Sabbath Day Thoughts — Luke 16:19-31 “Gluttony”
This is the fifth in a series on the Seven Deadly Sins.
For many people, an unexpected consequence of the pandemic has been unwanted weight gain. 42% of US adults have reported gaining an average of 29 pounds. What did we expect? We were homebound and stressed out. The gyms were closed, yoga and dance classes cancelled, and we stopped jogging with our buddy. We were ordering take-out and having groceries delivered. If only we hadn’t started baking sourdough bread and discovered the recipe for the Cheesecake Factory’s original cheesecake.
Obesity has been on the rise in the US for decades. In the year 2000, 30.5% of us were obese. By 2021, that statistic had swelled to 42.4% of us. All that weight puts us at increased risk for diabetes, stroke, heart attack, and cancer. The annual cost of obesity to our health care system is $147 billion. Weight loss is a growth industry, raking in $253 billion in 2021. According to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine, our weight problems won’t be improving any time soon. Unless we change, half of all Americans will be obese by 2029. One in four Americans will be severely obese, that’s more than 100 pounds overweight.
A parallel consequence of the pandemic has been an increase in world hunger. In 2021, 957 million people across 93 countries did not have enough to eat, a jump of 161 million people from before the advent of COVID-19. 239 million people are in need of life-saving humanitarian action. 21.3% of the world’s children suffer from stunted growth, due to chronic malnutrition. Hunger is a problem that cannot be solved by emergency food aid alone. We need a concerted global effort to develop sustainable food systems. There is more than enough food produced to feed everyone on the planet, but we have lacked the global will to ensure that everyone has enough.
Our Lenten consideration of the Seven Deadly Sins continues this morning with gluttony, from the Latin gluttire, to gulp down or swallow. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, taught that gluttony is the unrestrained desire for food that harms the individual and prevents human flourishing. The Roman philosopher Cicero saw gluttony as a matter of wrong priorities, saying, “It is necessary to eat in order to live, not to live in order to eat.” The influential medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas saw gluttony as a moral wrong, an inordinate desire for food that adversely affects our spiritual life. Aquinas cast gluttony as a form of idolatry in which our god is the belly. Within the Christian tradition, we have seen over-indulgence in food as particularly egregious when it exists side-by-side with the hunger of our neighbors. Dante envisioned a special Hell for gluttons, lying in filthy, cold slush amid a never-ending icy rain while watched over by a giant stomach with three worm-like heads. Eeeew!
Contemporary thinking on gluttony invites us to consider the social, psychological, and spiritual context of the sin. In her book Glittering Vices, Prof. Rebecca DeYoung of Calvin College casts gluttony as a sin of self-gratification, an ultimate expression of “Me” culture in which it is all about us. The social sciences invite us to see how our human relationship with food has shifted over the course of centuries. Once upon a time, only the elite could over-indulge in food, but with the rise of the middle class, a well-stocked table was seen as a sign of vitality, prosperity, and success. Somewhere along the way, that sign of prosperity and success went off the rails. We eat for any number of reasons other than necessity. We eat out of boredom, stress, tiredness, and anger. Overeating can just be a habit. Or, we may have never learned proper portion sizes. Who belonged to the “Clean Plate Club” as a child or was told that there were starving children in India or China or Africa who would love to have our dinner? Professor Graham Tomlin of Oxford University suggests that beneath those social and psychological forces that promote gluttony, there is a deep spiritual need. We mistakenly use food to try to satisfy the deeper craving within us. The craving for God. What a poor, dissatisfying substitute.
Our biblical paradigm of gluttony is Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The rich man feasts sumptuously every day, seemingly oblivious to the suffering of the neighbor who begs at his gate. Lazarus is poignantly described: starving, sick, too weak to keep the dogs from licking his festering sores. Death brings a great reversal. While the rich man suffers eternal torment, Lazarus is welcomed and comforted like a beloved child. We learn that the rich man was not unaware of his neighbor’s suffering—he recognizes Lazarus and knows his name. In life, the rich man simply chose to not see or assist his starving neighbor. Instead, he indulged his own lavish appetite. Jesus suggests that our unbridled consumption and our choice to be blind to the need of our neighbors creates a willful gap that allows suffering to flourish in this world, a gap that has eternal consequences for the life to come.
The remedy for gluttony is found in the virtue of temperance. Temperance is an antiquated word with negative connotations that spring from America’s failed experiment with Prohibition. Perhaps better words for temperance these days are moderation or self-discipline. Aristotle characterized temperance as finding the “Golden Mean”—doing the right thing in the right amount in the right way. Aquinas believed that we don’t need to abstain from the pleasure of good food, but we do need to make discerning choices about what and how we eat, shunning those pleasures that are “immoderate and contrary to reason.” In Paradise Lost, 17th century poet John Milton had the archangel Michael extoll the virtue of temperance which leads to a long and happy life.
“There is, said Michael, if thou will observe
The rule of not too much, by temperance taught
In what thou eat’st and drink’st, seeking from thence
Due nourishment, not gluttonous delight,
Till many years over thy head return:
So mai’st thou live, till like ripe Fruit thou drop
Into thy Mother’s lap, or be with ease
Gather’d, not harshly pluck’t, for death mature.”
Nowadays, advocates of Positive Psychology, which focuses on individual and societal well-being, teach that temperance is one of six core virtues that increase happiness when we build upon them. Temperate people develop the capacity to handle the complexity of life. They choose to face things calmly and insightfully. Temperance allows us to control our impulses and delay our gratification in pursuit of future goals. For Christians, temperance equips us to weather difficult times with grace, because we see the long view and trust that God is with us and change can come. Temperance finds its expression in us when we find a healthy moderation and balance in life, creating the right environment for us—and our neighbors—to thrive.
Our biblical model for temperance is Jesus. His critics may have alleged that he was a glutton and a drunkard, but Jesus made choices about food to serve the Kingdom of God. Jesus chose fasting in the wilderness as an act of spiritual preparation. Yet, the first miracle of his ministry was one of feasting. In Cana, the Lord turned water into wine to save the day at a wedding banquet. Jesus used meals to build community. He welcomed to the table outsiders, like sinners and tax collectors, and insiders, like Pharisees and disciples. Jesus was concerned about hungry people. He fed multitudes with meager resources and miracles of multiplication. Jesus gave us a holy meal, the Lord’s Supper, to remind us of his great love for us and the ultimate sacrifice that he would make for our sake on the cross. Jesus liked to eat, just like the rest of us, but he made intentional choices about where, when, and how he ate in order to achieve his mission and give glory to God. Now that’s temperance.
How might we follow Jesus in practicing temperance? We can be informed by scripture. The psalmist affirms that food is God’s good and generous providence: all creation looks to God “to give them their food in due season.” By God’s generous hand we “are filled with good things” (Psalm 104:27-28). We have a role to play as stewards of that generous providence of God, not only for ourselves, but also for the world around us. We remember that when the disciples wanted to send away hungry people, Jesus stopped them with the words, “You feed them” (Mark 6:37). Our personal concern with food needs to be a global concern for feeding a hungry world, for ensuring that Lazarus does not languish at our gate while we feast sumptuously. Changing our thinking about food can draw us closer to God and closer to our most vulnerable neighbors.
Changing our thinking about food can also change how we understand ourselves. Learning and implementing temperance in our personal relationship with food may feel harder, but the behavioral science surrounding weight loss tells us there is hope. We can set dietary goals and be accountable, even if that means keeping a food journal or finding a trusted friend to encourage us. We can be aware of what tempts us most and take time to notice when the craving kicks in. We can practice some selective abstinence from foods that are most likely to sabotage us, whether we stop buying the potato chips or we take a break from sugar during Lent. We can make better choices, cultivating an appetite for healthier foods. We can also look to things other than food for our personal satisfaction, like a good book, music, fellowship, scripture, nature, creativity, learning, prayer, or exercise. Healthy change is possible with the help of temperance, the Holy Spirt, and some hard work.
So, let’s give temperance a try. What do we have to lose other than the 29 pounds we gained during the pandemic and the hunger of 957 million of our world neighbors?
Valeria Sabater. “Temperance is Key to Your Psychological Well-Being” in Exploring Your Mind, Nov. 15, 2021. Accessed online at https://exploringyourmind.com/temperance-is-key-to-your-psychological-well-being/
Lesley Lyle. “Developing Temperance” in Positive Psychology, March 2013. Accessed online at thepositivepsychologypeople.com.
Gernot Laganda. “2021 Is Going to Be a Bad Year for World Hunger” in Food Systems Summit. Accessed online at un.org
Kaia Hubbard. “The Pandemic Has Worsened the US Obesity Epidemic” in US News and World Report, Sept. 15, 2021. Accessed online at usnews.com
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Accessed online at virtuescience.com.
Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. Accessed online at newadvent.org.
Francine Prose. “Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony” from Gluttony (Oxford: Oxford U. Press, 2006). Accessed online at blog.oup.com.
CNN Staff. “Obesity in the US Fast Facts,” May 27, 2021. Accessed online at cnn.com.
Graham Tomlin. “Gluttony” in The Seven Deadly Sins (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2014).
Kimberly Winston, “Gluttony and the Seven Deadly Sins” in Religion News Service, Nov. 22, 2016. Accessed online at religion news.com.
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”