26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Healing the Hoarder
Healing the Hoarder
Sisters and brothers, about a month or so ago, a 76-year-old man was found dead in the man’s own HDB flat. It was, of course, not the first time this had happened. What made this particular case more newsworthy was the fact that the man’s house was packed, from floor to ceiling, with rubbish. To the extent that an emergency services team had to take almost an hour to break into the tightly locked apartment, plough through the junk, and retrieve the deceased person’s remains. The poor man was a hoarder. While alive, he spent his time rummaging through trash cans and storing what he found in plastic bags in his house. When a neighbour asked him what was in those bags, he was reported to have said that he had treasures. We can only guess at the reasons why the man acted the way he did. Some say he may have had a mental illness. A form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Whatever the cause, the effects of his condition were quite plain to see. He couldn’t stop himself from hoarding. Not even when his apartment began to smell really bad. Not even when it posed a serious fire hazard, endangering the lives of both him and his neighbours.
Now it’s not always a bad idea to store things. Especially if they are truly valuable. We may think, for example, of how water is such a precious commodity in Singapore. Such that we have to go to great lengths to construct reservoirs to store it. And to maintain armies to defend it. But not everything is as valuable as water. And not all valuable things are meant to be stored and secured in this way.
For example, all of us will agree that fire too is a valuable thing. We need it to cook our food. To light up the darkness. To dispel the cold. And yet, how many of us actually store and secure fire the way we do water? We don’t. And part of the reason why we don’t is because of the danger involved. When we try to store fire, we run the risk of being burnt by it. Even though fire is almost as precious as water, it is not meant to be stored and secured. It’s meant to be spread and shared.
All of which helps us to better appreciate the sad situation of our HDB hoarder. For some reason, he could not even tell the difference between true treasure and junk, let alone the difference between water and fire. As a result, the poor man died surrounded by piles of rubbish.
And it’s a similar plight that our Mass readings are trying to help us to avoid today. For hoarding is a serious problem–even a dangerous illness–in the spiritual life as well. In the second reading, for example, we find a stern warning being issued to certain rich people. People who treat their wealth like a treasure to be accumulated and safeguarded. People who, in their arrogance and complacency, pay no attention to the many others around them who are struggling to survive. The many who have no choice but to live from hand to mouth. The countless who are unable to save up for a rainy day, because everyday is a rainy day. Instead of using their resources to help these poor neighbours–and so store up true spiritual treasures for themselves–the rich people in the second reading actually add to their misery. They make the poor do backbreaking work in exchange for wages too small to sustain life. And the rich do this–they neglect and victimise the poor–in order to store up and secure their own wealth.
But what these apparently well-off people fail to realise is that they themselves are actually spiritually sick. Like the old man in his HDB apartment, they are hoarders. They cling compulsively to things that have no spiritual value in themselves. And their lives become a fire-hazard. As the reading warns them: It was a burning fire that you stored up as your treasure for the last days. And, if they do not change, this fire will destroy them.
But that’s not all. The illness of hoarding affects not just those who are materially rich. It endangers also those of us who are spiritually wealthy. Isn’t this what is happening in both the first reading and the gospel? In the first reading, seventy elders of the people of Israel are summoned to the Tent of Meeting. The place where God speaks to Moses. There, in the Tent, they receive a great blessing. They are given a share in the same spirit that God gave to Moses. As a result, they too are able to prophesy, to speak on God’s behalf. But something unexpected happens. It seems that, as the spirit of God is poured out on those in the Tent, it also overflows onto others who are outside. So, even though they were not in the Tent, Eldad and Medad also begin to prophesy. And Joshua protests. He wants Moses to stop them. He wishes to hoard the gift of the spirit. To keep this treasure solely within the confines of the Tent of Meeting.
Similarly, in the gospel, the disciples of Jesus want to stop someone from casting out devils in the Lord’s name, simply because the man is not one of them. Like the seventy elders in the first reading, the disciples have been given a share in the spirit of God. The precious spirit that empowers the ministry of Jesus. And they want to keep this treasure for themselves. They want to hoard it. To restrict its operation to the members of their group.
What Joshua and the disciples of Jesus fail to understand is that, although the spirit of God is truly a precious gift, a priceless treasure, it is more like fire than like water. The spirit is meant not to be stored and secured, but to be shared and spread. To try to hoard it is to act against the wishes of God, who desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). And it is when we realise this that we are better able to understand what Jesus may mean when he tells us to tear out our eye, or to chop off our hand, if these should cause us to sin.
Perhaps we are being asked, you and I, to get rid of the blind eye that doesn’t know how to tell the difference between water and fire. Or even between true treasure and mere junk. To stop seeing through the greedy eye that wants to keep all things of value only for itself. Perhaps we’re being asked to stop using the grasping hand, that can’t stop grabbing and hoarding, without giving any thought to the needs of others, or to the wishes of God. And it is by taking these drastic measures that we allow God to heal us of our affliction. To help us to get over our hoarding. Otherwise, as Jesus warns us, the precious fire that we try so desperately to store up for ourselves might well turn into the terrible flames of hell, which burn and burn and never go out.
Sisters and brothers, it is difficult for us to deny that all of us gathered here today are indeed blessed. Some of us–maybe even many of us–are blessed with great material wealth. But, whether materially rich or not, all of us here are spiritually gifted. Apart from the catechumens among us, we have all been baptised and washed in the blood of the Lamb of God. But this blessing is meant not just for us. It is also destined for others. This treasure is not for us simply to store and to secure. Rather, it is a burning fire that is meant to be spread and shared. So that others too may come to the knowledge of the truth.
Sisters and brothers, what can we do to allow God to heal us of our hoarding tendencies today?