by Daniel Harrell
The last time I preached on gluttony I got my picture in the paper. Thirteen years ago. I’ve eaten a lot since then. This Boston Globe article went on to score me an interview on a local PBS show later the same month. Decrying gluttony represented the peak of my preaching career. Feeling a bit nostalgic for that erstwhile glory, I’ve decided to go back to that seven-course smorgasbord of deadly sins for a big plate of vice-ridden victuals, appropriately shameful fare for the season of Lent.
Though more Catholic than Congregational, the Seven Deadly Sins have enjoyed wide Protestant embrace, despite never appearing as a list in the Bible. Used in many spiritual formation practices, the Seven Deadly Sins are understood as a base set of gateway vices which open a wide and spacious way to destruction. As Lent is a season for self-suspicion and prayer—commencing this past Ash Wednesday—I thought it proper to take stock of our own souls by looking afresh at the seven deadlies over the course of Lent’s seven Sundays, one vice at a time. For those wanting to make plans, Lust is next Sunday. Then comes Greed, then Anger, then Sloth. Envy’s on the Palm Sunday menu and then finally Pride—the last and worse vice, albeit with a virtuous side sufficient to elicit an Alleluia on Easter.
Once Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire in the fifth century under Emperor Constantine, previously persecuted churches packed out with new members no longer afraid to join the cutting edge community of Christ-followers. Unfortunately, this eager, ensuing surge dulled the cutting edge. Because church membership was no longer a life or death proposition, at least on earth, faith lost its urgency and grew more complacent. In response, some believers, longing for the days of dangerous discipleship, migrated to the deserts of Egypt and Syria to recover what they considered to be an untainted and uncompromising spiritual life. The Greek word monachos, from which we get the word monocle—meaning one eye—was used to describe these desert extremists or monks. Monks insisted a genuine connection to God demanded singular, undivided spiritual focus.
Their focused spirituality developed a rigorous avoidance of what became “seven deadly sins.” Out of respect for sin’s more clandestine side, the desert monks referred to the deadly sins as “deadly thoughts.” They recognized how overt transgression always originated covertly in the mind. Thus these sins were also termed capital vices, capital from the Latin for head. Thus gluttony was not merely concerned with sumptuous or scrupulous eating and drinking, but with the underlying carnality which drove you to super-size when a normal portion would have sufficed.
Gluttony is burdensome buffet. I recall church pot luck supper tables heaped with fried chicken and potato salad on which we were encouraged to gorge ourselves for the sake of Christian fellowship. People at the front of the line piled their plates with Mrs. Palmer’s delicious deviled eggs, leaving none for those who were last. I remember Sunday School classes assigned the task of buying donuts for coffee hour. The practice was discontinued not because teachers complained of kids bouncing off the walls from their sugar highs, but because the adults wouldn’t stop shoving each other trying to get to the chocolate-frosted.
A member of my fraternity Bible study in college got sloppy drunk the night before graduation and stripped to his skivvies for the annual beer slide competition, proving once again what my pagan frat brothers had assumed all along: Christians were no different from anybody else. As a youth pastor, a mother approached me about her anorexic daughter whose obsession with body image and food-control had torn her family apart. A Christian mission organization held their local fund-raiser at the swankiest restaurant in town, stuffing potential donors with lavish cuisine while asking them to pledge to famine relief. One senior minister I know preached an entire sermon series on food, forcing his congregation to obsess over preparation and flavor, going so far as to use the communion table for cooking demonstrations.
We raid the refrigerator as cure for the spirit; we allow momentary gratification to counterfeit for contentment. Tempted by Satan as in one of his hungriest moments, Jesus insisted, “People do not live by bread alone.” “Don’t you understand,” he said later, “that whatever goes into your mouth just passes through your stomach and then into the sewer? It’s not what goes into your mouth that matters, but what comes out of your mouth from your heart.”
