Last week when I was in Egypt a young earnest Anglican asked me how Anglicans fast.
I was giving nine lectures on Anglicanism to sixty Egyptian Anglican bishops, priests, deacons, and their wives at a Coptic retreat center outside of Cairo. Bishop Mouneer Anis, bishop of Egypt and leader of the Global South, was my host.
I told this young man and the audience that Anglicans have fasted in different ways in their long history, but that a common standard was three-fold:
- no food before Sunday morning Eucharist,
- no food on Fridays before 5 PM, and
- going without alcohol, meat, and desserts during Lent.
The audience laughed and laughed.
“Why are you laughing?” I asked.
No one wanted to answer.
After my talk was finished, I approached an Egyptian priest and asked him to tell me the reason for the laughter.
“They laughed because your tradition seems so easy. Most Christians here don’t drink at all. Meat is very expensive and so rare. And desserts are a luxury.”
This priest’s response has reverberated in my head over and over ever since, as I walk the Lenten pilgrimage trying to join Jesus in his forty days of fasting to prepare for his public ministry. Especially when I think about gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins. My new Anglican friends in Egypt have given me more reason to take this sin seriously.
Gluttony in the Bible
I’ve been somewhat surprised to discover that gluttony is all over the Bible.
It’s right at the beginning, involved in the Fall. Eve took the forbidden fruit because, among other reasons, it was “good for food.” As the later tradition concluded, this was an instance of gluttony because it was the quintessential example of what gluttony is—an irrational consumption of food. Irrational in this case, and to the utmost degree, because God had threatened death to anyone who ate it.
The Book of Proverbs suggests that gluttony leads to deception, disgrace, and poverty.
“When you sit with a ruler, put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony. Don’t crave his delicacies because that food is deceptive” (23.7).
“A companion to gluttons disgraceshis father” (28.7).
“Be not among drunkards or gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags” (23.20-21).
For the prophet Ezekiel, gluttony is connected to lack of concern for the poor. The sin of Sodom was that the residents of that cursed city were “overfed and unconcerned—they did not help the poor and needy” (16.49).
In the gospels Jesus was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton (Matt 11.19). His apostle Paul treats gluttony as a kind of idolatry and worldly-mindedness. He talks about “enemies of the cross of Christ [whose] god is their stomach. Their glory is in their shame, and their minds are set on earthly things” (Phil 3.19).
In his second letter to Timothy, Paul does not mention gluttony by name but identifies what for the medievals was its chief characteristic: love of pleasure. Paul implies the danger that this love will substitute for love for God. “In the last days people will be lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim 3.4).
What is gluttony?
As was so characteristic of him, Thomas Aquinas subjected gluttony (which both pictures and legend suggest was a temptation for him) to precise analysis. He said gluttony is an inordinate desire for food. Inordinate because it is contrary to reason. So when a man eats more than what the body reasonably needs, and when he does so simply to satisfy the desires of his palate, he risks gluttony. (All of what follows is from Summa Theologica 2.2 Q148.)
Thomas said there are three kinds of gluttony.
- The first kind lusts for food that is prepared “too nicely or daintily,” which seems to mean refusing to eat anything other than the most carefully prepared delicacy. The Caroline divine Jeremy Taylor provides us with two examples of this: the sons of Israel who got sick of manna and demanded flesh, and the sons of Eli who were not satisfied with boiled meat and demanded roasted meat (Holy Living chap. 2, sect. 2).
- The second kind of gluttony is eating too much, and
- third is when we gobble our food down in a rush or with greed, failing to take the time to appreciate it and fellowship with others.
Why is gluttony bad?
Thomas said that gluttony is a deadly sin if someone is willing to disobey God’s commandments in order to obtain these pleasures. But if he eats too much or greedily yet would never do so if he knew he was breaking God’s law, it is only a venial sin.
Thomas added that the sins of the flesh are less serious than the sins of the spirit. Adam was guilty of both pride and gluttony at the Fall, but it was his pride not his gluttony that got him expelled from the Garden.
But Thomas detailed all the dangers that come with gluttony. At this point he added immoderate drinking to immoderate eating, as the Bible often does.
- First, gluttony and drunkenness dull the understanding. He cites Ecclesiastes 2.3 to say that fasting increases wisdom.
- Second, they lead to unseemly joy, where everything is always a joke and nothing is serious.
- Third, they lead to excessive talking, and fourth, to immoderate behavior because they loosen one’s inhibitions.
- Finally, he says, it leads to uncleanness of body (nocturnal emissions and vomiting).
If even half of this is true, what does it say about the explosion of food fetishes all around us? By that I mean the obsessive way that some of us have of insisting on eating only gourmet food, refusing to eat anything but “clean” food or organic food, or living with the overarching goal of always finding the positively best way of cooking the most exquisite ingredients.
In other words, what should we say about being a foodie?
Can we be foodies without being gluttons?
Here’s a shot at answering the question. Jesus often went to parties and banquets, told parables about banquets, invited his apostles to a last supper before he died, and said that the new earth would be dominated by a wedding feast. Yet he also said the Kingdom of God is not about food and drink (Rom 14.17).
Augustine seems to sum up the proper balance: food is not the problem, but how we seek it and why can be problems. We should eat for nourishment and also for community and friendship. The best eating is when we combine the two. Eating for pleasure alone can make us a slave of food (Meilaender, “Sweet Necessities: Food, Sex, and Saint Augustine”).
Keeping this balance in mind can help us avoid the deadly sin of gluttony. That is food for thought during Lent.