Matthew 5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Gluttony and the Persecuted
The Beatitudes of Jesus, which is how his famous Sermon on the Mount begins, are Jesus’ fundamental, central, bedrock teaching. This is where spiritual growth begins for people, like us, who want to be disciples of Jesus.
But following Jesus has never been easy. As the church as reflected on the root causes of our failures to follow Jesus, she has developed a list of seven primary obstacles to effective discipleship called the Seven Deadly Sins.
I was introduced to the idea of pairing one of the beatitudes of Jesus with one of the Seven Deadly sins that corresponded to it by Jeff Cook’s book. Most of the pairings looked intuitively obvious – except this one. In fact, pairing the beatitude in Matthew 5:10, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” with the deadly sin of gluttony seemed, not just awkward, but contradictory. But the more I reflected on the relationship between the way we think about persecution and the sin of gluttony, I saw relationships that I believe are powerful, and which we need to consider.
Both gluttony and persecution bring up desire and fear; pleasure and pain; the use of our bodies, and the way we think about the good life we all long for.
Gluttony – millions of varieties – one thing in common
First, let’s be clear that gluttony is not only about over-eating – though of course it is included. We sometimes use the term “glutton for punishment” – there are a million things we could be gluttons for – work, entertainment, sleep, esteem, money, pleasure, hobbies, television, talking – all of them have one common characteristic: gluttony is failure to recognize when we have had enough. Gluttony always wants more.
A newborn baby will cry when she feels hunger pains. Then, when she is fed, she will drink until she has had enough, and then, she wants no more. We were all born with this switch that is turned on when hungry, and off when we are satiated. Even though eating is the first pleasure we ever knew, nevertheless, we had an inborn sense of how much was enough, and when he had enough, we were willing to forego any more of that pleasure for the time.
Pleasure and Brain Chemistry
Pleasure, we know know, is a function of brain chemistry. When endorphins are released – either naturally or through drugs – we feel pleasure. I have recently learned that companies that produce snack foods or desert foods – chips and cookies and such, have studied brain chemistry intently. They have now learned that just the right combination of sugar, salt and fat will produce a pleasurable response in the brain – that never stops – that does not get switched off. “No one can eat just one.”
So now that they are messing with our brain chemistry, it is even harder; but people have always had trouble saying “enough is enough; no more.” And as I said, food is only one of the million ways in which we fall prey to the self-destructive sin of gluttony. Most of us here are in a position to have more than enough of almost everything we need. Most of us here have more than most humans who ever lived on this little planet have had of nearly everything. And we want more.
Why We Want More
Why? Why do we keep wanting more, when our whole life experience tells us that more of the same does not fix us. More of the same doesn’t make us happy after the first few moments. More of the same – whether its clothes, vacations, entertainments – never fills the empty places in our hearts. The essential ache that is part of the human condition is spiritual; nothing else fits the shape of that gap; nothing else works to fill it, regardless of the quantities.
This problem is as old as humanity. Thousands of years ago the prophet Isaiah asked his fellow countrymen the question:
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Though it does not work long-term, gluttony does do one thing: it distracts us, at least momentarily, from facing the inner vacancy. Fixating on another helping, another spree, another round, another episode, briefly takes our minds off the scary truth that none of it has ever been successful before. And that’s what is behind our gluttonous quests for more: fear.
And that is why the cure for the soul-disease of gluttony is not, at root, a strict budget or a healthy diet, it is trust. Trust can push back from the table, or the register, or the screen and say, that was nice, that was enough, there will be enough tomorrow. This is what our Lord taught us from the sermon on the mount:
6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?… 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Trust is knowing that we will be taken care of tomorrow by a God who knows, who sees, who cares, and who provides. And it is deeper than that. Trust is knowing that asking “what will we eat and what will we drink?” are really surface questions. Deeper is the question “what will fill the gap, and stop the ache, after we have eaten and drunk our fill?” Trust says, I will seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, because only God can fill the God-shaped vacuum of the heart.
The glutton is running from the pain of an inner ache. The persecuted are willing to face pain without turning away. Jesus pronounced a solemn blessing, saying,
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
In Jesus’ times, his followers would have to face the prospect of real, physical persecution – physical pain – maybe even death – as the price for following Jesus. Christians around the world throughout history have had to endure physical persecution. Thanks be to God, most of us will never even get close to that prospect. Let us then apply Jesus’ words to our own circumstances.
Maybe it is because we have lived with so much prosperity for so long that we are soft (probably so) but it does not take the threat of a baton crashing down on our heads or the prospect of jail time to dissuade us from seeking the kingdom of God. For most of us, the threat of being out of step with our culture is enough. The thought that we will be derided by our peers is sufficient to turn on the fear-response.
The Persecution of the Soft (us)
Once we feel that fear, our sense of moral outrage at injustice starts to soften. We will not speak of poverty or discrimination, because in good company, bringing it up is like rain on the parade (“buzz kill” as the young people say). For us, sometimes a dirty look across the table is enough to shut down our passion for the righteousness of the kingdom of God. Maybe what we are truly gluttons for is peer approval. If so, we will never have enough.
The Blessed Life
But that is not the path to the blessed life. Blessed, Jesus said, are those who are willing to face persecution, to stand up for what is right. Blessed, are those who do not fear the consensus view, but who take God’s view even if it costs something.
Blessed are those who stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, even if they are persecuted for it: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who champion the causes of the powerless, even at the expense of social approval, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who are willing to speak truth to power, in government, in industry, in the justice system, and everywhere, even at the cost of ridicule or of being misunderstood, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who know that “different” does not mean “bad” and who will welcome those who are different – by race or by ethnicity or by any condition that others use to exclude them, even when they become excluded too, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who trust that our Heavenly Father has provided enough – enough for the birds of the air, the lilies of the field and for everyone, so that there is no fear in working to ensure that everyone has enough, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who know that the aching gap in the heart will never be filled by the gluttonous quest for more, but that the God of “enough” is able to make cups overflow when his kingdom is our highest hunger, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
We will be disciples of Jesus. We will not be gluttons for bread which cannot satisfy; we will seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness!