Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 14 March 2010: Gluttony

14 March 2010 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon in Residence

Readings: Gen 37:3-4; 12-end; I Peter 2:16-end.

There is only one reference in the New Testament to my subject this morning: in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus has a dispute with the pharisees.  Jesus says they are impossible to please.   John the Baptist ate and drank very little and they said he was possessed by a demon; Jesus eats and drinks in the normal way and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ (Mt 11:19 cf. Luke 7:34).  This is the only place in the New Testament where we find the Greek word which gets translated ‘glutton’ – somebody who overeats compulsively.

Gluttony is one of the traditional deadly sins.  In English, the word is mostly used for overeating, but it can be used of anything done to excess: being a glutton for food or wine or money or sex.  The list of seven deadly sins we have been thinking about through Lent was developed to remind monks and nuns, and then all Christians, how not to live.  Naming a sin like gluttony is a way of helping us attend to the needs of the soul rather than being obsessed with the desires of the body.

In the Bible, attitudes to food are usually very positive.  Having plenty of food is regarded as a great blessing.  The Israelites went to Egypt when there was a terrible famine in the land of Canaan.  In Egypt, which is fertile because of the waters of the Nile, Joseph’s brothers were able to buy food and take it home to their family.  In the end, Joseph’s family migrated to Egypt, though even here there was a terrible famine.  When, after many generations, the Israelites fled from Egypt, they passed through the desert, where they could find only the basic food given by God, to sustain them.  In the end, when they crossed the Jordan, they came into a land of abundant fertility, flowing with milk and honey.  The Israelites never forgot that the land on which their crops ripened and their cattle grew fat was given by God.  The produce that came from the land was God’s gift to them.  It was to be shared with all who needed to be fed.  In a land of plenty nobody was to go hungry.

The Hebrew Scriptures contain various rules about what sort of foods can be eaten, and what cannot; about how to prepare food and how to prepare oneself for eating.  The Pharisees were a group of religious puritans, who tried to keep these rules perfectly.  Jesus clashed with them because they missed the point of eating well.  They were more keen on keeping rules than meeting human need.  They fussed about whether people had washed properly and missed the joy of sharing meals with people who were too poor to keep religious rules.  Jesus didn’t deny the importance of fasting: but he didn’t think it was right to fast when he could enjoy the good company of the poor.

Paul has a lot to say about food.  Some of the new Christians were worried about what they could and couldn’t eat, about whether they could eat food that had been offered to gods and then sold in the meat-market.  Paul teaches that this is not in itself a problem, but if it is a problem to somebody else then it is better not to give offence by what you eat.  As Christians, we shouldn’t be anxious about what we eat or don’t eat: the important thing is that whatever and whenever we eat or drink, we do it to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31).

There is a passage in Paul’s writings which sums this up.  Paul compares himself to an athlete, quite possibly an Olympic athlete (1 Cor 9: 24-7).  Athletes, he says, are serious about winning.  They train; they exercise self-control because coming second is not good enough.   Paul says of himself he is not like an amateur boxer who doesn’t care whether he lands a punch or not; he not like a saturday runner who isn’t seriously focused on winning.  He disciplines his body so he has the best possible chance of success.  Gluttony represents a lack of self-control: Paul advocates self-control so the Christian is of maximum effectiveness in serving the Lord.

We need to read this alongside Jesus’s story of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).  Jesus tells the story of a rich man who was dressed in purple, like an emperor: he had the most expensive clothes and he feasted sumptuously every day.  At his gate lay the poor man, Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.  Dives was eating to excess while Lazarus was starving.  With Dives’ lack of self-control went a lack of compassion: he could not see the need of the poor man.  His gluttony was part of a wider pattern of deadly self-indulgence.

There is a famous distinction between freedom from and freedom for.  The Gospel, the good news of Jesus, frees us from being obsessed with rules about food: from fussing about whether we are eating the right kind of food in the right kind of way.  Precisely because Jesus wasn’t fussed about food and drink, he was called ‘a glutton and a drunkard’.  This freedom from rules about food is also a freedom for.  It’s a freedom to use the body well, so we can serve God generously.  This means – where good food is available –eating sensibly, like a sportsman or woman, so we can we can be as free and fit as possible for God’s service in God’s world.

This, if we have the money, is all very well in the UK, because so much food is available in our food-obsessed society.  It is easy to forget the people who don’t get a living wage – that is a wage at the lowest level necessary to eat well and stay healthy.  Eating healthy food is even harder for those on a national minimum wage, and harder still for those on jobseeker’s allowance, which is set below the minimum wage.  It’s hardest of all for those who, like Lazarus, would be glad to eat the out-of-date meat and fruit that is thrown out of our supermarkets: refused asylum seekers.  If they have an azure card, they live on £35 a week, and if they don’t have a card, they live on nothing.   There are places in London, like the Jesuit Refugee Service at London Bridge, where refused asylum seekers used to be given £10 a week, but this has now been cut to £5 because the money is running out.  It is very painful for the staff to give so little to those they know have nothing.  I can say from my experience that a week with £10 or less to spend teaches you a lot.  Of course, a week spent on £10 is a pretty feeble demonstration of solidarity, but it is better than nothing 1. and something inside you changes through the week.  Perhaps a week with only £10 to spend is something to consider for Holy Week, as a preparation for Easter.

This of course is the point of fasting; this is why we fast in Lent: it’s so that something inside us changes.  It’s so we can be free from the kinds of excess which choke us spiritually - whether excess of eating or drinking or spending or sex.  We go without to give God space to change us from within.  By depriving ourselves in relatively minor ways of those things our body craves, we begin to cultivate the things our spirit needs.  By, for a short time, going without things we enjoy, we become more aware of the needs of those who are forced to go without things they need all the time.  When we try seriously to confront our gluttony, we begin to feed the wellsprings of joy and generosity which bring fertility to the soul.

1. The plight of refused asylum seekers is being highlighted on Channel 4’s Secret Millionaire programme on Monday 15 March, at 9pm. This week’s millionaire visited Refugee Action’s Leicester office and was shocked and moved by the plight of those who have been refused sanctuary in the UK but are unable to return home. He was scandalised that many are living destitute on the streets and dependent on food parcels from local charities – so he donated £15,000 to help start up a local project to help them. [Information from Church Action on Poverty]

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