This week we return to our series of messages on the Seven Deadly Sins. This morning’s message is on gluttony, and next week will be the final message, sloth.
Gluttony, of all the deadly sins, is probably the one that seems the most innocuous to us. Aside from the health implications of a bad diet, how can eating be a sin? We need to eat; we all like to eat; in fact, we celebrate it in our churches! I have, over the years, lingered over many a table heavily laden with food at church dinners. Isn’t it good to celebrate the bounty that God has provided for us?
For our Scripture text, I will read a passage from the book of Deuteronomy, and I chose this text because it speaks to the larger issues involved with gluttony, because gluttony is about far more than just food. Gluttony touches upon a number of issues and I have summarized them in three categories this morning – hunger, compulsive, and consumption.
Here the words of Deuteronomy 15:1-11, in which we do not read about either food or eating, but we do read about some of the larger issues that are involved, especially the issue of poverty –
1 At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts.
2 This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed.
3 You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you.
4 However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you,
5 if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.
6 For the Lord your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.
7 If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them.
8 Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. 9 Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin.
10 Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to.
11 There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.
I have never truly been hungry. Very often I will say that I am hungry, and sometimes will even say that I’m starving, but the truth is, I don’t know what real hunger is.
One of Tanya’s brothers retired from the Air Force last July, and I remember listening to him talk about his survival training many years ago. He was dropped off in a remote area for a number of days with only a minimum of items, among them a knife, some fishing line and a hook, and a live rabbit. One of the goals of the training was to see how long he could survive before eating the rabbit. It doesn’t take long, he said, before you become not only willing, but anxious to eat just about anything, and are rooting around in the ground looking for something that can pass for food.
It is interesting that the first temptation offered to Jesus after he had been in the wilderness for forty days after his baptism was to turn stones into bread, to eat. Matthew tells us in that passage (Matthew 4:1-11) that Jesus had fasted for forty days and at that point had become hungry. I’m sure he was. That he became hungry after forty days of fasting sounds like quite an understatement to me. To be hungry is to be very vulnerable.
Food is, perhaps, what we most take for granted on a daily basis. Until we don’t have enough. When I sit down at a meal to eat I offer the same prayer – thank you Lord, for the blessing of being able to eat when I am hungry, to be able to feed my family, to have food in our home, and help me to remember and to help those who do not have enough.
When we become hungry almost everything else takes a backseat. When we become hungry, it’s hard to think, we get irritable, and we think of little except for food. Hunger is an incredibly powerful urge, and I think it would take anywhere from three to, perhaps, seven days of not having enough food before our society would deteriorate into what none of us would want to either imagine or witness.
That gluttony is considered a deadly sin reminds us that food can be deadly in a very literal sense. It can be deadly when we take no care about the way in which we eat, because we can develop multiple health problems from a bad diet, or one can be at risk in their health because of a lack of food.
Many people fall into the latter category. According to a United Nations report from a few years ago, there are now more hungry people in the world than ever before. Over a billion people, about a sixth of the worldwide population, are hungry to the point of being undernourished or malnourished. Back in the 80s there was a very large, public concentration upon worldwide hunger, with help for the continent of Africa, parts of Asia, and other hunger-stricken parts of the world. We don’t hear about hunger as much today, perhaps because at some point the numbers simply become so overwhelming to us that we begin to believe there is not much that we can do.
But the point of the passage from Deuteronomy is to remind us there is much that we can do. In verses 4 and 5 God says that there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. God reminded his people that the manner in which a society is constructed can, and does, make a difference – a very big difference. A society can order itself in a manner that can either insure that people are trapped in poverty and hunger or it can order itself in a way that helps to bring blessing and abundance to all.
The message of the Gospel is both personal and corporate, micro and macro, local and universal. It speaks to us as individuals but also speaks to the larger issues and needs of our community and our world, and one of those needs is certainly that of hunger.
We cannot be everywhere, taking care of every need, obviously, but together, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), through the ministries of our denomination, such as the Week of Compassion, a real difference can be made. One of the dangers, I believe, of the almost complete privatization of faith is the turning away of institutional structures that can make such a difference in our world. I can’t do much as an individual, but partnered with others, a real difference can take place. There are places in the world where we cannot go and where we cannot serve, but when we come together and pool our resources, others can go and they can serve.
About a year and a half ago I preached a message about addiction, directed at substance abuse. But the reality is, there are many addictions, and one of the prime addictions is that of food.
Some compulsive and addictive behaviors are not as problematic as others. A compulsive behavior that centers on food will not manifest itself to the level of destructiveness that comes with alcohol and drugs. But it can still take its toll. As can compulsive behavior that manifests itself in shopping and spending or other way. If we are unable to get to the root of our compulsive behaviors, we find that, whatever we happen to be consuming, we need more and more of it as time continues on. And then we find that we have an issue of addiction in our life.
Gluttony is a compulsive behavior, and compulsive behaviors become addictive behaviors, and we are a culture very much consumed by addictive behaviors, with food as, perhaps, the most common.
We often talk about comfort food. As I was editing this message the other evening I got that phrase comfort food in my mind and couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I got up, went to the pantry, and got into a bag of cookies. That rush of sugar helped me to think better! At least that’s what I told myself.
