Sinning Like a Christian: Gluttony

Philippians 3:17-21

17 Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way—you can use us as models. 18 As I have told you many times and now say with deep sadness, many people live as enemies of the cross. 19 Their lives end with destruction. Their god is their stomach, and they take pride in their disgrace because their thoughts focus on earthly things. 20 Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. 21 He will transform our humble bodies so that they are like his glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself.

Luke 16:19-31

19 “There was a certain rich man who clothed himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted luxuriously every day. 20 At his gate lay a certain poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. 21 Lazarus longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Instead, dogs would come and lick his sores.

22 “The poor man died and was carried by angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 While being tormented in the place of the dead, he looked up and saw Abraham at a distance with Lazarus at his side.24 He shouted, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I’m suffering in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, whereas Lazarus received terrible things. Now Lazarus is being comforted and you are in great pain. 26 Moreover, a great crevasse has been fixed between us and you. Those who wish to cross over from here to you cannot. Neither can anyone cross from there to us.’

27 “The rich man said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, send Lazarus to my father’s house. 28  I have five brothers. He needs to warn them so that they don’t come to this place of agony.’ 29  Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. They must listen to them.’ 30  The rich man said, ‘No, Father Abraham! But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will change their hearts and lives.’ 31  Abraham said, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’”

One of the places that Corey and I like to eat at the most is the Melting Pot fondue restaurant for very special occasions.  We always get the 4 course experience: cheese fondue, salad, meat course, and of course, chocolate for dessert that comes with a variety of things for dipping.  Sometimes we hardly eat anything all day just to make room in our stomachs for the decadent meal we know that we are about to have.  But no matter how much room we save up, we always leave the restaurant feeling like we are about to pop and our pants are too tight, and that is always is very long car ride home.  I always feel so full that it almost makes me regret all that I ate…almost.

Or there are the various times that I’ve enjoyed going out to nice restaurants with my parents growing up, as we still do today whenever they are in town.  I always enjoy the rich meals and conversations that we have.  However, there is always a part of me that looks around and thinks about how just as we are enjoying the pleasures of fine dining and indulging ourselves, there is a person just outside the door on the sidewalk who will not get anything to eat that night.  Many people will walk by and not even see him and not give it a second thought.

There’s no doubt about it that we as Americans love our food, and many of us love it way too much.  The deadly sin of gluttony is a hard one to pin down because there is a fine line between our need of food and sustenance and the issue of overindulgence and excessiveness.  There is an ongoing question of what actually makes gluttony a deadly sin.  We have to eat to live, but the question is how much we eat and how much concern we have over food.  How much is too much?  Or how much energy do we pour into counting calories, dieting, and self-control?  When does gluttony give way to total disregard for those that go hungry?  When does it give way to ridicule and shame that we bring upon ourselves or by others?

Derived from the Latin word gluttire, which means to gulp down or swallow, gluttony is the over-indulgence and over-consumption of food, drink, or wealth items to the point of extravagance or waste.  It is a misplaced desire for food that may result in ignorance of or hunger among the needy. Originally, when the 7 deadly sins were compiled by the desert monastics, gluttony was thought to have been a nice shorthand for all of the “sins of the flesh.”  After all, one of the things that tortured those desert fathers the most was a desire for a good meal.  In today’s context, perhaps gluttony still qualifies as a deadly sin because “where there is gluttony, there is usually disgust, the terrible morning after the nocturnal binge” (118).

If you attend one of the Christmas concerts this season put on by the community choir I’m in, the Voices, you will hear a catchy little song called, “No Time to Diet.”  This song in itself, in its funny way, illustrates gluttony in one of the best ways I’ve heard:

Christmas time is no time, no time to diet; It’s no time for watchin’ your weight. You like turkey, you like ham; you can’t deny it. Now’s the time to fill up your plate! Dashing through the mashed potatoes and the candied yams, Don’t forget the rolls and gravy; There’s enough to feed the Navy! Christmas time is no time, no time diet, So grab a fork and dive right in! Christmas time is no time for exercising; It’s the time for cheeses and dips. Lift that fork up, lift that spoon; it’s energizing. You’ll work out just smackin’ your lips!

