Do you know a hoarder? I don’t mean somebody who can’t throw anything away. I mean somebody who keeps to himself everything he has and can’t let go of anything.
In today’s gospel parable the un-named “rich man” lives a hoarder’s life of prosperity and extravagance. He luxuriated in exhibiting the power of his wealth by hosting exquisite banquets every day. He demonstrated his wealth by dressing in the finest, most expensive clothes.
Yet he also hoarded his wealth by refusing to extend alms, feed the poor, help the sick, house the homeless. He so hoarded his wealth for his own personal use and power that he allowed Lazarus, who was poor, sick, and homeless, to lie right at the gates to his estate, without even considering offering him care, without even entertaining the notion of extending a helping hand to him.
In late August of this year 67 year old Billie Jean James, who had been missing for four months, was finally found. Her husband found her dead in their own home, buried under one of the mountains of trash that filled their house from top to bottom.
Billie Jean had been a “hoarder,” compulsively stuffing more and more “stuff” into her home, filling up every room with strange collections of this and that, incapable of throwing anything, even garbage, away. The stench of trash and decay was so great in this “hoarded house” that not only did the husband live there for four months without noticing the smell of a decaying body. Even police rescue dogs, trained to detect the smell of a dead body, never detected her presence. It was not until the husband finally noticed Billie Jean’s feet sticking out from under a mountainous pile of trash in the room she had named her “rabbit hole” that his wife’s body was finally discovered.
Hoarding is now a recognized psychological disorder, defined as “when people find it impossible to make decisions, organize themselves, or focus on immediate tasks” (Michelle Carro, Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of Nevada). This past summer was a tough one for hoarders. In addition to James’ death there was another 89 year-old hoarder found dead in her cluttered home in July. It took the Skokie, Illinois fire department three hours to remove her body. And an elderly couple in Chicago was trapped for two weeks in their junk-infested house. When they were finally rescued both were covered with rat bites.
It’s easy to look at such “hoarding” behavior and see it as a sad, strange, out-of-control obsession that is certainly not the life experience of most of us. The power of a sanitation worker’s strike and our over-flowing landfills testify to the fact that most of us love to throw stuff away, not hoard it.
Yet would any of us deny that our culture is firmly established on the premise that “more is better.” “More is better” is the basic recipe for addictive behavior that can take many forms.
- For hoarders more “stuff” is better, no matter what that stuff might be.
- For alcoholics more drinks are better, no matter how many they’ve already had.
- For drug addicts one more snort, or smoke, or shot is better.
- For anorexics one more lost pound, even one more lost ounce, is better.
- For food addicts one more bucket of chicken, one more large pizza, is better.
- For those whose addiction is money, there is no such thing as “rich enough.”
- For those whose addiction is power, there is not such thing as “power enough.”
Jesus was variously called “teacher,” “rabbi,” “master,” “wonder worker,” “messiah.” But I would suggest that what Jesus really practiced was “toxicology.” Jesus was a toxicologist.
In every encounter Jesus had with people he immediately discerned and diagnosed the “toxin” that was most affecting and infecting their lives. The Pharisees continued to “grumble” against him and “ridicule” him — for hanging out with known “sinners” and “tax collectors,” for suggesting that one had to choose between serving God and serving mammon.
But Jesus had no trouble detecting the true toxins that infected their pharisaic faith. Though they professed to love and serve the law, their dismissal of the poor and outcast revealed they were the type who “loved humanity, its people we can’t stand.” The Pharisees Jesus confronted were intoxicated by their own self-righteousness. That intoxication made it impossible for them to extend love and mercy and compassion to any others who fell outside the range of the limited boundaries of their interpretation of the righteous.
“Prohibition,” the eighteenth amendment, couldn’t cure us, because our cultural “intoxication” was not found only at the bottom of a bottle. You can be intoxicated and your lips never touch alcohol. In fact, you might say we are all intoxicated, but there is no requirement that a drop of liquor passes our lips. The root of “intoxication” is “toxic.” We are a culture “intoxicated” by any number of poisons.
- The toxin of money — too much or too little.
- The toxin of fame — leading us to do anything and everything in our quest for a moment in the spotlight.
- The toxin of beauty — an infection that feeds million of dollars into the fashion, cosmetics, plastic surgery, diet and exercise industries.
- The toxin of popularity — encouraging us to leave our own opinions and values behind in order to fit in, be cool, be accepted, be admired.
- The toxin of success — that can breed duplicity, back-stabbing, grandstanding, and brown-nosing.
- The toxin of pity. Some “intoxications” are even with failure. We validate our own feelings of worthlessness by undermining trust, backing out of commitments, avoiding real relationships, abandoning authentic feelings.
We would rather face a host of horrible physical treatments, to “detoxify” our bodies, than admit that what really needs detoxification is deep within our souls. There are more “detoxification” options available to us than there have ever been before. Herbal teas, Japanese foot pads, liver purges, kidney cleansings, electromagnetic treatments, colon cleanses, Gerson therapy, snake stones, de-tox diets.
All these detoxification routines involve somehow draining physical “toxins” out of the body. But the best detox regimes recognize that the body is less than half the problem. It is a toxin permeating and poisoning the spirit that is the continuing source of corrupting, destructive venoms that put us in a place of “torment” and of “flames.” The power of AA and other “Twelve Step” programs is that they recognize the body is not the place the toxins of life take root. It is in our soul. It is in the innermost connection of ourselves to this world and to the next, that toxic substances do the most damage, and are the most difficult to wipe out.
Jesus’ parable provided the cure, the knock-out blow, for all of life’s toxic moments. It is the rich man, the condemned one, who realizes that the only true remedy is repentance. To “repent” (“metanoia”) is to “turn away” from one’s old life and old attitudes and old ideas about success, riches, and power. To repent is to turn towards the word of God, the testimony of God’s prophets, the witness of the saints, and the prevailing power of the resurrection.
In one of William J. Locke’s novels, there is a story of a woman who has a huge amount of money and who has spent half her lifetime touring the sites and art galleries of the world. She had been everywhere. She has invested a fortune in art. She has seen almost every major museum. And she found herself bored and weary.
Then she met a Frenchman who had no money. But he did have a love for art and beauty. And he began introducing her once more to the things she had already seen. Suddenly, everything was completely different in his company. When he opened her eyes, she saw things she had totally missed. And the more he taught her how to look at things, the more excited and vibrant she became. She told him, “I never knew what things were like until you taught me how to look at them.”
Life is that. When we see life in the light of Jesus’ light, which burns the toxins from our system, everything becomes new.
Leonard Sweet Sermons, Leonard Sweet, ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., 2010, 0-000-1415