Gluttons for Punishment?


An illustration by Albrecht Dürer depicting gluttony, circa 1498

What comes to mind when you hear the word “gluttony”?  My immediate mental image is of a rotund man sitting at a banquet table, turkey leg in one hand and wine goblet in the other, stuffing his face past the point of normal endurance.  My imagination then expands to the Independence Day hot dog eating contest at Nathan’s on Coney Island, sumo wrestlers gorging themselves on trays full of sushi, and frat boys trying to best each other in a drinking contest.  Perhaps I even see a cruise ship drifting through the Caribbean, its eager occupants devouring food and drink 24/7.

These scenarios range from silly to serious, and all of them have to do with the rapid devouring (I use this same word again because no verb in English seems to capture the meaning of gluttony as well as “devour”) of some kind of food or beverage, all of which usually leads to or is a part of bad behavior. But in our culture, such consumption is not considered to be especially bad. 

In fact, enjoying large quantities of food seems almost as American as apple pie. (With that metaphor, have I not made my point?) This is the nation that gave the world the Big Mac, Big Gulp, Sam’s Club, and Old Country Buffet.  Even the Pilgrims, so famously bereft of sustenance, are chiefly remembered for their Thanksgiving feast.

America celebrates and encourages consumption as much or more than any nation in history.  Not only have our delivery mechanisms (such as fast food) accomplished this, but it can also be seen in our particularly aggressive advertising schemes.  Most recently, consumption has been seen as an act of outright defiance, with members of the Tea Party gleefully brandishing massive sodas to protest New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempted ban.

It might surprise some people to learn that gluttony was once considered not just rude or bad for one’s health.  It was seen as an actual crime against God, one of the “Seven Deadly Sins”.  Also called “capital” sins, the Catholic catechism lists them as “pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth or acedia”.  The catechism also states, “They are called ‘capital’ because they engender other sins, other vices.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, number 1866)

This list of seven is never actually spelled out in Holy Scripture.  In fact, gluttony makes few appearances in the Bible, especially if you are not reading the King James Version.  Proverbs 23:20-21 warns us, Be not among winebibbers; among riotous eaters of flesh. For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty: and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags.” (KJV) However, you could argue that the sayings in Proverbs are more nuggets of wisdom than divine commands.


“Excess” by Albert Anker (1896)

Interestingly, Christ once referred to the fact that people had labeled him as a glutton. 

For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children. (Luke 7:33-35, NASB)

This seems to suggest, at the very least, that not every person who we think is a glutton is actually a glutton.  Perhaps it is because these scriptural references tend to be rather obscure that the modern Protestant church, which places so much emphasis on a literal, no frills interpretation of scripture, has not devoted much time to the subject.  I, for one, have never heard a sermon on the topic of gluttony.  Books about gluttony are few and far between, though this one looks rather interesting.  I think we have as much trouble defining gluttony as people in Jesus’ day.


William Blake’s illustration of the third circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno, with Cerebrus sinking his claws into the gluttons.

In medieval times, gluttony was a more serious infraction.  In his Summa Theologica (written around 1265-1274), Thomas Aquinas listed no less than five different ways that a person could commit this sin. (Part 2-2, Question 148, Article 4) In Dante’s Inferno, written less than a century later, the gluttons are located in the third circle of hell, where they are forced to spend eternity floating in what is essentially a lake of slushy garbage, constantly guarded by the massive three-headed dog Cerberus.

Perhaps the reason that gluttony was viewed more harshly in those times is that it was somewhat comparable to today’s white collar crime: only those who had lots of money could fall into it.  Historically, food was not nearly as plentiful as it is today.  People only had access to what could be grown or killed close enough to them that it would not spoil in transit.

Meat was a particular rarity, and your best chance of getting something sugary was to eat fruit or honey. (I still find it hard to comprehend that the vast majority of human history has gone by without our modern form of chocolate.) Unlike Western culture today, many societies historically believed that it was a good thing if a woman was more curvy (and less skinny), because that proved she was rich enough to have a lot of food and avoid manual labor.

