October 14, 2018
The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
(Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30)
Lip balm is apparently addictive to some.
Are you constantly licking your lips? Do you look for an excuse to buy a bundle of balm? Do you need a Chap Stick fix?
If so, you may be addicted to lip balm. Time to consider joining "Lip Balm Anonymous" and join thousands of others in a protest to "Ban the Balm!"
Maybe your addiction is more conventional: nicotine, drugs, food, sex, videos, gambling. Maybe you're a confessed chocoholic. Maybe it's shopping.
Maybe - you're one of an estimated 6 million with a virtual addiction. Your relationships with your spouse, your employer, your friends have broken down because your addictive personality has driven you into chat rooms and all manner of cyber-deviancy.
In an addiction afflicted society, there is no shortage of possibilities. New addictions are popping up every day, each with its own weekly church-basement support group and "Anonymous" organization.
Addiction has even visited television. Some years back I used to watch a program on MTV, called, Real World which seemed to kick-start reality programs. The series stumbled on to a case of addiction one year. The show presented (or “presents” if the show is still on the air – I stopped watching it years ago) what happens when you put seven young strangers under one roof for four months. What occurs is real, and to everyone's surprise - pushing the ratings to an all-time high – one year there was a real-time alcohol addiction of one of the students, Ruthie Alcaide.
In one episode she falls down drunk in a disco, throws up half-naked in the shower, and has her stomach pumped in an ambulance. Other scenes show her drinking at home, then at a club and later being carried by a bouncer. A promotional spot for the program shows her lashing out at cast members who urged her to check into rehab.
No way would you confuse this with a rerun of Happy Days.
MTV producers at the time said the show offers valuable lessons on the dark side of alcohol, and one executive observed that "if you saw what was happening to Ruthie, it would be very hard to think that alcoholism or excessive drinking is glorious."
Addiction. It's a crippling affliction. Addictions keep you focused on one thing, while other important – even more important possibly – things that one should be focused on. In our Gospel today, Jesus sees it in a rich man who is looking to inherit eternal life. Although the man is obsessed with the law - and confident that he has kept the commandments against murder, adultery, stealing and fraud - he has an even stronger obsession that Jesus tries to diagnose and treat with his challenge: "Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me" (Mark 10:21).
He can't do it.
But just exactly what is his addiction? We're likely to conclude that he's hooked on wealth. He can't let it go. It controls him. It is his master.
And if we say this, we are wrong.
The man's a model citizen, a promise keeper and a truth seeker. He doesn't use his wealth to oppress the poor. He doesn't go on a phony TV show and pick a wife out of a lineup of gold-diggers. He doesn't squander his money on immoral pursuits.
It's hard to see how money is his addiction, because let's face it: Addictions are usually destructive. On a certain level they are irrational, they make no sense, and there is no good reason to have them. But money, in and of itself, is not necessarily destructive, irrational or insane - in fact, a steady cash flow can help to irrigate good fruits throughout the world. In the first century, it was assumed that wealth actually made possible the performance of religious duties, for Jews wealth was viewed as a blessing from God for being a faithful believer - that is why the disciples are "perplexed" at Jesus' words.
So it's hard to pinpoint money as a necessarily dangerous addictive substance. But if it isn't money, what is it? Clearly, there's something here that has the rich man hooked.
When we find ourselves powerless over drugs or alcohol, it is in our best interest to get rid of the addiction. When showing self-destructive behaviors and impulse-control problems, it is a rational course of action to seek out treatment and support. But for the rich man to sell everything he owns and give to the poor – that seems irrational.
How would you respond if called upon to give up your material possessions? You'd balk, as any of us would probably. After all, is it wrong to have money to feed and shelter our families, to put our children or grandchildren through college, to pay our tithes and offerings to the church? Having resources doesn't necessarily mean that our possessions are our masters or that we suffer from a consumerist addiction affliction. Having many things and/or wealth that allows for such a life, in and of itself is not necessarily bad. However, do these things occupy all of our time; do we obsess over having them and getting more? Does having possessions become our master – our god?
In this case, Jesus finds the hot button. The call is clear: Give up what defines your life, and follow me. In this case, it clearly was the man's toys and playthings, the possessions he had managed to scrape together. He became addicted to his belongings with little room for being a faithful follower. His belongings took up all his time. Jesus challenges the man to make an exchange: drop what limits him in exchange for what frees him - opens him up to a wider and more meaningful life. Jesus didn’t ask him to stop being wealthy - merely to stop using the wealth in ways that restricted him from God. The wealthy man needed to use the money for good and in ways that still allowed him to make his faith the most important aspect of his life.
He wasn’t making endowments to the San Diego Zoo or for a new wing at Mercy Hospital. This is Jesus’ statement to the man. The man needed to remember his responsibility to his neighbor. Was he being a good steward with the gift of wealth, or was he wasting it? It just wasn’t as fun to endow a million dollars to the homeless shelter, because it didn’t satisfy his addiction of having all and everything for himself. The homeless shelter wasn’t something he owned, controlled and was able to enjoy.
The rich guy can't make the exchange Jesus asked of him. But Ruthie Alcaide of Real World could. The addiction in her case was clearly destructive. When she was asked how she felt about going into rehab, she said: "I did it for one reason and one reason only: to find out from the 'experts' if I was an alcoholic or not. After laying it all down on the table and all is said and done, they said I had a 'potential' to be one, but they also said, 'most college students have a potential.' I don't crave alcohol. I enjoy it."
And that's precisely the danger of addictions. They're so enjoyable. It's a struggle to be rid of them.
Maybe you're addiction-free. You don't struggle as a Christian with the hard-core addictions of alcohol, food, tobacco, sex, drugs or the Internet. Yet, is it possible you cling to addictions less visible but just as insidious? Pride, ambition and work can be home-wreckers and life-destroyers, too. And they can all keep you from enjoying the plentitude of God's blessing.
In any case, Jesus' advice is the same: Break away from what defines and limits you outside of your relationship to me as my disciple. Only then will you be free.
If there is such a dependency, Jesus advises that we give it up. "Dump it, drop it, ditch it," Jesus says, "and follow me."
Let us pray.
That leaders of nations may learn to value wisdom over riches and use that wisdom to make decisions that benefit all of the people entrusted to their care. We pray to the Lord.
For the poor, for those who cannot afford what most of us take for granted, that they may know the generosity of God’s people. We pray to the Lord.
For those who have renounced wealth in order to dedicate themselves in service of the Lord, especially religious sisters. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for our young people that, in the midst of the conflicting messages they receive, they may discover the truth and wonder of true love and compassion as shown to us in the life and teaching of Jesus. We pray to the Lord.
In our prayers today we remember the survivors of Hurricane Michael and all those who have suffered loss of family, friends and homes as a result. We pray also for those volunteers and emergency workers who have risked life and limb to provide medical care, food and shelter for those in distress. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for those on the margins of our society, the poor, the homeless, the hungry and the mentally ill, that their needs for love, care and understanding be remembered and remedied. We pray to the Lord.
We remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
All-powerful God, all things are possible for you. We are powerless without you and so we turn to you in our inadequacy. Hear our prayers and look kindly on us in your mercy. Jesus challenges us to detach ourselves from the pursuit of money and material things. We pray for the wisdom to see our own lives, and the lives of those less fortunate, as Christ would see them and to live in the spirit of his message of love and generosity. O God, through these prayers we seek wisdom and prudence; we seek freedom from the things of this world that constrain us from responding fully to your call to come and follow you. We ask that you respond to our pleas knowing our failings but offering us what we need to inherit eternal life. We make our prayers through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA