It’s a small comfort to be offered a man who has been stripped of his very identity and marched into exile. We might say that Daniel deserves some good fortune, some good comfort after experiencing such trauma; he’s certainly earned the right to enjoy Babylon’s richest food and most expensive wine.
However, Daniel turns down both. Daniel makes up his mind that he will not defile himself with food or drink from the king’s table, but will live off of a simple diet of vegetables and water.
What’s going on here? Is this passage a vegetarian manifesto, or is there something deeper going on? When reading scripture, one of the most important questions we can ask is “why did this story survive?” Why did the Jewish community decide this story was important enough to write down and to pass on to future generations of Jews? We must assume that this story is about more than one man’s decision to forego rich food and expensive drink. And indeed it is.
Daniel’s context and the context in which this story was written down and passed down through generations was an incredibly communal context. The Jews, as a people group and as a nation, had an incredibly strong sense of communal identity and communal bond. In fact, most nations and people groups back then did. There was a common recognition that as a people group you either thrive together or die together; the bonds the Jews shared in common with one another, such as land, language, customs and God, created a strong sense of communal identity.
As 21st century American readers, we don’t quite understand what it means to live in such a communal society. Our nation is built on individualism, the idea that you can be and do anything you want, as long as you aren’t harming someone else in their pursuit of being and doing anything they want. Individualism can have some great benefits and some terrible curses. But as people who are reading the Bible from a 21st century individualistic lens, we will never quite understand what is going on here, because we’ve lost a sense of what it means to live fully in community.
Daniel’s decision to pass up the king’s table was not about one man’s decision to avoid rich food and expensive drink. Daniel as an individual is inseparable from his Jewish community that has just been torn apart. To eat from the king’s table would be to abandon his community and become like the Babylonians, eating food sacrificed to their own gods in a manner that breaks Jewish customs. Daniel has already lost his Jewish name, his Jewish land, his Jewish customs, but he will not abandon his Jewish God, nor his Jewish people. We may see Daniel’s individual decision as a pious choice to please his God in choosing not to defile himself with Babylonian food. But Daniel’s decision carries much more freight than that. Daniel’s decision is subversive; while everything else has been stripped from Daniel and his people, he maintains this one freedom, to love, inspire and give hope to the whole Jewish community, starting with his three friends.
At a time when his people are in crisis, Daniel gives them hope. Sure, it would have been easy for Daniel to just eat the rich food and the expensive drink, but he chooses to subsist on a diet of vegetables and water as an act of solidarity with his Jewish compatriots who have not faired as well as him. And in a subversive act of defiance, right under the king’s nose, Daniel proves that his God is greater than any Babylonian god, as he and his friends grow stronger than any of the other young men who dined off the king’s food.
There’s a reason why this story was written down and has lasted thousands of years. It gave hope to the community in crisis. It gave hope that even the smallest of decisions could make a difference and that God honored such decisions, even in exile. This story is about much more than one man’s decision of vegetables over fine wine and juicy meat; it’s about living in love and solidarity with his community, giving them hope that even in crisis, their God honors the small decisions made out of love. Daniel’s choice to eat the vegetables was a decision that affected the whole community. You probably see where I’m going here, because this is most definitely not a sermon on the health benefits of eating vegetables.
Our nation, our community, is in crisis right now, much like Daniel’s was. We haven’t been marched off to a new land, but the landscape of the life we currently inhabit looks very different than it did a few months ago. Unemployment rates continue to rise as businesses are forced to close their doors, some of them permanently. Many people are at risk of being evicted or wonder how they’ll ever be able to pay back the months of rent that have piled up. We can no longer see our friends or family with the regularity or ease that we used to. Hugs, handshakes, dances, ways of being with one another are no longer safe or even considered polite. Every time we go out in public or come into contact with someone, we must wonder if we caught a virus we can’t see and don’t fully understand. We worry for our families and friends, especially those who are most vulnerable.
And we might have hoped that our church would remain safe from the effects of COVID-19—oh how wonderful it would be to have one safe haven, one place of comfort to go without having to face the seismic changes rippling throughout our world. But even here we must gather outside on a warm black top, with masks obscuring our faces, distanced from one another and with no fellowship time to really be with each other and know what’s going on in each other’s lives. We can’t even sing hymns together like we used to. It makes my heart ache. It seems that few things are immune to COVID’s merciless touch.
