Gluttony and the great future feast

When I was switching channels on my tv last week, I came across a channel called ’24 hour kitchen’. Watching this for about a minute, I found out you can watch cooking shows with Jamie Oliver or Donald Shekan all day long!  The first line on this channel’s website reads: ‘Everyday we give the answer to the most asked question of the Netherlands: ‘What’s on the menu today?’’ Now this is what most of us would call one of the appearances of gluttony: to obsess over food.

The students have studied the vices last couple of months.  Traditionally there are seven.  They are: vainglory, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony and lust.  Pride is at the root of them all.  Tonight is about gluttony.  But what is gluttony?  How does it manifest itself?  How can we find out whether we are gluttons?  How can we use meals for the best?

So, what is gluttony?  In fact it is not necessarily about how much we are eating, but about how our eating reflects how much pleasure we take in food and why.  It’s more about the desire than the food itself.  For example, when we go to a party, do we look forward more to the food present there or to the company of the people?  Gluttony is focused on personal, immediate pleasure and it degrades us humans into being mere pleasure seekers, needing a pleasure fix.  It decreases our appreciation of the food, the company we are in and God who created it for us.

So when is enjoying food wrong?  According to Rebecca Konyndyk: when it is consumed fastidiously, ravenously, excessively, sumptuously and hastily [Glittering Vices, ch 7].  Why is that so bad?  Because the glutton’s life is focused on bodily pleasure and God made people as more than physical and material beings.  He made us spiritual beings too, which means we also have spiritual needs.  Food only satisfies temporarily, and it doesn’t satisfy our spiritual needs and desires.  Jesus said that ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ [Matt 4:4]

Gluttony is therefore a vice, because desiring food, which is itself not bad, can be distorted and can get out of control.  Distorted desire for food can mean too much desire, or too little, not appreciating the good that God has given us.  Gluttons make their stomach their god: their mind is merely set on earthly things. Gluttony makes us think we can provide for ourselves in finding satisfaction – here is the connection to pride as the roots of all vices.  By thinking we can provide for ourselves, we disregard our spiritual as well as our material nature and we dishonour God. [Philippians 3:19].

So what are gluttony’s cures?  Fasting of course.  It helps us to take care of our spiritual needs and to re-appreciate food.

In her book on the vices, Konyndyk writes that eating is not merely a physical act for us but an identity-forming one, social and symbolic.  She wonders whether our eating habits are dedicated to serving our own pleasure or to serving our spiritual mission.  Have we disciplined our bodies and appetites to be our willing partners in a life of discipleship?  Being a disciple is about identity and mission.  As Jesus’ disciples, our identity is in Christ, and our mission is to disciple others.

How can gluttony sabotage our mission?  And how can meals contribute to our mission?  I’d like to stress here that, of course our mission and identity as Christians includes feasting and fasting.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus shares many meals.  He is either going to a meal, at a meal or coming from a meal.  Is there any significance in that?  Jesus had meals with tax collectors and sinners, with Pharisees, with women, with Zaccheaus, and with his disciples.  Eating and drinking were important because Jesus enacted his mission by it, the sharing of meals was a sign of his friendship with sinners.  His frequent presence at meals and his abundant grace are linked!  They were an invitation to the heavenly feast.  His meals were enacted grace, community and mission.  But why eating and drinking specifically?  Here we must consider the cultural historic circumstances.  In the first century, meals were not just meals.  Sharing a meal with someone meant friendship, unity and intimacy.  Therefore, welcoming someone was symbolic, and reconciliation often happened at meals, because enmity is hard to sustain when you share a meal.  When Jesus invited himself to dinner at Zacchaeus in Luke 19, he offered him grace, and reconciliation with God.

Now the Jews had very strict food laws that the Pharisees made sure were followed with a much strictness.   This meant that eating with non-Jews was hardly possible.  Put these two together – the symbolic value of sharing a meal and the restricting dietary laws – and very religious Jews were only allowed to eat with people as strict as they were.  Notice here that gluttony sneaks in, when the Pharisees deal with food too delicately, thereby excluding certain people.  They do not live out the feast for all people from all nations.  But Jesus does, when he eats with people who were not on the Pharisees’ guest list.  So Jesus honoured these outcasts, these sinners, the poor, the unclean.  He ate with them, giving them grace, offering them salvation, and welcoming them to God’s feast.

In a way, every meal we share as Christians is a re-enactment of this future feast, every meal a weak extract of this feast, and a pointer to this feast.  The most important re-enactment of course is Holy Communion.  This meal, too, points to the future feast.  Holy Communion exhibits our identity and mission.  We affirm our identity in and dependence on Christ.  We proclaim his great and glorious name.  We enjoy God’s hospitality and welcome.

Besides Holy Communion, through other meals we can also embody our identity and mission as Christians.  When we share lunches on Sunday or celebrate Easter with the Easter feast, we enact real community and we can offer grace.  We enjoy the meal not just because of the quality of the food, but also because of the companionship and welcome it expresses.  God’s hospitality and welcoming us was embodied in Jesus’ fellowship at tables 2000 years ago.  It is also expressed in Holy Communion.

We should imitate that generosity and hospitality.  And this is again where gluttony can sneak in, to spoil and distort things: when the meal is no longer used for bonding between people, but it is driving them apart.

In Acts we read that the early Christians ‘attended the temple together and broke bread in their homes.  They received their food with glad and generous hearts’ [2:46].  However, as we’ve read, a few decades in, the Corinthian church people abused this meal, by excluding the poor, and by being greedy [1 Corinthians 11:17-34].  They are not focused on community anymore, nor do they proclaim Jesus’ grace, but they seek to satisfy their own pleasure and satisfaction.  That is why one gets drunk and the other remains hungry.  Paul rebukes these people for despising the church of God, the body of Christ, which should be a unity.  Meals should promote unity between community members, but this is not what is happening when gluttony holds people in its grip.  It disrupts communities.  This is also what happened in the Roman church.  Paul writes: ‘If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love.  Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ has died.’ [Rom 14:15]

As Christians we are called to bring hope, and to invite others to our community meals, to imitate and anticipate the great future feast, the feast of rich food for all people, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines.  That is the hope we have, because of what Jesus has done for us.