“Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony/Temperance” © Laurel Dahill, 2014
Lent 1 – Year A — March 9, 2014
I want to share a little Lenten study with you this year. If you recall the Invitation to a holy Lent in our Ash Wednesday service, we heard, “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” We do a lot of meditating on God’s holy Word together each Sunday, but this year I’d like us to try directing our meditations with a common topic.
Lent is a time for examining our sins and shortcomings; the places where we’ve failed one another – even where we’ve failed our own selves, and where we fall short of God’s expectations and intent for us. When we talk about repenting from sin, we really open up a can of worms. What is sin anyways? If you surveyed passersby on the street I bet you’d get a lot of I don’t knows or vague and general concepts. “Sin” is a loaded term, isn’t it? We can all conjure up the image of an overly-righteous Christian wagging a finger as some unsuspecting person and calling them a sinner. That kind of puts a damper on self-examination. So let’s set this person aside for a little while, and try to get to a more helpful understanding of sin.
The concept of sin has been worked over by many people over the centuries. Some have tried to categorize sins, qualify and quantify them, and rate the severity of them – will this sin send a person straight to hell, or just paroled in Purgatory for a little while? Most people have at least heard of the Seven Deadly Sins, the list of the basic elements of transgressions. I’d like to use that as our common topic, as we meditate on God’s holy Word this Lent. As we study the lectionary readings for this season, we will bump into manifestations of these sins. If we can see them at play in the various words on the page from our scriptures, we might learn to see how they might make themselves known to us in our everyday lives.
First, let’s get a definition going for what we mean by deadly sins. Basically the seven sins are defined as a list of rebellious tendencies that afflict fallen humanity. These have been classified by traditional orthodox and Roman Catholic Christianity as cardinal sins, and venial sins. Cardinal sins are considered mortal wrongdoings. These are the transgressions that’ll get you life in H-E- double hockey sticks. The venial sins are less costly. A few acts of contrition will take care of those infractions.
The classic seven are based on a few places in the scriptures where the things that grieve God are noted. In Proverbs chapter 6 we read, “There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.” Through the years this list has been modified.
Although some Protestant denominations recognize the seven deadlies, most don’t, even though the list was established well before the Protestant Reformation. The teaching has been embedded into Roman Catholicism in a way that it has not been in most Protestant churches. Protestant theology would agree that the seven vices on the list are sins, but it generally doesn’t make a distinction between mortal and venial sins in the same way Roman Catholicism does.
That’s a good bit of background information, but let’s dive right into it for our lessons for today. Today we find the deadly sin gluttony having its way with the storyline from Genesis. Here we have the story of Adam and Eve enjoying the Garden of Eden – paradise if you will – where there’s nothing to do but enjoy all that God has created. Of course we’d call it paradise. Who wouldn’t want to have everything given to them: no time clock to punch, no schedule to keep, no need to prepare for things, no housekeeping chores. Even before we the reader get to envision such a paradise we read that there’s discontent with all of this. What were Adam and Eve thinking? How could they make Eden better than it already was? Well, I guess Joni Mitchell was on to something when she sang about paving paradise to put up a parking lot and never knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone. It looks like everything just wasn’t enough for them. I would say that gluttony got the better of Adam and Eve in Genesis.
Gluttony is a fairly straightforward deadly sin. It’s defined as an inordinate desire to consume more than that which one requires. Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas said: “Gluttony denotes, not any desire, but an inordinate desire… leaving the order of reason.”
Adam & Eve already had everything. They had paradise. What would make them want more? How much more than paradise do we need to be happy? Adam and Eve may have been the first to succumb to gluttony, but they weren’t the last. We read a lot in the story of the exodus, where the Israelites, who were given everything they needed for the journey, still cry out for more. We can read the account where the people were given manna to eat and told not to save any because there would be fresh manna every morning, “But they did not listen [and] some [saved]s part of it till the morning, and it bred worms and became foul.” Later, God gave them quail to eat because they complained of lack of meat. In the Book of Numbers we read that while the meat was yet between their teeth, not yet even consumed, they complained about it to the LORD. God became angry and smote people with a great plague.
Even in the New Testament, Paul addresses the community in Rome, which struggles with the same tensions of having enough, yet unreasonably desiring more than they actually need. Paul write, “Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Even the followers of Jesus still struggle with desire for more getting the better of them.
Here’s the thing: We are created with all the gifts we need to lead full and successful lives. The original sin we get from Adam and Eve is an inordinate desire to get more than what we need. In the course of humanity, living into its fallen state, satisfying our gluttony often comes at the expense of other people. Desire for resources goes beyond the bounds of ordinary reason. At its worst, gluttony becomes typified by John D. Rockefeller’s answer to the question, “How much is enough?” He said, “Just a little bit more.” For him all that he needed was overshadowed by all that he wanted. This response tells us that he was unable to make the distinction. Ironically, he also said “If your only goal is to become rich, you will never achieve it.” There is never an end to the “little bit more.” Somewhere in his soul Rockefeller must have known where this particular deadly sin resided. For the person burdened with the sin of gluttony, enough is never enough.
The Good News for us lies in this long season of discerning where some of these deadly sins may be creeping into our own lives. Lent is a time for re-assessing when we have. As residents of a superpower nation, a first-world country, and living in one of the wealthiest counties in the state, it’s obvious how many resources we get to enjoy. Because of that, we must acknowledge the persistent desire of our culture to consume more that we need. I’m talking about energy, land resources, food and clean water, and those things that we might take for granted that others would consider a basic necessity. At what cost to we enjoy these things? Who bears the most burden so that we can enjoy the lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed? Lent gives a time-out to ponder what we have without having to experience losing everything as Adam and Eve did when they were expelled from paradise. It could be obvious, or it could be subtle, but where do you see gluttony creeping into your everyday life?
The virtue counterpart to gluttony is temperance. Temperance is not a word you hear very often these days. It basically means showing restraint. It refers to a constant mindfulness of others and one’s surroundings, and our relationship to them. It involves practicing self-control, abstention, moderation, and deferred gratification. Temperance judges between actions with regard to appropriate responses for a given situation. Temperance recognizes a proper moderation between self-interest and the rights and needs of others. Perhaps looking for gluttony in your daily activities is not an easy thing to do. Try adding more aspects of temperance to your Lenten disciplines and see what that reveals for you.
The good news for today is that the Seven Deadly Sins are not entirely a catch 22. There is a corresponding virtue to each of them. God never leaves us in the lurch. God always provides a way for grace to redeem us – if we’re willing to turn toward it. For Adam and Eve, it was loincloths, the need for interdependence, and developing a mature relationship with each other and their surroundings. For us, it’s being given the remedy of easily-accessible virtues to ease the burden of our vices.
In the coming weeks we’ll discern some of the other deadly sins in our Lenten discipline studying God’s holy Word together. In the meantime, practice your own self-awareness of those things that get between you and a deeper relationship with the God who provides for your every need. You can begin with gluttony, or seek out temperance. Whatever you choose, you’ll be well on your way to practicing a holy Lent.