Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Table maners - The Instructor on eating

This is a continuation of my series on Clement of Alexandria and his book, "The Instructor." If you are new to this series or are unfamiliar with Clement and his book, you may want to first read the introduction to this series. You may also want to read the introduction to Book 2 of The Instructor as it give advice on how to understand Clement and his writings.
"From all slavish habits and excess we must abstain, and touch what is set before us in a decorous way; keeping the hand and couch and chin free of stains; preserving the grace of the countenance undisturbed, and committing no indecorum in the act of swallowing; but stretching out the hand at intervals in an orderly manner. We must guard against speaking anything while eating: for the voice becomes disagreeable and inarticulate when it is confined by full jaws; and the tongue, pressed by the food and impeded in its natural energy, gives forth a compressed utterance. Nor is it suitable to eat and to drink simultaneously. For it is the very extreme of intemperance to confound the times whose uses are discordant. And 'whether ye eat or drink, do all to the glory of God,' aiming after true frugality, which the Lord also seems to me to have hinted at when He blessed the loaves and the cooked fishes with which He feasted the disciples, introducing a beautiful example of simple food." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 1)
Here Clement sounds like my mom! It may seem odd that a preacher of the gospel would count it important to instruct us in table manors, yet Clement's eye is on something of greater value. Its not that Clement is setting down some new "law" regarding eating, rather he is showing us examples of how to live out the word of God in our lives in very practical ways. We are called to do all to the glory of God, even the most mundane and necessary parts of our lives: eating. Everything we do either contributes or distracts from the glory of God.  Consider the case that Paul mentions of the Corinthian love feasts where some stuffing themselves and others were drunk. "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) Manors matter; they are a way we show honor and respect to others and bring glory to God.
"For those that do all that is lawful, quickly fall into doing what is unlawful. And just as righteousness is not attained by avarice, nor temperance by excess; so neither is the regimen of a Christian formed by indulgence; for the table of truth is far from lascivious dainties. For though it was chiefly for men’s sake that all things were made, yet it is not good to use all things, nor at all times. For the occasion, and the time, and the mode, and the intention, materially turn the balance with reference to what is useful, in the view of one who is rightly instructed; and this is suitable, and has influence in putting a stop to a life of gluttony, which wealth is prone to choose, not that wealth which sees clearly, but that abundance which makes a man blind with reference to gluttony." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 1)
Some may decry Clement's words as legalism, for truly all things were created for our use and enjoyment. However, that does not mean that all things should be used at all times, in all places, and without understanding. If we indulge in all things legal then we will eventually find ourselves indulging in things illegal. The key is moderation not excess, appropriateness not intemperance.
"No one who uses it [abundance] will ever study to become temperate, burying as he does his mind in his belly, very like the fish called ass, which, Aristotle says, alone of all creatures has its heart in its stomach. This fish Epicharmus the comic poet calls 'monster-paunch.' Such are the men who believe in their belly, 'whose God is their belly, whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.' To them the apostle predicted no good when he said, 'whose end is destruction.'" (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 1)
Food is not the enemy, but a life lived for food is a life wasted. When we live for abundance and excess, temperance will never be desirable for us; we want what we want when we want it; living a life of luxury that will never yield to moderation. Let us rather pursue love and the kingdom of God and food only for our sustenance and, in doing so, we will find those things that are of true and lasting character.

David Robison

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