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Afluenza by Barbara Rossing

March 6, 2007


As part of Theology Pub, Ann+ and Kay, our wonderful hosts/leaders, had our online group listen to a talk given by Barbara Rossing at Trinity on the book of Revelation (she’s a Lutheran minister, and academic). It was as awesome talk, and gave me a new, more palatable way to think about the book of revelation, the Left Behind series (as crapique of course) and how Revelation relates to our current ecological crisis.

Rossing also talked about how modern society is afflicted with an illness called, Afluenza. We have more, we want more, we have no idea why and more really doesn’t do it for us, ultimately, the way the commercials indicate More will. While researching some of what she has written, I came across and purchased this sermon she wrote in the summer of 06 – it briefly highlights some of the main points of her talk from Trinity.

Because I love you all so much, I felt a strong need to share!

Healing Affluenza: a sermon on Mark 10:17-27.
Currents in Theology and Mission – August 1, 2006
Barbara Rossing

I got a terrible puncture wound once while hiking off trail at Holden Village. The scar on my leg still reminds me of that life-threatening wound, of those weeks of recovery, and also of the skill and care of medical people who got me down off the trail, washed my wound, bandaged me, and brought me back to health with their healing touch–laying on me the nation-healing leaves from God’s tree of life, to use the image from Revelation 22:2-3, which has become my favorite passage in the Bible.
What are your wounds? Most of us are wounded–serving, as Henri Nouwen says, as “wounded healers.” What are yours? Are you bent over like the woman in Luke 13? Do you live with some other chronic disease like the apostle Paul with his thorn in the flesh and so many characters in the Gospels? Is your problem diabetes, HIV, addiction? Are you paralyzed by something like the man whose friends carried him to Jesus in Luke 5? A relationship that is broken? A terrifying demon–mental, spiritual or physical–that won’t let you go? The early chapters of any of the Synoptic Gospels are practically a catalogue of our wounds and of Jesus’ healing.

The Gospel of Mark is full of stories about healing. There is a familiar pattern to the opening lines of many of the stories that helps us recognize them–Jesus is passing by, and a sick person or parent of a sick child runs up to him and falls down before him with a plea. You see the pattern in the story of the man with leprosy, Jairus’s daughter who is at the point of death, and the Syrophoenician woman whose daughter is sick. “Make me well,” the man with leprosy requests as he falls to his knees before Jesus (Mark 1:40). “Heal my daughter” is the appeal of Jairus as he falls at Jesus’ feet. All of them have come to Jesus for healing.

I propose that the story of the rich man in Mark 10 also follows the pattern of a healing story and that we can understand this story by seeing his condition as an illness.

Like these other supplicants, the rich man in the Mark 10 story runs up to Jesus on the road and falls on his knees, using the same Greek word ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) as the leper in Mark 1:40. Like them, he has a request: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Here, however, his request seems not to fit the pattern of the typical healing story in Mark. With his question about eternal life, this rich man does not seem to be asking for healing. Nor does he seem to be sick. Or is he perhaps sick?

Cut to a doctor’s examining room. A woman sits on the examining table in her skimpy little hospital gown. (You can all relate.) She looks worried as she waits for the doctor to appear, and she hugs her purse nervously on her lap. The woman is actress Jackie O’Ryan from the soap opera All My Children, but here she is starring in a little soap opera drama called Lives of Our Days, complete with suspenseful soap-opera music. As she sits on the table fiddling with her huge gold earrings and necklace, in walks the doctor with grave news: “I’m afraid there is nothing physically wrong with you.”

“Then why do I feel so awful, so bloated and sluggish?” she asks. “Nothing gives me joy anymore–not the clothes, the house, the raise. Doctor, I’m frightened. Can’t you give me a pill?”

“There is no pill for what you have. I’m afraid you’re suffering from … Affluenza.

“Oh, my God,” she reacts. “Why me? Is it fatal?”

“It’s catastrophic. It’s the new epidemic.”

“Is there a cure?” [Pause]

“Possibly.”

So begins John de Graaf’s hit documentary film “Affluenza,” aired on public television. In this humorous yet hard-hitting documentary, National Public Radio star Scott Simon narrates a look at our culture, at our insatiable appetite for more–which the producers define as truly an epidemic that is making us and our world ill. It is a combination of “affluence” and “influenza.”

Unlike the woman on the examining table, the rich man in our text does not know he is sick. He doesn’t list his symptoms, but in my view this is still a healing story. This man clearly has an advanced case of Affluenza. Having inherited the family fortune, an enormous landholding, he now wants more: he wants to inherit eternal life. So he kneels before Jesus with the request.

Jesus gives him the standard prescription. “You know the commandments: You shall not murder, commit adultery, or steal. You shall not bear false witness, you shall not defraud.”

Wait a minute! What was that last commandment? That’s not in the list we learned in catechism class. Notice, here, that Jesus has replaced the more familiar Old Testament commandment against “coveting” with the word “defraud.” Is Jesus implying that if a rich person is so rich it may well be the result of having defrauded the poor? If so, this is an interesting economic zinger.

The rich man does not seem to notice this shift. He confidently assures Jesus that he is a paragon of a health as far as God’s laws are concerned. “All these commandments I have kept from my youth.” He sits on the table expecting now a clean bill of health, as we do when the doctor has gone through the checklist of items–Do you smoke? Do you ever go out without using sunscreen? Are you obese? No, No, No.
Jesus looks at this man–gazes “into him,” as the Greek puts it–and Jesus loves him. This is gospel. Jesus can see the sickness in this self-righteous man, his great lack, yet Jesus still loves him, loves him as he loves each of us: with a wonderful, unexpected love that gazes deep into our souls and loves us and our world unconditionally. It is that love that heals him, heals us. That gaze of love.
But healing stories usually continue with a command to do something, often beginning with “Get up” or “Go.” Little does this rich man realize that the doctor is about to write out the toughest prescription imaginable. Because he loves him, Jesus lovingly invites this man to follow him, to take the next step to accept his healing; not a pill, but to move to embrace eternal life by letting go of his possessions and making restitution to the poor.

“You lack one thing,” Doctor Jesus offers by way of diagnosis. “Get up” ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])–Jesus uses the same words he uses with so many others as he completes the process of healing them from their diseases (to a leper in 1:44; to the paralyzed man in 2:11; the Gerasene demon-possessed man in 5:19; the woman with the flow of blood in 5:34; the Syrophoenician woman in 7:29; the blind man in this same chapter, 10:52)–“Get up. Sell what you own and give to the poor, and you will find treasure in heaven.” Follow me. This will be health to you, this is eternal life.
The sadness of this story is that the rich man cannot do it. He cannot take the cure, he cannot take the pill. Even though Jesus has looked at him and loved him, this man leaves grief-stricken, weeping, alone, apparently to resume his illness. He is apparently so addicted to his possessions, to his great wealth and inheritance, so sick with Affluenza, that he misses out on being an heir to eternal life, and to the community of the gospel.

Are we sick? Have we been stricken with an epidemic? Environmental writer Bill McKibben writes about our culture’s insatiable hunger for More and More things as a religion, a kind of orthodoxy of our times (he capitalizes the word More.) The sickness metaphor of “Affluenza” is so helpful, I think, because it helps us see the threat that our lifestyle poses–the threat to the health of our environment with atmospheric climate change, the threat in terms of defrauding the poor of our world, defrauding future generations; even the threat to our own souls, to our inheritance of eternal life.

How does the Gospel story end? The rich man goes away, unable to take the cure. But when I preached on this text at Holden Village someone suggested that perhaps his grief and weeping was the first step for him toward healing. Weeping can do that; it can open us to the cries of the world.

Our weeping can also connect us to the stories of people we are defrauding, the stories of people we are making sick with our ever-expanding lifestyle. I’ll never forget four very poor Honduran farmers at Holden who shared the stories of their lives with us. (Those of you who have been to Third World countries have similar stories.) Their joy in the gospel–in eternal life–was a testimony to everyone at Holden. Shyly, softly, they laid bare their childhoods in abject poverty. They told of the shame of not having shoes until age 17, the shame of not having anything to eat when it was lunchtime, of being told day after day that they were nothing. One of them, Jorge, spent several years, from age 10 to 14, as a slave to a rich senior, or master. Miguel has become a primary school teacher, but he is still very poor, and his heart goes out to the poorest children in his classroom. As he told of one of his students who had no pants to wear to school, it clearly struck a chord in the three other panelists, for all were softly weeping, wiping their eyes with huge white handkerchiefs.

One of the questions of today’s Gospel text is this: How does the weeping of four poor campesinos, who cannot even buy medicine for their children when they are sick, connect to the weeping of the rich man in the story who can’t let go of his possessions? How do the wounds of our culture’s Affluenza connect to the sufferings of Katrina victims or tsunami victims? And how do they connect to the rich man’s need for healing, as he falls on his knees before Jesus? Is there a connection? And how do we as preachers draw those connections, lovingly, for the healing of our parishioners and the healing of the world?

In issuing his prescription of “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor” Doctor Jesus seems to be saying that there is indeed a connection, that both groups’ weeping is in fact a symptom of the same sickness. Jesus seems to be saying that the key to the rich man’s healing is to redress the economic imbalance, the injustice done to the poor. Doctor Jesus appears to be diagnosing as “fraud” the very system–in his time and also ours–that perpetuates great economic privilege and that is making us and the planet ill.

We cannot inherit eternal life while investing in and clinging to the disease of Affluenza. Our world is sick.

But there is hope. There is love. As Jesus gazes deeply, lovingly, into each one of us he offers not only the diagnosis but also the gift of eternal life. “Follow me,” Jesus said to the rich man, and he says it to each of us. Lay aside your possessions, give them away! They are killing you. They are making you feel bloated and sluggish. (Remember the words of our soap opera friend: Nothing gives me joy–not the clothes, the raise, the car, the house.) Our cars, our huge houses, our oil-based economy are warming the planet to dangerous levels. We are eating up the planetary capital that has been created over millions of years. Jesus invites us to downsize–to “Powerdown,” as Richard Heinberg describes the way of life required for a post-Carbon world.

Give back to the poor and to the earth what we have taken by fraud before it is too late. Inherit instead the promise. Inherit eternal life.
The examining table in the doctor’s office becomes the communion table, where Doctor Jesus gave you the only pill you will ever need. Take, eat–his body, given for you, in communion with God and with one another and with all creation. That communion can heal us all.

It is a hard pill to take, and the disciples know it. The story shifts (read vv. 23-31): “Then who can be saved?” (v. 26) This word “saved” ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is the other word in the story that makes it sound like a healing story, that makes me think it’s about healing the rich man, healing Affluenza. The Greek word ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) can be translated as either “save” or “heal,” encompassing both dimensions. There is a connection between salvation and healing: Jairus’ daughter, 5:23–“Come lay hands on her so that she might be healed/saved”; the hemorrhaging woman, 5:28, 34–“If I but touch the hem of his garments I shall be saved”; 6:56, “And wherever he went … they begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were saved” (NRSV “healed”); blind Bartimaeus, 10:52: “Get up, your faith has saved/healed you.”

Who then can be healed? the disciples ask (10:26). With humans it is impossible, Jesus says, but with God all things are possible. That is the promise, the message of hope, in the gospel: with God all things are possible.

Our planet is very ill, and it is crying out. We are ill, our world is ill, an urgent epidemic, but it does not have to be fatal. Jesus offers healing, Jesus offers us transformation. He looks at us and loves us. Doctor Jesus offers you the cure: Take and eat. Let go of your possessions, your lifestyle of More that is making you ill. Come find true treasure in community with your sisters and brothers and all creation. Life eternal.

With God all things are possible.

Barbara Rossing
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

Citation Details
Title: Healing Affluenza: a sermon on Mark 10:17-27.
Author: Barbara Rossing
Publication: Currents in Theology and Mission (Magazine/Journal)
Date: August 1, 2006
Publisher: Thomson Gale
Volume: 33 Issue: 4 Page: 300(4)

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