But in a season of crisis, both personal crisis for many of us and communal crisis for all of us, we hear this story from God’s word. It is a story of hope. It is a story of resistance. It is a story of love and solidarity. This story reminds us that our individual decisions do matter to the community.
Now, a bit of confession time: I am not a huge fan of vegetables. In fact, my sophomore year of college was the first time I chose for myself to eat a bowl of salad while not under duress. I was forced to eat a bowl of salad every now and again growing up, but to me, vegetables just weren’t real food in the same way that a juicy steak was. And let’s all be honest, if you could eat anything you wanted in the world and it would have no adverse effect on your health or the environment, we all know a vegetable is not the first thing you’re picking up. Unless you’re one of those weirdos who can’t stand the taste of chocolate or sugar. Those are the people whose salvation I pray for constantly.
If most of us could have it our way, if I could have it my way, I would do anything to avoid a diet of only vegetables and water. They’re just not as desirable. And so, when I read this story, I can greatly appreciate Daniel’s sacrifice.
But Daniel’s vegetables represented more than a good source of fiber, they represented resistance to the present crisis. They represented hope that God can work through the simple and seemingly small acts of one individual.
This is a message that most of our nation needs to hear right now. We’re offered a choice between indulging ourselves on the king’s food, food that may offer some comfort to us in the midst of crisis, or we can forego the rich food and expensive wine that we long to eat and drink for a simple diet of vegetables and water, a diet taken up perhaps reluctantly, but out of love for our community. The king’s food represents normalcy, it represents our rights, our longings to return to normal living where we don’t have to wear a mask, where we don’t have to sit in the parking lot on a hot summer day for church, where we don’t want to have to limit the amount of people we see on a weekly basis.
In contrast, the vegetables represent the small, simple sacrifices and decisions we can make to love our community. Vegetables don’t have a whole lot of flavor to them, they’re sometimes stringy and get stuck in your teeth, but they are healthy. We may not like the idea of most of these changes, but like Daniel, we must recognize that we as an individual are inseparable from our community that is in crisis right now. Our individual decisions matter, and may even be a matter of life or death for someone. Our individual decisions during this season of life have the ability to inspire, to encourage, to give hope…or they can send the opposite message.
There’s a lot of hate, there’s a lot of selfishness, finger-pointing and bigotry going on right now in our nation. Will we give in and contribute to the crisis that has engulfed our nation, or will we take a page out of Daniel’s book, and actively work to be a source of hope, a source of good-will, a source of love?
Because the very fact that Daniel’s story was written down and has lasted thousands of years is a testament that even the seemingly small act of one individual to choose vegetables over rich food and fine wine was enough to inspire an entire community of people and to remind them that God is with them, even and especially during their crisis of exile.
God honors Daniel’s decision and the decision of his friends to join him in foregoing the king’s food. Verses 17 and 18 read, “And God gave these four young men knowledge and skill in both books and life. In addition, Daniel was gifted in understanding all sorts of visions and dreams. At the end of the time set by the king for their training, the head of the royal staff brought them in to Nebuchadnezzar. When the king interviewed them, he found them far superior to all the other young men. None were a match for Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.”
The Lord saw Daniel’s and his friends’ decision to honor and love their community and blessed them for it. Now, I won’t promise that making sacrifices during this season will result in a 1:1 blessing to good deed ratio. But I can promise that God will use your love and your small acts of solidarity to bless the community with hope and better health, and to bless you with growth in ways you might not have imagined.
Friends, we’re in a season of eating vegetables right now. And we’re going to eat these vegetables together as a church. I know holding these services outside with face masks, distancing and no singing is far from ideal. But it is an act of love for our broader community. We have permission to eat from the king’s table, we have permission to meet inside our beautiful sanctuary and to sing. But I believe to do so would be negligent of our church’s mission to serve, look after and care for our Cheney community. So for a season, we choose the vegetables. And coming up next month I’m going to preach a couple different sermon series on racism and mental illness. These are difficult and emotionally charged topics for many of us; it may not be what we would prefer to talk about in church; we may prefer to talk about these issues once things have returned to normal. But to wait would be to forget our mission to care for and welcome all people. These are important issues and they cannot wait, so we reluctantly pass up the king’s table for perhaps an unexciting, yet sustaining meal of vegetables.
God is at work in our midst right now. God has not abandoned us, just like God did not abandon Daniel. We cling to the hope that even our small, seemingly insignificant actions and decisions hold within them the possibility to instill change, offer hope, and demonstrate love. Let us be God’s hands and feet. Amen.