One of the shows that Corey and I find ourselves watching occasionally is “Man Vs. Food” on the Travel Channel.  This young man, named Adam, travels the United States finding restaurants that offer challenges to their customers on how much food you can eat.  He sets out to win and prove that he can stomach the most food or eat the spiciest dish, or go where no one else has gone before.  Take a look at one of his attempts right here in Indiana

Are you still questioning what the issue is with gluttony?

We could argue that gluttony, as a sin, goes back to the very beginning, in Genesis.  Eve was tempted by the forbidden fruit: “It was a delight to the eyes and good for food.”  Or how about Jesus, when wandering in the desert after his baptism, was tempted with food after 40 days of fasting?  Satan meets him and says, “turn these stones into bread,” therefore making hunger the door whereby the devil entered (116).  Yet, one of the earliest criticisms of Jesus and his followers was that they ate…and they ate a lot.  People were critiquing them, saying that John the Baptist’s followers fasted, while Jesus’ followers ate and drank…and with prostitutes and tax-collectors at that!  Jesus was even accused of being a “glutton and a drunk” (Luke 7:34).  As one of my seminary professors used to say, “Jesus loved meals so much, he became one.”

And not to mention, there are so many meals in scripture, and so much importance attached to them: Jesus is the bread of life, Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper where we eat and drink bread and wine that take on a life of the broken body and blood of sacrifice, Jesus makes himself known to his disciples in the breaking of the bread after his resurrection.  We could argue that the entire gospel itself is one of table fellowship, where all are invited to partake of the feast.  The kingdom of heaven is compared to a “man who gave a feast and invited his friends.”  Some of our richest, most memorable times are around good food, good company, and conversation.  Humanity is at its best when we gather at the table.

In the ancient world, much of life revolved around food.  Scripture is full of concerns about it- what to eat, what not to eat, how to eat it.  The Hebrew people had strict food laws they had to follow.  There was a question in the early church of whether or not the early Christians were to eat meat sacrificed to pagan idols, and of course, the question remained of what is clean or unclean.  The Philippians text you heard this morning is Paul addressing a debate about Jewish food laws.  The question is, should these new Christians, many of whom were Jews, eat kosher or not?  For the faithful Jew, every meal is a religious occasion, an event that begins with a blessing, acknowledging food as a gift of God.  Therefore, to abuse food is to abuse one of God’s good gifts, and what we eat should reflect the purity of our hearts and souls (118).

Then, we read in the gospel of Luke 16 the story of the rich man and Lazarus.  The rich man eats in the face of the great need of Lazarus, while Lazarus goes hungry and would have gladly eaten the crumbs that fall from the table.  In the next life, the rich man faces punishment for his gluttonous behavior while Lazarus finally gets his fill.  If anything, this text reminds us that gluttony is more than self-indulgence- it is also about how we are often blind to the needs of other in a world where millions go hungry.  When the gut becomes more important than the soul, more important than sharing what we have with others, more important than caring for the body as a temple, then we face what makes gluttony such a deadly sin.

It’s important to note also that gluttony doesn’t just mean excessiveness, but also our excessive attentiveness to food.  Just as there is a danger in overindulging, there is also danger in being overly concerned about food and being fixated on it rather than the amount (124).  When we pick at our food, count calories to the extreme, and become obsessed with what we eat, there is always the possibility of doing harm to ourselves physically and emotionally.  I think about the number of young women in this country alone who suffer from eating disorders, poor body image, and issues of control when it comes to food.  When not properly managed, food can take over our lives and have a severe impact on the way in which we live.  It becomes an obsession that we cannot overcome.  Perhaps it really is true that we are what we eat and how we eat it.

I myself struggle with this particular kind of gluttony- the one that manifests itself in excessive attentiveness to what we eat and how much.  When I was a teenager, standing in the kitchen one afternoon, my grandmother commented that it looked like I had gained a little weight.  My mom, who happened to be standing there, quickly reprimanded her for making such a comment.  But nevertheless, comments like that stick with teenage girls, and over time, a complex develops.  Not to mention, the struggles we face with advertising, magazines, and images of the ideal and perfect female form that has become the norm in our culture.  I have never had an eating disorder, but I can certainly identify with the feelings associated with them, as there have been times throughout my life where I have been overly concerned with what I eat, how I eat, and how much I need to exercise to look and feel a certain way about myself.  Even now, being pregnant, I struggle with this new body I have and become overly concerned with what will be the best possible way to get back into shape after our baby arrives.  Just as there is shame and selfishness in over indulging while others go hungry, there is also shame and selfishness in being overly concerned with what we put into our mouths and what our bodies might look like if we eat one way or the other.  There is always a fine line with being concerned with our health, and being overly concerned with it for negative or selfish reasons.

Gluttony continues to make the list of deadly sins because it seems that out of the 7, it is more condemned, feared, and forced upon us more than any other of the sins, though not feared as a sin.  Here in the United States, we associate gluttony especially with ugliness, overindulgence, guilt, and shame.  Obesity has become one of the most judged and reviled conditions in this country.  Approximately 1/3 of all Americans or 63 million of us are overweight.  It is estimated that 250,000 deaths are attributable to poor diet and inactivity.  50% of cardiovascular disease is related to excessive weight, and we spend as much as $50 billion a year dieting.  That is more than we spend on education, training, employment, and social services.  We spend more on dieting than the gross national product of Ireland (131).

To make matters worse, a recent study showed that 11% of Americans would abort a fetus if they were told that that fetus would have a tendency toward obesity.  Elementary school children say that they are more judgmental toward the fat kid in class than they are toward a bully.  Studies have shown that an overweight person is at a disadvantage in being hired for a job compared to someone who is not overweight (127).  Overweight persons are one of the most judged groups of people in this country.  Don’t think you fall into this kind of prejudice?  Just think of your reaction when you are seated next to a larger person on an airplane!

It’s ironic that we live in a society that says, “be good to yourself,” but when it comes to food, we have a guilt and shame complex like we do for nothing else (128)  Gluttony has become a sickness, whether by our tendency to overindulge, or our tendency to be obsessed with what we eat and how we eat it.  Gluttony is our being overly concerned with how we look or how we are perceived by others, and it is possibly laid upon us by our mothers, who perhaps showed their love through apple pies, or through psychological, hormonal, or environmental factors.  In today’s world, perhaps our condemnation of gluttony comes from the fact that it is remarkably external.  Someone who commits the sin of lust could go on his/her way and not be found out, while the glutton is exposed for all to see.  We are so careful to avoid the sin of gluttony, and this says that we are more concerned with externals than internals, that we care more about the state of our waistline than the state of our souls (128).  Anytime we make the belly a god and obsess over it, worry about it too much positively or negatively would be considered gluttony.  It is not only self-abuse, but as abuse of our relationship with God and how we view the status of others.  And in our world of immediate satisfaction and gratification, we often find that when we overindulge, we feel a tinge of guilt or shame, perhaps because “we are full of hungers that we attempt to assuage in ways that bring us, our neighbor, and God to grief” (136).

But the good news about wrestling with this deadly sin of gluttony is that it is a sin that we can easily work on to overcome.  We overcome it by recalling that our bodies belong to God and are meant to honor God.  We overcome it by remembering those who go without, that we might be willing to share out of our own abundance.  We overcome it by giving thanks to our God who came to us in the flesh and who brings a new, holy, and divine meaning to the human body, who comes to us as the bread of life, that we will never hunger or thirst again.  So whatever our struggle is with gluttony, it’s time to name it and re-focus on our health, wholeness, and not just the state of our waistlines, but the state of our souls.  It’s time to eat our fill of the right things that give us physical and spiritual nourishment for our bodies and souls.  We face the sin of gluttony head on so that we will not cease to notice the Lazarus’ who gather at our gates.  And thanks be to God who offers us his life-giving bread and his very body, that we might hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Amen.

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