The truth is, we all have some type of compulsive behavior. And our compulsive behaviors are driven by a spiritual hunger, so there are two different types of hunger. There is physical hunger, and there is the hunger of trying to fill some type of void in our lives. As society becomes, in some ways, more secular, one of the ideas that can be lost is that we are spiritual beings. We are not just physical beings; we have souls as well, and those souls much be tended and they must be nourished. One of the reasons why, I think, our society is struggling so with addictions is because we are forgetting to nourish our souls.
Gluttony is about far more than just how much we eat. Gluttony is about how we live with abundance in a world where so many live with great scarcity. And I don’t say this in order to invoke any sense of guilt. I have said before and I will say again, I don’t believe in ever using guilt as a tool to motivate people. Guilt is destructive. I don’t believe in guilt. I do, however, believe in conviction. Conviction is different from guilt, because conviction is when the spirit of God takes hold of us, convinces us of a truth, and drives us to live in a different manner because of that truth.
Poverty has always vexed mankind. Unfortunately, both the words of Deuteronomy and Jesus’ affirmation of them have continued to be true – there are always poor people among us. In our own country, for example, billions upon billions have been spent on government programs, with the purpose of eradicating poverty, and yet it stubbornly persists.
There are many reasons why poverty and hunger continue to exist in our world. There are some personal reasons – some people are not able to manage their money or make poor decisions and fall into poverty – but there are many reasons beyond the individual.
The Scripture text for today takes up this difficult issue of scarcity, and it provides the background for some of the most famous words of Jesus – the poor will always be with you (Mark 14:7). In Deuteronomy, there is an interesting contrast in the words about the poor. In verse 4 we read that there need be no poor people among you. In verse 11 we read the words that Jesus quoted in the Gospel of Mark – there will always be poor people in the land. So, if there need not be any poor people in the land, why are we told that there will always be poor people in the land? One reason is because there are structural issues that not only cause some people to fall into poverty, but also serve as powerful forces that make it almost impossible for them to escape the trap of poverty, of hunger and other accompanying problems. The text from Deuteronomy emphasizes that the people of Israel must take care to not allow social structures to be erected that will trap people in debt, in poverty, and hunger.
Last week’s Sentinel-News had this headline – Feeding the Masses. The Serenity Center – here in Shelbyville, and where many of our congregation volunteers – was named Kentucky’s Best Food Pantry. About 1,300 people per week receive food through the ministry of the Serenity Center, which amounts to more than 55,000 per year.
It’s kind of a double-edged sword that the Serenity Center received this award. I’m pleased that they did, but it would be far better, wouldn’t it, if there were no need for that ministry. Wouldn’t it be great if it went out of business because of a lack of need? That it exists, and that is serves so many people, is evidence of the amount of need that is present in our community. And if Shelby County, viewed as one of the state’s most prosperous counties, has such need, what is the level of need in other parts of the state?
Consumption is a very important issue for our world, especially those of us who live in a part of the world where there is much more prosperity. We are taught to consume from the time we are young. We are reminded constantly that we live in a consumer economy; if we don’t spend and consume, the economy slows down.
I think we must ask ourselves some very hard questions about our consumption, especially at a point in time when we have come to understand that we do not have infinite resources and there are so many who live with such scarcity. I know I sure need to ask myself some of those questions.
A friend of mine traveled with a group of businessmen some years ago to Kazakhstan. As a group, they had two purposes – to encourage and offer advice to the business community and to seek opportunities to speak of their faith. At the time of the trip, my friend was working hard at getting his business off the ground, and while it is now doing very well, at the time it was early enough to still have its share of struggles. After the trip, he told me that he was by far the least successful businessman on that trip. After one of the gatherings, at which several very successful individuals spoke, all the attendees were invited to speak to and ask questions of any of those who had traveled with the group. My friend had not spoken and none of the attenders knew anything about him, but most of the crowd came to ask him questions. He was very puzzled about this so he asked one of those who attended the workshop why they were coming to him with their questions, especially when there were other, more successful businessmen present. I should mention that my friend is a big guy, and that is why the conference attenders came to him. In their view, he must have been the most successful because he appeared to them as the person who could most afford to eat well. Imagine living in a part of the world where you are judged as successful based on the appearance that you can afford to eat. That is hard for us to imagine, but such is the reality for many people in our world.
All week, as I worked on this message, I thought about my own habits of consumption. I really need to make some changes in my life. We are at a point in history where our present patterns of consumption must change, both for the health of our world and its inhabitants. With a world population approaching 7.5 billion, we our facing the limits of our resources; certainly any sustainable use of those resources.
Writing sermons is not easy. It’s not the process of selecting a topic, doing the research, writing a manuscript, and presenting it that makes it difficult, however. What makes it difficult is standing here, knowing how different my life is from the words I speak, and on this topic, the gulf is much wider than I wish it were. I live with too many luxuries in a world where so many do not even have life’s necessities. I speak of finding freedom in faith and allowing God to guide our lives, while too often I am at the mercy of my compulsions. And I speak of being wary of consuming too much while I am very much a consumer.
Gluttony, as we know, does speak to food, but it speaks to many other elements of our behavior as well. Our physical appetite can exert a great deal of control over us, but let us always remember that we must do more than feed our bodies; we must also feed our souls.