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Look, a Glutton and a Drunkard (Matthew 11:19 & Luke 7:34)

When it comes to the consumption of alcohol, like most issues, there are people that take things to the extreme. Some people say that any consumption of alcohol is immoral, and that Jesus never drank any. Others say that Jesus got drunk with the best of drinkers, and there's nothing wrong with doing the same. As with most issues, it is the middle ground that should be taken.

Jesus is the example of how to live our lives, so the question that needs to be answered is: Did Jesus consume alcohol, and if so, did He do it to excess?

Before I begin to answer this question, there are a few facts that need to be established. Some may think that these points are juvenile, but it has been my experience that some people are completely ignorant when it comes to the consumption of alcohol.

First, it takes the average man at least two drinks before he begins to feel the effects of alcohol, and should therefore not drive. Two drinks would be two bottles of beer, two glasses of wine, or two shots of hard liquor; all of which have basically the same amount of alcohol. One or two drinks do not affect a person. The average person would not drink more than two glasses of water with a meal, so most likely he would not drink more that two glasses of wine with a meal, which would not in any way impair his cognitive faculties.

Second, during the Catholic Mass, communicants only consume a few drops of the Precious Blood of Jesus. Yes, the Blood of Christ contains alcohol, but even the smallest child could not become intoxicated with the amount consumed during Communion.

And last, the aged wine, and therefore the best wine, in Jesus' time had a higher alcohol content than the average wine of today. This is because it was allowed to ferment naturally, unlike modern wine, which has additives to accelerate the fermenting process. The wine used for Communion also has a higher alcohol content because, like the wine in Jesus' time, it is allowed to ferment naturally.

Admittedly, even the small amount of alcohol consumed during Communion can be too much for an alcoholic, and he should only receive the Body of Christ, in which Christ is equally present. All priests must consume both the Body and Blood of Christ when they say Mass, even if they are an alcoholic. If a priest is an alcoholic, he is only required to moisten his lip with the Blood of Christ, consuming only a microscopic amount of alcohol.

What does the Bible say about drinking alcohol? Probably the most frequently quoted passage against drinking alcohol is Proverbs 23:29-35:

For whom is everybody's pity and everyone's contempt, for whom is strife reserved, for whom dissatisfaction, for whom blows struck from all sides, for whom the clouded eye? For those who linger over wine too long ever on the lookout for the well-blended wine. Never relish how red it is, this wine, how sparkling in the cup, how smooth it flow. In the end it bite is like a serpent's, its sting as sharp as an adder's. Your eyes will see strange things, distorted words will come from you heart. You will be like one sleeping in mid-ocean, like one asleep at the masthead. "Struck me have they? But I'm not hurt. Beaten me? I don't feel anything. When shall I wake up?... I'll ask for more of it!"

Likewise, there are a number of other passages that speak of the evils of alcohol, such as Proverbs 20:1 & 23:20, Luke 21:34, Romans 13:13, and Ephesians 5:18. If one reads these passages carefully, though, he will find that they do not condemn the consumption of alcohol out right, but condemn the abuse of alcohol; that is, drinking to excess.

In writing this article, I tried to find a scriptural passage that specifically forbid drinking alcohol so that I could say that such a verse is simply emphasising the evils of alcohol abuse, and not to be taken literally. I tried, but I could not find one. One passage that comes close is Leviticus 10:8-9:

YHWH spoke to Aaron; he said: "When you come to the Tent of Meeting, you and your sons with you, do not take wine or strong drink; then you will not die. This is a perpetual law for all your descendants."

This passage specifically says, "do not take wine or strong drink," but that cannot be taken out of the context of, "When you come to the Tent of Meeting." This passage actually implies that when Aaron and his descendants are not ministering in the Tent of Meeting, they can take wine and strong drink. If they never drank alcohol, they would not have to be explicitly told to not drink it while performing their sacerdotal duties.

The only people that were strictly forbidden to consume alcohol are the Nazirites (cf. Numbers 6:1-4, Judges 13:7). It should also be noted that they where also forbidden to cut their hair (cf. Numbers 6:5); therefore if one wants to follow the example of the Nazirites, he must also let his hair grow long. Again, this example also implies that those who do not take the vow of the Nazirites can drink alcohol. If everyone was not allowed to drink alcohol, then the Nazirites would not have been set apart in this respect.

Likewise, John the Baptist was forbidden to consume alcohol (cf. Luke 1:15), which again implies that it would be normal that others do consume alcohol. If not, Zechariah would not have to be told by the angel that John "must drink no wine, no strong drink."

