The meanings of words can undergo surprising alterations over time. On occasion, the shifts are so drastic that we may end up entirely misunderstanding the actual intent of the word, with serious consequences. There can be cultural shifts that happen so gradually that they shift our perceptions so radically, that there is a clear break from what went before to what is going on now.
For instance, the word “gay” originally meant “merry” or “happy.” But it soon developed some alternative meanings in English, prior to being established to mean “homosexual,” at least as a slang term, as early as the late 1800s. Before that, it was used of those who were promiscuous or sexually indiscreet in any way: during the eighteenth and nineteenth century the word was not uncommonly used of prostitutes and the phrase “the gay lifestyle” referred to prostitutes and their customers. A “gay house” was a brothel. In the seventeenth century, the term “gay” could mean immoral or hedonistic. It was also used as a synonym for “shining” or “bright” or “fine.” Think Liberace.
According to tradition, there are seven deadly sins. One of those sins is “gluttony.” But gluttony as it was originally understood and used in that old list and in the Bible is today one of the rarest of problems in the United States.
Given the epidemic status of obesity, the widespread fitness craze, and all the weight-loss programs available, it might seem insane to say that we don’t have a gluttony problem. According to recent statistics, obesity is the number two cause of preventable death in the United States. Sixty million Americans, twenty years of age and older are obese. Nine million children and teens aged six to nineteen are overweight. Obesity increases the risk of breast cancer, coronary heart disease, type II diabetes, sleep apnea, gallbladder disease, colon cancer, osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, and stroke. The price of caring for the health related problems of obesity is in the billions of dollars, problems that are all preventable. But seventy-eight per cent of the American public is not meeting the basic activity level recommendations, with twenty-five percent of us being completely sedentary. Modern day obesity in the United States is a problem that is most severe not with the wealthy, but with the poor! In the United States, the biggest health problem facing the poor is not starvation, not a scrabbling after crumbs. Instead, the biggest thing the poor have to worry about from a health standpoint is getting too fat.
It’s not surprising that so many Americans are overweight. And of course it’s not just an American problem. It is a problem afflicting the entire industrialized world and it is a problem that is growing year by year. So surely, therefore, gluttony must be one of the most serious and “deadly” of the sins facing Americans today, if not the entire world!
But that’s because we’ve redefined what gluttony is. For most of us, we believe that gluttony simply means “overeating” or maybe “intemperance,” at least when it comes to food. Most everyone agrees that our tendency to be overweight indicates a serious lack of self-control. We supersize our meals and find it hard to say no to another piece of cake. Gluttony, we believe, is a crime we commit against ourselves, one that robs us of our health and sets us up for a number of dangerous illnesses. But this modern sense of gluttony, the sense that we’ll find in most dictionaries today, has nothing to do with the “gluttony” that is one of the seven deadly sins.
Gluttony as it is used in that ancient list and as it is used in the Bible meant “taking more than your fair share of food.” Gluttony meant, in effect, taking food out of the mouths of others so you could stuff your face instead. Gluttony was a kind of selfishness. Gluttony is what we see in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus was a beggar who ate the crumbs that dropped from the rich man’s table. Whatever the rich man happened to drop as he stuffed his face, that’s what poor Lazarus got to eat.
In a world where food was hard to come by and many people barely had enough, gluttony meant a lack of concern for others. It was like being in a buffet line and taking all the rolls for yourself, leaving none for anyone else. It was a violation of the central commandment, the central point of all the rules and regulations that one might find in the Bible: to love others as oneself. It is hard to see how the modern sense of gluttony—intemperance—has much to do with anyone else.
Perhaps it is a sin against oneself to overeat, given the health problems associated with it. But the “gluttony” of the seven deadly sins simply doesn’t speak to that sort of problem. It is concerned with how our lives impact the lives of those around us. What matters is not so much what it does to me, but what I do to other people.