At the same time, among the earliest criticisms leveled against Jesus was that he was “a glutton and drunkard.” Pick any of his best parables and there’s a big plate of food served up as a symbol of grace. He’d go on to make a meal the centerpiece of Christian worship. Food is a good gift from God and we bless the Lord for it. The sin is in our mistreatment and abuse of it. Such is the vicious nature of vice. Like mold on fine bread, sin takes what is good and delicious and ruins it.
In the tradition stretching back to those dessert monks, gluttony includes eating too much, but also eating too fast, too fully, too fancily and too finicky-ly. Gluttony has a lot to do with the little word too.
Gluttony serves among its devilish desserts such dishes as heart disease and high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes and depression, social shame and disgust. Consumers spend billions on diets that promise you can still eat everything you want. Fashion websites exalt cosmetically and digitally enhanced body-images found nowhere in nature. Restaurants serve portions large enough to feed a family of four in most countries. And we parents still insist our children clean their plates as if filling themselves up is the best way to help starving children.
The Proverbs warn against those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons come to poverty, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.” Dante’s Inferno consigned gluttons to the third circle of hell, not the worst place to spend eternity, but definitely more dreadful than the eternity suffered by, say, the lustful. The lustful at least lust after other people. A glutton sells his soul for a cheeseburger.
Gluttony’s spiritual danger is in its fixation on loving self and immediate pleasure that impedes loving God, your neighbor and the needy. Its deadly power is derivative, gluttony gets its strength from the goodness it perverts. The blessings of God become barriers to God. I remember once waiting for the start of a noontime Ash Wednesday service. I overheard a couple of nursery school moms describe an upcoming dinner party one of them was hosting in her upscale home. The menu went on and on with lobster and crepes and all sorts of other extravagances. The second mother exclaimed how they “must go and get lunch because she now was starving.” With a giggling, guilty glee, they rushed out of the Ash Wednesday service. As the pastor, all of my self-righteous, judgmental indignation set in—these women had never known a truly hungry minute in their entire lives. And besides, their talk made me hungry too. I love lobster.
Why do we so obsess over food, be it in our imagination, preparation, consumption, conversation or aversion? We need food to live; but food also marks the most important moments of life: from a nursing mother’s bond with her baby, to birthdays and weddings and anniversaries and every holiday, to warm dinners delivered after a funeral, and Sunday worship itself. Eating together reconciles and reunites, it conveys love and security, comfort and gladness. Food lets us taste and see the Lord’s goodness. Eating is meant to be meaningful; it encompasses all of creation. Plants feed from soil and sun and organisms too tiny to see, animals from plants, humans from all, and all from God and with pleasure. Why so much pleasure? The biological explanation—food tastes good so we’ll nourish ourselves—provides incentive for our survival—but nourishment is only food’s temporary work and does not account for coq au vin and Bordeaux, for Swiss chocolate or olive oil and aged gouda. As theologian Robert Capon reminds, food’s ultimate purpose is to furnish our sensibilities against the day when we shall sit down at the everlasting feast of the lamb and taste forever the goodness of God. God made eating delicious and pleasurable because the Lord is all those things and more. Given food’s power, it is ripe for perversion.
How many times have you hauled out the bag of chips, devoured a donut, sucked down a soda or caramel macchiato to alleviate boredom or loneliness or anxiety or suffering? We substitute snacks for prayer; thereby stunting any hunger and thirst for righteousness. We crave all we can get for ourselves because deep down we doubt God can help us, or that Jesus loves us or that we can trust the Lord to provide what we really want and deserve. People cannot live by bread alone, we need butter and jelly. As philosopher Rebecca DeYoung reminds, “With food we can comfort ourselves, fill ourselves, provide pleasure for ourselves—but only for a short while. Our pursuit of happiness becomes what we can do, and not what God gives. Even when overstuffed, a spiritual emptiness persists, as well as as a hunger for more.”
The antidote against gluttony is temperance and moderation. Good old fashioned, fruit-of-the-Spirit self-control. The Lenten discipline is fasting, which is less about not eating than it is about reorienting your hunger. The pangs you feel upon “giving up” chocolate or cake or potato chips are designed to alert you to of the needs of others, as well as to remind of truer hungers such as compassion and justice and mercy. Temperance and moderation is a life lived within limits. We are finite and error-prone, dependent and ultimately dust. We lose our lives and find true our life, humble ourselves and God raises us up. Jesus was right all along. Happiness is not something we pursue or create, it too is pure gift of the Lord. As the self-righteous Pharisee Paul finally found to his delight, “I have learned the secret of contentment in any and all circumstances, whether well-fed or hungry, whether having plenty or being in need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Years ago I led a student group to the West African country of Benin. We lived and learned alongside the rural poor in mud huts and lean-tos, eating what was available, yet all the while shamelessly pining for the delicacies of America. Over the course of each day, our conversations would inevitably shift to pizzas and hamburgers and pasta. I don’t know if the locals who sacrificed their own rations that we might have enough were offended by our lack of gratitude. They would have never said so.
In our possession was a care package sent by members of our congregation. We weren’t allowed to open until the trip’s halfway point. This allowed just enough time for our food fantasies to convert into psychoses. When the night for opening the care package finally arrived, we’d already spent the whole day whipping ourselves into a frenzy over its contents. We circled the package like vultures. I insisted we first go around the circle before breaking the seal and share what each hoped was contained inside. Salivating, kids and adults screamed out Snickers! and Double-Stuffs! and ice cream! (which was ridiculous) Doritos! Peanut M&Ms! My dad, the brickmason, who accompanied us on the trip to help with a building project, said that he hoped there were raisins. Everybody turned and stared, nonplused. Raisins? You deprive yourself of real American food for two whole weeks laboring in the middle of the sweltering African bush and what you want is raisins?
Looking back, I realized my father had been intensely affected by the poverty he witnessed in Benin. Craving anything seemed immoral in the face of such deprivation. However I think what struck him more was how despite the poverty, there existed an incredible, visible contentment. It was like the rural Beninois never viewed their lives as impoverished at all. This was an indelible and essential spiritual lesson. We can be content with whatever God gives. Therefore, instead of hoping for some inordinately rich American treat, my dad simply said raisins. And as if on cue, when we opened the care package, it was stocked full of little boxes of raisins. And unlike the rest of us, who I don’t recall ever shared a single piece of chocolate or other goodie contained inside (in fact, one of the team members swiped my Reese’s Cup), my dad’s first move was to give his raisins to his newfound African friends.
This meal of bread and wine around which we gather, the body and blood of Jesus given for us, is food enough to fully sustain our souls. God gives us each day our daily bread, feeding us his very own self. The bread and wine, symbolic of sacrifice is also celebratory. We “keep the feast” says the word of God, and not only at the communion table but at the dinner table too. Christians have long held how sharing our food and eating together offers a preview of heaven, a foretaste of glory, a sacred encounter where Jesus is present—especially when our hospitality extends to strangers, the poor and our enemies. Food is gift of God we dare not take for granted. Bread and wine—and milk and honey and olives and fruit and fish and every delicacy—are ours to eat and enjoy with gratitude and self-control; and with self-denial too, at times, so to experience afresh the flavor of grace that abounds from God’s hand.
And so, drive far from us, O Most Bountiful, all fiends of faddish diet, false hunger and counterfeit cravings, demons that possess us and drive us toward culinary indifference and empty pleasure. O Bread of Life, broken and given that we might eat right and eat well, set us free once more in our own land, to love and serve thee and our neighbor as thou hast blessed us—with the dew of heaven and the fatness of the earth. Against all temptations of gluttonous vice, we pray for temperance, moderation, self-control and contentment. And because we do need your help, hear us as we pray our confessions and acknowledge our neediness.