`A man ran up to Jesus..."
Was he the first to suffer from affluenza — the sickness that puts us and our planet in peril?
Read this web exclusive by Barbara Rossing at The Lutheran magazine's May 2008 edition:
Here's the text:
"A man ran up to Jesus and knelt before him ..." in an encounter we know from Mark 10:17-22. He was rich, but he was not whole. Perhaps he was much like American Christians today who are stricken with the disease that filmmaker John de Graaf calls "affluenza" (visit the PBS Affluenza Web site). A combination of the words "affluence" and "influenza," affluenza can be defined as:
• An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American dream.
• An unsustainable addiction to economic growth.
Perhaps the rich man's sickness is linked to our planet's sickness. Our Earth is ill with the fever of global warming and it is crying out to us.
What are our ills, our wounds, today? Do you live with a chronic disease, like Paul's "thorn in the flesh" — diabetes, asthma, HIV or addiction?
The Gospels depict a veritable procession of woundedness meeting Jesus' power to heal. The pattern is familiar: Jesus is passing through a village when someone runs up and falls down before him with a specific request.
"Make me well," begs the man with leprosy as he falls to his knees before Jesus.
"Heal my daughter," is the appeal of Jairus as he falls at Jesus' feet. Each comes with a specific request for healing.
Then there is the rich man. He seems to be able-bodied, often depicted in art as young, handsome and well-dressed. Yet this rich man, too, is wounded. He is sick, and Jesus' prescription for his healing speaks to us and to the ecological crisis facing our world today.
Like the others who sought healing, the rich man runs up to Jesus on the road and falls on his knees. Like the others, he has a request: "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17). His question sets this story apart from the other healing stories. This man asks about eternal life, not healing. He doesn't appear to be sick. Might he be sick without knowing it?
You can still see Affluenza, de Graaf's 1997 film, on the Documentary Channel or find it in synod resource centers. This humorous yet hard-hitting show opens in a doctor's examining room. A woman dressed in a skimpy hospital gown nervously clutches her purse on her lap as she waits for the doctor. The woman is actress Jackie O'Ryan from the well-known soap opera All My Children.
In the film's spoof soap opera, O'Ryan sits on the table fiddling with her gold jewelry until the doctor walks in. He has grave news: "I'm afraid there is nothing physically wrong with you."
"Then why do I feel so awful, so bloated and sluggish?" she cries. "Nothing gives me joy anymore. Not the clothes, the house, the raise. Doctor, I'm frightened. Can you give me a prescription?"
"There is no pill for what you have. I'm afraid you're suffering from affluenza," he replies.
"Oh my God," she reacts. "Why me? Is it fatal?
"It's catastrophic. It's the new epidemic.
"Is there a cure?"
Affluenza is an exposé of our culture, of our insatiable appetite for more. The diagnosis, affluenza, is an epidemic that is making us and our world literally ill.
Jesus invites the rich man with affluenza into community, into a new way of life. Tragically, the man can't swallow that pill. He can't take the cure, the prescription for healing, that Dr. Jesus has given him: "Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor ... then come, follow me" (Mark 10: 21).
Even though Jesus has looked at him and loved him, this man leaves grief-stricken, weeping and alone, apparently to resume his way of life, steeped in sickness. He is so addicted to his possessions, to his great wealth and comfort-so sick with affluenza-that he walks away from Jesus' offer of eternal life. He misses out on the joyful community of the gospel.
But Jesus has looked at this man-gazed "into him," according to the Greek-and Jesus loves him. What a gift! This is the gospel moment of healing. Jesus can see the sickness in this self-righteous man, how much he is lacking, and Jesus still loves him. In the same way Jesus loves each of us with a wonderful, unexpected love that gazes deep into our souls, that knows us and loves us and our world unconditionally. It is this gaze of love that heals the rich man and heals each of us.
Are we sick in the same way? Have we been stricken by the epidemic? Christian environmental writer Bill McKibben thinks so. He defines our culture's insatiable hunger for "more" as a sickness of our times. The sickness metaphor helps us see the health threat that an unsustainable way of life poses to our world.
Lay aside your possessions, Jesus says. Give them away, divest yourself! These possessions are killing you. They are making you bloated and sluggish.
Our ever-bigger houses, our oil-based economy, our addictive accumulation of possessions: these are making our planet ill.
Our mounting levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide-380 parts per million and increasing at an ever-faster rate-are as dangerous to our planet's health as a diabetic's out-of-control blood sugar or a heart patient's high cholesterol. With our lifestyle of affluenza we are eating up the planetary capital that God has created over millions of years.
Jesus invites us to downsize our lifestyle, to adopt 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 of eternal life.
The rich man's story can underscore both the urgency of our unsustainable way of life and the depth of Jesus' love for us. The rich man fundamentally misunderstands eternal life as something individualistic that he can obtain while still clinging to his lavish lifestyle. He failed to see that eternal life is life in communion with God and with one another.
Today our best scientists warn that we have may have less than 10 years to make the lifestyle and policy changes necessary to avert dangerous climate change. The message of hope is that there is still time to act. Will we move to embrace our healing? Or will we turn away, as the rich man did?
With God all things are possible, Jesus says. That is the promise of healing for us. Our planet suffers with the fever of global warming. We are ill with affluenza. But these don't have to be a sickness unto death. Even in the face of such sobering ecological projections as the doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by mid-century, rising sea levels and the shrinking polar ice cap, and accelerating extinctions, the amazing restorative power of God's healing love for the world-the proclamation that "with God all things are possible"-gives hope for our planet and for each one of us.
[Rossing is professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where her research focuses on the book of Revelation, ecology and liberation. She regularly teaches a course on “Nature in the Bible.” She is the author of The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Westview Press, 2004). She is an avid hiker and wilderness enthusiast and has served as pastor and teacher at Holden Village retreat center in Washington’s Cascade Mountains.]