Rethinking the Seven Deadly Sins:
Part 3: Lust and Gluttony (2/13/05)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
I thought of renaming this morning’s sermon Lust and Gluttony: What are they, and how can I get involved? I’ve joked over the past few weeks about all the hands-on field research the members of this congregation have done on this subject of the Seven Deadly Sins, and I dare say that if we assigned sins to be investigated, these two would have no shortage of willing volunteers.
That doesn’t mean we’re evil—it means we’re human. And while I don’t intend to make light of the horrible consequences that both lust and gluttony can have on our lives, I do believe we will discover, as we have with the sins of pride, envy and anger, that there are virtues hidden as seeds even within these two sins, and that the evil within them arises more from self-centered excess than from the human drives that make these sins possible.
It was such a big deal back in 1976, when a candidate for the presidency agreed to do an interview with Playboy magazine. No candidate for such a lofty office had ever been interviewed by Playboy, a magazine that most men claim they purchase because of the high quality articles and fine journalism, but in reality generates a high percentage of its sales because of its photos of scantily clad and nude women.
But there was Jimmy Carter, a born-again Christian, a Southern Baptist, a Sunday school teacher; granting an interview to Playboy. And the interview went quite well until the very end, when Mr. Carter decided to say a few things about his personal experience with lust. And what he said doesn’t seem all that controversial in retrospect, but it caused major fireworks at the time.
Jimmy Carter admitted that when he saw a really good looking woman—the type of woman who frequently appeared sans clothing in the pages of Playboy—he felt lust in his heart. And he recognized that this was a sin. He was, after all, a Sunday school teacher, and Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
I have Carter’s exact quote: I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. Now, Carter insisted that he did not act on this lust, and that was his whole point. Feeling lust was a part of being human. And he believed God forgave him for his sinful nature. Further, he thought that resisting the temptations that come from feeling lust is a part what it means to be a Christian. My goodness, you would have thought Jimmy Carter had admitted he frequently attended orgies. The very idea that a man seeking the presidency would admit to a human weakness—admit that he had within him one of the Seven Deadly Sins—that was more than many people could take.
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Of course, as it turns out, presidents both before and after Mr. Carter had their fair share of lust too, and many of them seem to have had considerably less skill in avoiding the temptations that result! Lust is a reality. But is it redeemable? We’ve seen that the other deadly sins we’ve examined so far have within them a virtue that is waiting to get out. Within the sin of pride there is the virtue of worthiness. Within the sin of envy hides the virtue of emulation. And, sometimes, within and almost indistinguishable from anger, lies the virtue of righteous indignation. As Aristotle said, Anybody who doesn’t get mad at the right person at the right time for the right reason is a fool.”
In Robin Meyer’s book The Virtue in the Vice, which is serving as a sort of guide through our study of the Seven Deadly Sins, he notes that in our modern world sex has been moved out of the realm of mystery and into the realm of commerce. From TV to movies, from magazine covers to popular music, sex is everywhere!
And let’s not deceive ourselves. This sex we discover at every turn has nothing to do with commitment, or love, or devotion, or anything else that could be considered virtuous. Popularized sex is somewhere between a recreational activity and an athletic competition. I’ll quote Robin:
With our Western, mechanistic view of sex as a purely physical form of competition with winners and losers, no wonder we end up “using” one another like steroids. Bodies are advertised as objects-de-lust, and we go shopping for the model to maximize our performance. The ancient understanding of lust as the indiscriminate consumption of the other for purely selfish pleasure had to do with physical gratification. Today, we have reworked the definition of lust to fit the age of narcissism. We seem more interested in what sexual conquest can do to confirm our own attractiveness… Our sexual addictions are more rooted in ego than desire.
It seems to me that the biggest deception our culture perpetrates when it comes to sex is the notion that human sexuality can be separated from the spiritual and emotional. It just isn’t so. And on the other hand, the church has traditionally viewed human sexuality as something vile and sinful—something necessary for procreation, but without value in and of itself.
We Congregationalists should remember that our forbears in the faith were called Puritans, and they had more than their fair share of hang-ups when it comes to sex. In fact, this was one of the few areas our Congregational heritage has in common with the ancient, hierarchical church it used to scorn: lust is a deadly sin, and there is a cardinal virtue opposite that sin, namely, chastity.
Nowhere is the unhealthy dualism between spirit and flesh more obvious than with the subject of sex. In that simplistic dualism, where everything fits neatly into one of two categories—good or bad—our human flesh is the enemy. Our pure and perfect spirits are trapped in these lustful, sinful bodies, and we must fight our physical bodies—fight ourselves—every step of the way through life. Women, you follow one of the two biblical Mary’s—either the virtuous and virginal Mary, who miraculously gave birth to Jesus, or the sinful prostitute Mary Magdalene. By the way, the church figured out a long time ago that there is no reason to think Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, but bad theology, like faulty readings of the Bible, die hard.
It is no wonder modern culture reacts so strongly against this idea that one is either a paragon of virtue or a corrupted sinner. Human beings are born sexual creatures. It is a part of who we are, and insisting that we ignore that drive and treat it as evil and sinful is a terrible way to approach human life. So modern culture turns it into something that is purely physical. It can be casual. Hey, we are told, its no big deal. Look at nature. Everywhere you turn you see sexual activity. Are we not a part of nature? If it feels good do it!
But this “anything goes” attitude is just as misguided as the church’s puritanical thinking. Human beings are complicated creatures. We are emotional, physical, spiritual, thinking beings. And we should not separate all those things into nice neat categories that we can turn on and off as we please. We can’t turn off our spiritual and emotional sides and be physical-only creatures for a little while.
So what is the answer? Where do we find some virtue in this vice of lust? Where do we find a way of thinking about sex that neither gives in to the wretched excess of modern culture nor the church’s unhealthy attitude that chastity is the only real answer to the human sex drive?
In Robin’s book, he suggests the virtue that lies hidden within lust is “Holy Eros.” The word eros often gets a bad rap. Some theology tends to oversimplify love by classifying it as either agape or eros. Agape is the good kind of love that one feels for others, driven by a faithful heart. Eros is the erotic kind of love. If eros as a type of love is redeemable, it is the love a married couple feels for each other, as opposed to the agape love they feel for their children.
But this really is an oversimplification. Eros is love driven by a deep passion. In Greek literature eros was the power that held the universe together. God loves the world passionately. And human love becomes holy when it is mutual, shared between two people, without guilt, without shame, open and joyfully.
The only way to think of eros as holy is to consider sexuality divine. We need to stand up to the church and also to modern culture. The church needs to accept that it is not a human weakness, it is a gift from God. It can be the ultimate expression of the love between two people whose lives are committed to one another. And modern culture needs to accept the fact that it is something special. We must stop thinking of it as a weekend recreational activity. We must stop advertising supplements that promise to make us the most competitive lover on the block, if we only get our daily dose of the latest herbal fad, or chemical fix for our sexual inadequacies.
Holy eros is a virtue. But like the other virtues, when it becomes self- centered it turns into lust, and it becomes something ugly. It takes the ultimate expression of love and turns it into something egotistical.
Well, that’s enough lust from the pulpit for one morning. Let’s turn to the fifth of the Seven Deadly Sins, the sin of gluttony. This is the sin I have the most trouble with—not so much because I enjoy more than my fair share of good food and wine, but rather because I think our society discriminates against people who are overweight. And in many cases gluttony is not the cause of weight problems.
I have people in my circle of family and friends who never leave the table really full. I know people who, with much more restraint than I can personally muster, push themselves away from the table at virtually every meal while they are still feeling hungry. And here’s what really bothers me. A lot of people who have no idea what that is like—people who eat to their fill every time they dine and never put on an extra pound—look down their noses at those overweight people. The fact is, genetics and metabolism have an awful lot to do with what one weighs. What I am saying is this: I know skinny people who are more gluttonous than some of the heavy people I know. So I hope we don’t confuse being skinny as the virtue that is opposite gluttony.
The church has traditionally considered temperance as the cardinal virtue opposite gluttony. In Robin’s book, he claims that the hidden virtue within the sin of gluttony is communion. It is in the sacrament of communion that Christians realize it is quality and not quantity that makes the meal. I’ll quote from his book:
Communion is a theology of food, a celebration of the sacrament of eating together—both moderately and joyfully. It is not the food we love, but the way that love completes the food. The ancient act of offering a toast is a manifestation of this virtue. At the table of mutuality and respect, one does not belly up to the trough and begin to gulp and slobber. One recognizes the moment, raises the glass, looks present company in they eye, and with words of hope and encouragement converts nourishment of the body into nourishment of the soul. It is not just what we eat, but why we eat and with whom we eat.
I’m going to turn away from this path for a moment, though, and try to redeem what many might call gluttony. One of the greatest images of heaven is the image of the great banquet. At the time of Jesus, it was common for people to be hungry. When they envisioned what a perfect afterlife would be like, they imagined a place where there was lots of fresh water, good wine, and ample supplies of food. The great banquet became the metaphor for the heavenly life.
And then consider these words of Jesus: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Abundant life. That is Jesus’ wish for us. That we live joyful lives of abundance.
And further, consider this. When scholars debate what words from the Bible were actually said by Jesus and what words might have been attributed to him by his apostles after his death, one of the phrases that is considered to almost certainly be “authentic Jesus’ is this, found in both Matthew and Luke: “[People say of me], Look, Jesus…comes eating and drinking, a glutton and a drunk.”
Why do the scholars feel so confident Jesus really said this? Because there was no reason for the writers of the gospels to put those words in their stories. It didn’t help their cause. They were trying to convince the world that Jesus was the one and only holy son of God. Admitting that he was accused of being a glutton and a drunk served no purpose, other than to acknowledge that it was widely believed he was indeed a glutton and a drunk.
I do not believe for a second that Jesus was a glutton and a drunk. I certainly do believe that Jesus enjoyed a good meal, and I believe he enjoyed drinking wine with his friends when they gathered for a feast. Surely, the attack on Jesus came not because of what he ate and drank, or even how much he ate and drank, but rather who he ate with. When Jesus said, “I come that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” he was talking about everybody.
Have you seen that new Taco Bell commercial where somebody proudly pats his stomach and shouts, “I’m full!” (Usually while some poor friend is in the middle of his backswing on the golf course.) I certainly will not champion the fast food industry and the role it plays in the fattening of America, but friends, there is nothing wrong with being full. There is nothing wrong with gathering with friends and having a great feast. In fact, this is one of the great pleasures in life.
The sin of gluttony takes hold only when we eat to the exclusion of others. We feast while others go without. But as long as we are working to make this world a more fair and just place; as long as we are standing against the powers that keep people in poverty by the billions while others feed their pets steak; as long as we are willing to share from our abundance; then we are not being gluttonous. We are living abundantly, and that is a good thing, as long as we are seeking ways to make the lives of all God’s children lives of abundance.
Gluttony? Obviously a sin. But within that sin is the virtue of communion, where God’s grace is poured out abundantly; and perhaps even more importantly, just beneath the surface of gluttony is the virtue of joyful abundance. How do we draw the line between gluttony and joyful abundance?
Simple. Be thankful for our blessings; and share from our abundance. And then, if people call us gluttons and drunks, we’ll just smile and know we are in good company.