4. Gluttony

The Sin of Gluttony

I have long regretted that The Apocrypha, found still in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles, and in some more ecumenical versions, have disappeared from most Protestant translations. This is not the place to discuss the reasons pro and con, but when we no longer found it easily available, we missed out on much buried treasure. Below I list one of the gems from the book of Sirach (31:12-24) that discusses the sin of gluttony.

12 Are you seated at the table of the great?
Do not be greedy at it,
and do not say, “How much food there is here!”
13 Remember that a greedy eye is a bad thing.
What has been created more greedy than the eye?
Therefore it sheds tears for any reason.
14 Do not reach out your hand for everything you see,
and do not crowd your neighbor at the dish.
15 Judge your neighbor’s feelings by your own,
and in every matter be thoughtful.
16 Eat what is set before you like a well brought-up person,
and do not chew greedily, or you will give offense.
17 Be the first to stop, as befits good manners,
and do not be insatiable, or you will give offense.
18 If you are seated among many persons,
do not help yourself before they do.
19 How ample a little is for a well-disciplined person!
He does not breathe heavily when in bed.
20 Healthy sleep depends on moderate eating;
he rises early, and feels fit.
The distress of sleeplessness and of nausea
and colic are with the glutton.
21 If you are overstuffed with food,
get up to vomit, and you will have relief.
22 Listen to me, my child, and do not disregard me,
and in the end you will appreciate my words.
In everything you do be moderate,
and no sickness will overtake you.
23 People bless the one who is liberal with food,
and their testimony to his generosity is trustworthy.
24 The city complains of the one who is stingy with food,
and their testimony to his stinginess is accurate.
25 Do not try to prove your strength by wine-drinking,
for wine has destroyed many.

When we think of the glutton we think of people seated at a table loaded with a great variety of foods, stuffing themselves with both hands. (Some have suggested that the word buffet should be interpreted as “Big Ugly Fat Folk Eating Together.”) They are bloated in body, bringing to mind the voracious hog. Some of us recall the ancient Roman practice of eating until bloated, then excusing oneself to disgorge, in order to continue eating. We are disgusted by this and pass on with relief saying with our friend the Pharisee “God, I thank you I am not as other men… especially not like this glutton.” But before we continue much further, let us look at gluttony from a different perspective.

Gluttony in Scripture

The first glutton we meet in scripture is Esau. Here was a man who placed food among his highest values. Genesis 25:29-30 – “Once when Jacob was boiling pottage, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. And Esau said to Jacob, Let me eat some of that red pottage for I am famished!”

The book of Hebrews (12:16-17) considers Esau immoral. It advises Christians, – “Let no one be immoral or irreligious like Esau who sold his birthright for a single meal. “ I doubt whether Esau was overweight. I suspect that he simply valued food as his chief delight.

We meet the sin of gluttony in the wilderness. God has promised to provide manna day by day. He was quite prepared to answer the legitimate prayer, “give us this day our daily bread.”   There would be no need to store it. (Exodus 16:16-21) But some stored it away for the tomorrow, “just in case” — and it became foul and filled with worms. The sin of gluttony was at work.

Numbers 11 tells another story of gluttony. The people were complaining again, and as usual, about food. (11:4-9)  “The people of Israel wept again, and said, “O that we had meat to eat? We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

The author makes comments upon the manna, in a defense of the food they had to eat. “Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its appearance like that of bdellium. The people went about and gathered it, and ground it in mills or beat it in mortars, and boiled it in pots, and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil.”

God decides to teach those people a severe lesson (11:18-23, 31-35). “Therefore the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat: You shall not eat one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the Lord who is among you, and have wept before him saying, “Why did we come forth out of Egypt?’   And there went forth a wind from the Lord, and it brought quails from the sea, and let them fall beside the camp, about a day’s journey on this side and a day’s journey on the other side, round about the camp, and about three feet above the face of the earth. And the people rose all that day, and all night, and all the next day and gathered the quails; he who gathered least gathered ten homers; and they spread them out for themselves all around the camp. While the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord smote the people with a very great plague. Therefore the name of that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah, because there they buried the people who had the craving.”

Gluttony is treated as a very serious sin. But to see how serious, move to the Law of Moses. Deut. 21:20-21. “And they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.”

And the message is just as severe in the prophets. Isaiah 22:12-14. “In that day the Lord, God of hosts called for weeping and mourning, for baldness and girding with sackcloth; and behold, joy and gladness, slaying oxen and killing sheep, eating flesh and drinking wine. Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” The Lord of hosts has revealed himself in my ears: “Surely this iniquity will not be forgiven you till you die,”

Amos 6:4-7 is no kinder towards gluttony. “Woe to those who lie upon beds of Ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the midst of the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David invent for themselves instruments of music; who drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of those to go into exile. The revelry of those who lounge around shall pass away.”

Jesus tells a story of judgment of the rich man who fared sumptuously everyday, while the beggars went hungry outside his door. (Luke 16:19-25) The story is called “The Rich Glutton” in the Latin Vulgate.

Paul in the N.T. has a harsh word for the glutton, too. Phil. 3:19 “their end is destruction, their God is the belly and their glory is in their shame.” And again, to the Corinthians (I Cor. 6:12-13) “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food” says Paul’s readers, but Paul retorts “And God will destroy both one and the other–the body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body!” Gluttony is immorality.

When one turns to Dante’s Divine Comedy, he places gluttons on the 3rd circle of hell. In hell they are at the mercy of Cerberus, the great worm of three throats. He is ravenous and devours the spirits of the gluttons — He has red eyes, a greasy black beard and a great bloated belly–He spends the years in torturing those who were unrepentant gluttons.

But Dante concedes that there is a place for gluttons in Purgatory. In purgatory, those who were gluttons but repentant, must now purify themselves from this sin. The residents of the glutton’s purgatory are described as “dark and hollow in the eyes, pallid in the face, and so wasted that the skin took its shape from the bones.” These former gluttons spend their time in purgatory running around the circles of purgatory trying to reach the apple tree with its inviting fragrance, but it is always beyond reach. Fasting is now the diet of the former gourmets.

Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest theologian of the medieval church, speaks of the 5 types of Gluttons. They are those who want food:
–  too soon
–  too expensively
–  too much
–  too eagerly
–  too daintily

Gluttony in Our World.

But again, most of us are hesitant to call ourselves gluttons. Let me attempt to show you its various faces as exhibited in our world.

Hedonism is the prevailing philosophy of our culture. Hedonism is the attempt to secure as much pleasure as possible and to avoid discomfort as much as possible. Feeling is the focus of our morality, “if it feels so good, it can’t be wrong”. Appetite governs much of our behaviour.

Obesity is growing aspect of North American life, (no pun intended!)   And some of us have not escaped its clutches. We eat more than we need, and then need to go to the gym to try to minimize the damage.

Gourmets and Gourmands. We are living in a nation of great affluence. It has transposed the problem of our being Gourmands — those who eat too much, to our being Gourmets — those who eat only the best varieties. We make considerable money. If we bought only staples with it, we would have far too much left to burn holes in our pockets. So we develop our palates for finer foods regardless of costs. We blame inflation saying that we get less for our dollars, but we should also blame our increasingly expensive appetites. This is called “gracious gluttony.”

The causes & cure for gluttony

So why is gluttony, refined or otherwise, such an endemic problem in our culture?

We can blame God, of course. By our very nature, if we do not eat, we do not live. We can blame Him for creating us with such a wide palate. Food tastes so good! We also seem to be more omnivorous than all other creatures; we can eat almost anything!

It is true that eating is not only a necessity, (we eat to live) but eating is one of life greatest pleasures, (hopefully not to the extent that we live to eat) but it is an endorphin-releasing pleasure.

But all of that gets exaggerated because we live in a very wealthy culture, we can often purchase not only the necessities of life, but also transport from across the world, goods exotic and rare. We can visit restaurants of almost any ethnic variety. There are an endless variety of places willing to tantalize our taste buds at a price. We also have lots of leisure time for recreation, which often includes eating out, and not having to cook or clean the kitchen. We watch TV each evening with snacks provided. Any meeting with friends includes eating and drinking.

Our gluttony also gets aggravated when we are stressed, or despondent, or anxious, or angry, making us feel that we need to gnash on something that gives us momentary pleasure.

On another note, theologian Paul Tillich noted that America is an “Adolescent Culture”. We are an immature culture. The nations of the west (Canada & the USA in particular) have a “Teenage Brain” which rarely thinks of consequences, while demanding instant gratification. We have a very hard time ever saying no to ourselves. So we say “let us eat, drink and be merry, and tomorrow we’ll diet.” As we all learned in Psychology 101, “Deferred Gratification” is painful, and “Frustration Tolerance” is a skill few of us desire to develop.

So wherein lies the cure?

One ancient adage suggests that if we are given to gluttony, we should put a knife to the throat. Sounds clever, but is no help. We must eat of necessity. So what can we do?

Almost 20 years ago I was diagnosed by my doctor that I had developed Stage II Diabetes. He then gave me warning, and scared the stupidity out of me. He outlined the possibilities that might await me if I continued to dig my own grave with my teeth. I believed him. I said a version of the Philippian Jailer’s cry “what must I do to be saved?” and I heard a version of the counsel “This kind comes out only by prayer and fasting.” Over the next few months I lost 40lbs of excess body weight, tested my blood sugar frequently, and found that along with the weight I lost, the lethargy and stress I had been feeling began to diminish.

So why do I tell you my story? Am I a paragon of virtue that you should imitate? I don’t think so! But I say this, because believing the doctor’s diagnosis, and repenting of my sins against myself, and following the counsel of the medical experts, though it did not lead to a cure, did enable me to control myself. And at the theological level we may need to follow the same sequence: believe the diagnosis of the Great Physician, Repent of our stupidity, and take on the disciplines that lead to heath. There may not be “a cure” but there may come “self-control”