Gout, a disease brought about when there is too much uric acid in the blood causing joint inflammation, was historically known as “the disease of kings” because it was believed to be caused by over indulging in food and beverage.  We now know that it is due to a more complex set of factors, though apparently a diet high in purines (mostly found in meats and other products that the rich would have been more likely to eat) can contribute to the problem.  I suppose it is only fitting that gout cases are currently rising in the United States.

I tell you all this to make the point that gluttony was seen as just one more way in which the rich were able to stick it to the poor, indulging far more than necessary when the poor serfs lived on the brink of starvation, sending their hard-earned dollars to fund the king’s lavish feasts.  For this principle, we definitely have some biblical support.  Here are the Apostle Paul’s words to the church in Corinth.

Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you. (1 Corinthians 11:20-22, NASB)

This passage is interesting because it proves that the potluck is as old as Christianity itself.  It also shows that those who went through the potluck line first were piling their plates so full that there was hardly anything left for those in the back of the line.

While it isn’t explicit, I would take his reference to “those who have nothing” to suggest that it was the poorer members of the congregation who were receiving the least amount of food.  Because they also had less to contribute, it could be that some people believed this to be a fair method of distribution: you take out what you put in.

However, this is not the way that the Church was meant to operate.  Consider the example of the early church in Jerusalem.

And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35, NASB)


The gluttony section from Hieronymus Bosch’s work “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things”, circa 1475-1480

This is a pretty far cry from our devotedly capitalist society.  In fact, it seems closer to Karl Marx’s famous slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”, which was first popularized in his Critique of the Gotha Program.  Regardless of whether you think this is a good way to organize a secular society, there is some truth to these words when it comes to the Church, and this gets us close to understanding the true problem of gluttony.

I would submit that, in our day and age, gluttony goes far beyond the amount of food that we consume on a daily basis.  It is more a question of what we consume, how that consumption affects others, and whether or not we are properly using the resources we have been given to help those who are less fortunate.

No, sending that loaf of bread you were about to eat in a FedEx box to Syrian refugees is not a good idea: it will likely be covered in mold by the time it gets there.  But ask yourself, “Is there anything I’m spending money on that could be put to better use providing for the poor?”  There are few of us who could answer “no” to that question, and while I’m not saying that God wants all of us to live the life of an ascetic, I think in general we let ourselves off too easily.

Here is another thing to consider: sometimes the menu item you choose is gluttonous not because of the amount of calories or the price tag, but because it is an over exploited resource.  This is a good time to point out the world’s dwindling fish population.  The huge increase in global demand for fish in recent history has sent many populations into a talespin.  There are many fish that are plentiful, yet some species are endangered because we are simply eating them too much.  Lists such as this one provide a good guide for buyers who want to help preserve a wide variety of species for the future.

For some people, consumption itself really is the problem.  Recent studies have shown that certain foods can truly be addictive.  All too often, we eat or drink to deal with stressful situations, kill time, or simply make ourselves happy when it really isn’t healthy.  We begin to treat food as the solution to our problems rather than something that is meant for keeping us alive and simple enjoyment.  Does this mean we can never enjoy a nice meal with family and friends?  Of course not, but we ought to consider if such a simple thing has become too high of a priority in our lives.

“There is no love sincerer than the love of food.”  Thus wrote George Bernard Shaw in his book Man and Superman.  I’m sure Mr. Shaw was being a bit ironic, but for some of us this unfortunate prophecy could actually come true, and f it does, we have a real problem on our hands.  As another famous author, Socrates, is believed to have said, “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”  Preach it, Brother Socrates!

I hope that I live to hear a sermon on gluttony preached in a Baptist church, not because I believe Baptists are uniquely guilty in this area, but because I’m pretty sure there would be a potluck immediately following the service, and that would be hilarious.  Do we summon divine wrath when we say, “Super Size Me”?  I don’t know, but there is a Morgan Spurlock documentary that suggests there are plenty of consequences for such a choice that are entirely of this earth.  Perhaps that is reason enough for us to decline to partake.

The New American Standard Bible (NASB) is Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation.