Is the Sin of Gluttony Neglected in Our Pulpits?

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon against gluttony—and that’s saying something. I’ve attended Bible-preaching services multiple times per week for more than 40 years. On the other hand, I’ve seen writers depict gluttony as one of the greatest evils of our time and the lack of preaching against it as the top—or near-top—failing of the modern church.

To be sure, some have exaggerated its importance. But are they right that it’s a neglected topic?

As I’ve researched gluttony in Scripture and in church history, it’s become clear that I’m not yet ready to answer that question. But I do want to offer some points to consider in order to frame the question.

1. Consider the proportion of attention Scripture gives to the topic.

“Glutton,” “gluttony” and “gluttonous” occur six to eight times in most English Bibles. Broader study of the topic brings about half a dozen more passages to light.

So if you’re in the habit of preaching and teaching through the Bible systematically, it’s not like you have to go out of your way to avoid preaching on gluttony. It is just not going to come up often—and when it does, it will usually be as a portion of some larger topic.

2. Evaluate the history of Christian thought on the topic.

In the 4th century, Christian teachers tended to list eight especially damaging sins, and gluttony was usually near the top of the list. John Cassian is an example:

[W]e now propose, being strengthened by God through your prayers, to approach the struggle against the eight principal faults, i.e. first, Gluttony or the pleasures of the palate; secondly, Fornication; thirdly, Covetousness, which means Avarice, or, as it may more properly be called, the love of money, fourthly, Anger; fifthly, Dejection; sixthly, “Accidie,” which is heaviness or weariness of heart; seventhly, κενοδοξία which means foolish or vain glory; eighthly, pride.1

Gregory the Great is credited with shortening the list to the famous “Seven Deadly Sins,” which also includes gluttony.2

3. Give careful attention to definition.

Discussion of the topic of gluttony often uses the term in a variety of ways without any kind of consistency; sometimes a very broad idea is apparently in view, and other times writers equate it with being overweight or exceeding a particular body mass index.

Again, history is helpful. How have devout students of the Word understood gluttony over the centuries?

The 4th century writings of the desert monk John Cassian are of some help (quoted above). Richard Baxter is another helpful example:

Gluttony is a voluntary excess in eating for the pleasing of the appetite, or some other carnal end… (1). It is sometimes an excess in quantity, when more is eaten than is meet. (2) Or else it may be an excess in the delicious quantity, when more regard is had to the delight and sweetness than is meet. (3) Or it may be an excess in the frequency and ordinary unseasonableness of eating; when men eat too oft, and sit at it too long. (4) It may be an excess in the costliness or price…. (5) Or it may be an excess in the dress, and saucing, and ordering of all. (Christian Directory — CCEL)

John Calvin seems to have been less inclined to warn specifically against the pleasures of eating. Speaking of the sins of Sodom as described in Ezekiel 16:50, he writes:

He afterwards adds “fullness of bread.” But the Prophet seems to condemn in the Sodomites what was not blamable in itself: for when God feeds us bountifully, fullness is not to be considered a crime; but he takes it here for immoderate gluttony; for those who have abundance are often luxurious, and nothing is more rare than self-restraint when materials for luxury are supplied to us. Hence “fullness of bread” is here taken for intemperance, since the Sodomites were so addicted to gluttony and drunkenness, that they gratified their appetites worse than the brutes, who do retain some moderation, for they are content with their own food: but men’s covetousness is altogether insatiable. (Commentary on Ezekiel — CCEL)

Looking back at the work of our forebearers is always worth doing, as an exercise in humility if nothing else. But, not surprisingly, we find that they often didn’t fully agree with one another.

Our goal has to be to define the concept of gluttony biblically, and we do this by studying the passages involved and their contexts, putting that in the larger context of both the story of creation, fall, and redemption and the topical context of fallen human nature and the relationship of sin to heart and mind as well as body.

4. Watch for modern biases.

Body mass index (BMI), is a modern concept, and very late modern at that. Stephanie Wilson, over at HowStuffWorks.com offers an interesting and helpful article. But the writer there somewhat comically says “using a formula to calculate obesity is not a new concept,” then describes the Quetelet Index of Obesity from only as far back as the 19th century.

I suppose in our culture 19th century means “not new,” but Christians should rise above our society’s heavily now-biased point of view. The 19th century is pretty much the day before yesterday.

And BMI is an even newer concept than Quetelet’s scale. HowStuffWorks.com dates it to the 1990s (though NPR unhelpfully conflates BMI and Quetelet while making some really good points—way back in the yesteryear of 2009).

Careful study of the biblical concept of gluttony shows that it is consistently associated with sinful desire and indulgence, and not with a particular physical state that can be arrived at in a wide variety (no pun intended!) of ways.

5. Factor in some biblical perspective on “fatness.”

In Scripture, “fat” and “fatness” are often associated with the blessing of God. In part, this is because most of the people of the world for most of human history have struggled from cradle to grave to get enough to eat. So if someone was able to achieve a bit of “fatness,” it was because God had gifted them with extraordinary abundance.

May God give you of the dew of heaven and of the fatness of the earth and plenty of grain and wine. (ESV, Gen. 27:28)

My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips (Psalm 63:5-6)

My knees are weak through fasting; my body has become gaunt, with no fat. (Psalm 109:24)

And they captured fortified cities and a rich land, and took possession of houses full of all good things, cisterns already hewn, vineyards, olive orchards and fruit trees in abundance. So they ate and were filled and became fat and delighted themselves in [God’s] great goodness. (Neh. 9:25)

And in that day his burden will depart from your shoulder, and his yoke from your neck; and the yoke will be broken because of the fat. (Isa. 10:27)

6. Relate the dangers of abundance to the extraordinary plenty of our times.

Close on the heels of the positive references to fatness and abundance in Scripture, we find warnings against what human nature tends to do with that—in a word, “forget.” Forget where it all comes from, forget what the point of it all is, forget our stewardship and responsibilities, forget how ruinous self-indulgence is.

Since we live in times of extraordinary plenty, we should expect to face special temptations in the area of excessive indulgence in all sorts of appetites, including the appetite for food. What used to tempt only kings and princes tempts just about all of us daily in the USA.

…lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Deut. 8:12-14)

For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant. (Deut. 31:20)

But Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked; you grew fat, stout, and sleek; then he forsook God who made him and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation. (Deut. 32:15)

[T]hey have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. Shall I not punish them for these things? declares the Lord, and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this? (Jer. 5:28-29)

7. Be mindful that physical fitness can also be idolatrous.

Gluttony is a form of idolatry, but obsession with physical fitness and dietary discipline can also reflect inordinate affections.

Great abundance, and the ubiquity of labor-saving devices, means most of us are in a historically unparalleled situation: we have to go out of our way to maintain enough physical exercise. Doing what we need to in that regard is good stewardship, but any good thing can become an obsession.

Something akin to idolatry is going on when a person’s entire life centers on trying to live just a little bit longer, just a little bit healthier. For believers, life and health are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? (Matt. 6:27)

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Rom. 14:17)

Gluttony may well be a neglected topic in our preaching and teaching ministries, but correcting that requires more than a gut reaction.

Notes

1 John Cassian, “The Twelve Books of John Cassian on the Institutes of the Cœnobia”, trans. Edgar C. S. Gibson, Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lérins, John Cassian, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894). 233-34.

2 The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, 3rd ed. rev. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). 1499.

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Ed Vasicek's picture

Thought you covered some good point.  Here are the notes from sermon Sunday on this subject (as mentioned, a subpoint; I covered Proverbs 23:15-35.

 

C. Association with GLUTTONS and the WASTEFUL (20b-21)

 

Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 1, “riotous eaters or flesh… it is possible that the reference is not to the amount of food eaten… but to the manner of banqueting…” p, 244

 

We are to enjoy God’s blessings, not abuse them (I Timothy 6:17)
The OT Word is broad: “be light, worthless, squander, gluttonous, vile”
Picture 1:  Someone who keeps eating even when he is full/no restraint
Picture 2: A kid who isn’t hungry bites an apple and throws it out.
The Prodigal Son squandered his inheritance…

Training children to take only what they can eat and go back for seconds….
Other day, making egg, yoke broke; scrambled; some would throw out
The modern dieting craze/calorie ethics are new —pay attention to stomachs

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I can't really make my case for it yet... a bit more study--and organizing of the info mostly. But i don't think gluttony really has anything to do with waste or poor stewardship of food, as important as that is. It's pretty much just greed/inordinate desire in a variant that focuses on food.

If I'm right, it's possible to get pretty overweight by degrees and never commit gluttony. It's even possible to eat really excessive amounts of food and not commit gluttony--if you didn't particularly desire to do so. (Yes, I know, why would you do it then? A fair question, but I'm in thought experiment land. My pt. is that I don't think it necessarily has much to do with quantity consumed or calorie balance. It has to do with why we eat. It is inordinate affection... ultimately, it is some form of idolatry.)

Edit: OK I have to revise. It would have some relationship to waste because an indulgent lifestyle is just about always a wasteful one also. Hence the association of the two at times in Scripture. it's like Eph 5's reference to drunkenness as 'dissipation."  There is a waste of self involved in destructive self-indulgence. A squandering of time, energy, vitality. So there is a connection. But I would also say they are not exactly the same thing. It is possible to be wasteful without any form of greed being involved I think... unless we can trace the very idea of negligence back to some kind of greed. Not out of the question either.

You have got me thinking. Smile

Ed Vasicek's picture

The Hebrew word used here in Prv. 23 for gluttony (zalal) is pretty broad, and the central idea seems to be squandering, not just eating after one is already fully (that is one form of squandering).