John the Baptist did not drink alcohol, but in contrast, Jesus did:

"For John came, neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'His is possessed.' The Son of Man came, eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.' Yet wisdom has been proved right by her actions." (Matthew 11:18-19)

If Jesus did not consume any alcohol, no one could call him a "drunkard."

Now we must be very careful here. This is where some will say that Jesus made it a habit of becoming intoxicated. This passage, and Luke 7:33-34, only says that people called Jesus a drunkard, which only implies that He did drink alcohol, not that He was an actual drunkard. The passages mentioned earlier condemn the abuse of alcohol and made it clear that doing so would be immoral. Jesus was anything but immoral; therefore He would not have been in the habit of becoming totally intoxicated. I would not be the least bit surprised that Jesus would have become a little bit tipsy occasionally, such as at the wedding in Cana, where He provided the very best wine (cf. John 2:1-11), but not out right drunk, and not regularly.

There is nothing wrong with occasionally having a couple of drinks; even a couple more to "gladden the heart" (Psalm 104:15); if you are not driving that is. It must be in moderation though. Anything taken to the extreme is usually wrong.

1st Addendum:

I am currently working my way through the book To Live as Francis Lived, a Guide for Secular Franciscans by Leonard Foley, Jovian Weigel, and Patti Normile. It is made up of 52 reflection, one for each week of the year; although I am doing one every day. Three days after writing this article, I came to Reflection 9: The Real Christ. This reflection focuses on the humanity of Christ. As a man, Jesus experienced everything we experience except sin, as the following paragraph articulates:

The baby Francis saw in the crib would grow like any other baby, since Christ would not have been a true human being if he had never been faced with the need of depending on others for care, of making up his mind, of choosing freely, or taking one course rather than another - at a time when both looked good. When he prayed, his knees felt the hard ground beneath his bones like anyone else's. When he drank wine, it exhilarated his body and spirit like anyone else's. He knew the courage and discipline required to get up and go to work every day. When frustration or failure fell on his path, he had to exercise patience like anyone else. People ignored him, misjudged him, slandered him and finally killed him. It cost him the same effort of courage, trust in his Father, forgiveness that these things cost us every day.

If Jesus were to truely live as the men of His time lived, he would have drunk wine, which could not help but have alcohol in it. His human body would have reacted the same way that every human body react to alcohol, "it exhilarated his body and spirit like anyone else's."

2nd Addendum:

My Weekly Thought for December 12, 2007 compares getting drunk on alcohol with getting high on marijuana: both are wrong. However, alcohol can be enjoyed without getting drunk, whereas you cannot enjoy marijuana without getting high.

3rd Addendum:

Like many of the ancient cultures, such as the Greeks and Romans, the Jews usually cut their wine with water—some cultures still cut their wine with water (I say "usually" because some, like Alexander the Great, didn't mix any water with their wine). How much water was mixed with the wine varied according to the individual doing the mixing; some more and some less.

This lack of certainty has given some the opportunity to speculate that the mixture was made up primarily of water. The ratios frequently given are one part wine to anywhere from five to ten parts water. They do this because they want to believe that any alcohol consumption is sinful, but they have to rationalise the fact that Jesus drank wine.

The idea that the Jews mixed this much water with their wine does not make any sense in light of Scripture. Jesus said, "And no one after drinking old wine desires new; for he says, 'The old is good.'"(Luke 5:39) Why is the old Good? Because it has more alcohol. If it were mixed with as much water as some say it was, it wouldn't make any difference if the wine was old or new.

The same can be said about the wine Jesus provided at the wedding in Cana. If the above ratio of wine to water was the norm, Jesus changed very little of the water into wine. But this wouldn't fit with the words of the steward: "Every man serves the good wine first; and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine; but you have kept the good wine until now." (John 2:10) If this wine was mixed with as much water as some say it was, the steward wouldn't have been able to tell that Jesus' wine was any better than the wine that was served first.

This is not a hypothesis; I've actually tried it. Today after Mass, I mixed 1 oz. of wine with 5 oz. of water (this would render the solution 3% alcohol) and I drank it. I then want home and mixed 1 oz. of grape juice with 5 oz. of water and drank it. I couldn't really tell the difference. If the Jews in Jesus' time really mixed as much water with their wine as some say they did, Luke 5:39 and John 2:10 make not sense.

As well, it is interesting to note that at Jewish weddings in Jesus' time, the best wine is served first, "and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine." Why was this done? When someone has drunk enough wine, his sense of taste is somewhat impaired so he would not be as particular about the quality of the wine. Jesus gave wine to people whose sense of taste was impaired.