Since the NT themes are generally developments of OT themes -- including types of sin -- it makes sense to properly weight the original Hebrew word or idea that the NT authors then develop or modify.

You waste food two ways: (1) by eating after you feel full, converting it to fat or throwing it up, or (2) by throwing it away, etc.  Both are examples of squandering and show a lack of appreciation for God's provision.

Your points in the article are well taken, BTW.

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

It might help to post some of my notes here. I think I will probably not get back to the topic in article form any time soon, so here’s some of what my thinking is based on so far…

These are the most common occurrences of glutton/gluttony/gluttonous in English translations…

Deut 21:20

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.’

Prov 23:20

Be not among drunkards or among

gluttonous

eaters of meat,

Prov 23:21

for the drunkard and the

glutton

will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags.

Prov 28:7

The one who keeps the law is a son with understanding, but a companion of

gluttons

shames his father.

Matt 11:19

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A

glutton

and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”

Luke 7:34

The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A

glutton

and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’

Titus 1:12

One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy

Gluttons.”

 

These are some prominent passages developing the concept/theme without using a word normally translated as “gluttony”…

  • In Genesis 25:30-34 (in light of Heb. 12:16-17), Esau is apparently not really starving and impulsively trades his birthright to satisfy his craving for food.
  • In Numbers 11:4, 33 (and Psalm 78:18, 30-31 help) the Israelites have a “craving” and apparently gorge themselves with wild abandon on the quail God provides. After God’s judgment falls, the place is named Kibroth-hattaavah, which could be translated Graves of Gluttony.
  • The sons of Eli seem to be guilty of some gluttony (among other things) in 1 Samuel 2:15-17 as they seize the best meat from those coming to offer sacrifices.
  • Philippians 3:19 refers to phony Christians who’s “god is their belly.”
  • Ecclesiastes 10:16-17 refers to feasting in the morning rather than at “the proper time.”

Viewed all together, it is not waste that is mainly in view so much as desire out of control or indulgence of perverse/excessive desire for the pleasures of food. This is especially evident in the second set of passages.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Aaron, you are missing the point.  My concern is capturing the broader meanings of the anchor word, zalzal.  I believe this is the key to understanding gluttony. In the NIV (I don't have a Young's for ESV), the word zalzal is translated as follows:

 

gluttons (2)

despise (1)

despised (1)

gorge (1) 

profligate (1)

worthless (1)

 

The word is much broader than mere "glutton." It is very much about ATTITUDE.  It does include the idea of wastefulness and holding things in contempt (not respecting and appreciating them).  Animals die to provide us with meat and we are to respect the shedding of blood. They are God's provision for us.  When we treat meat with contempt (wastefulness), we are unthankful and unappreciative.

The Proverbs 23:20  passage specifically mentions meat, and, although we cannot prove other passages imply gluttony as associated with meat, such an implication could be inferred.  I would argue that wasting vegetation is not as bad as wasting meat.  Perhaps because we buy it packaged at the market we forget that animals were slaughtered to provide it.

Thus we might condemn being greedy (for food) as the underlying sin provoking gluttony, wastefulness caused by a thankless attitude could be another. Thus being truly appreciative for God's provision would help prevent being wasteful.

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I'm not sure how much can be concluded from zalal.

I can see that zalal occurs a bout 8 times in the OT. Jeremiah seems to use the word to mean despise or cast aside (Lam. 1:8, 11. Jer. 15:19... Maybe Jer 2:36--that's an obscure one.)

In the other passages it is arguably associated with waste, true, but it is also associated with self undulgence. Three of the remaining four have the term closely paired with drunkenness (Deut. 21.20, Prov 23.20, Prov. 23.21).

But as far as semantics goes, the fact that a word has denotation A in some contexts doesn't mean it necessarily carries that in the form of denotation or even connotation in a different context.

Looking at the big picture, though, for studying the concept of gluttony we have more than zalal to factor in.

In the NT, for example, we have phagos and gastar. These are words for eating/belly.

And then there are the examples of Kibroth-hattaavah, Esau, the sons of Eli, etc. It would probably be worth studying as well what sort of Greek the LXX uses for zalal and other OT Hebrew terms.

As an small start on that....

  • Deut 21.20 has συμβολοκοπέω for zalal. It seems to mean "given to feasting"
  • In Lam 1.8 they went with ταπεινόω for zalal. Seems to mean to humble or bring low.
  • Lam. 1.11 uses ἀτιμόω, to dishonour.
Bert Perry's picture

We might infer that in eating (or wasting per one commenter) without regards to need, one might be rightly accused of covetousness or inordinate desire for food.  And I would suggest that the Scriptures say a little bit more about that!  In fact, I have mused about whether it would be wise to start a financial faithfulness class by saying "look in the mirror--if you've got 'collops' of fat on you, that just might be evidence of covetousness."

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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