Have you ever been diagnosed with the disease or illness called Pleonexia? This may be the first time you even heard of Pleonexia, but by no means is it a rare disease. In fact, it is something that affects almost every single one of us, directly or indirectly. The illness of Pleonexia is something that can destroy individual lives, families, and even countries; it is a plague that has, in the course of human history, wiped out entire cultures!
St. Paul uses the word Pleonexia in our second reading from the Letter to the Colossians. Jesus strongly cautions us against it in the Gospel. He says:
Take care to guard against all pleonexia.
You may have guessed by now, but Pleonexia is the Greek word translated in our Scriptures this weekend as greed or avarice, and it is taken from the word pleon, which means “more.” Basically Pleonexia, or greed, is the desire for more, more, more. It drives us on to desire more money, more possessions, more sex, more power. More. It’s the “more” disease.
Pleonexia has the uncanny ability to root us right here to this earth, and blind us to the things of heaven. It creates a false sense of happiness in a life here without God, and takes our attention from the Kingdom of God that each of us are called to embrace. That is why Christ is so adamant in that Gospel to warn us against it.
Often the topic of money and material possessions can be a bit unnerving, because—more than likely in our country—we all have them! A gospel like the one this weekend can cause us to ask, “Is it a sin to have nice things, or to want nice things? Is it wrong to have a nice car, a nice house, a good bank account or financial portfolio? Is it wrong to want that kind of security for my family?”
Of course not! There is nothing wrong with having possessions. There is nothing wrong with a desire for material things. The problem comes when our possessions begin to possess us. It is when our material goods become material gods that we run into trouble. That is the very thing Jesus is warning us about when He says “Take care to guard against all pleonexia.”
In the Parable of the Rich Fool, Christ teaches us the difference between wealth and greed, between possessing good things in this life on the one hand, and being consumed by Pleonexia on the other.
The man in that parable has received an abundance of material wealth. St. Luke tells us that his land “produced a bountiful harvest” (Luke 12:16). He had, in fact, too much. He could not fit it all in his barns. There is no indication anywhere from Christ that this is a bad thing. On the contrary, it is a blessing, not a problem.
What he chooses to do what that blessing is the problem. Instead of being grateful for that abundant harvest, instead of being generous with what he has received, the rich fool says to himself—exclusive from God, and separate from those around him:
I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones…and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for so many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”
Why does he need bigger barns? Because with bigger barns he can fit more things. More, more, more. That is Pleonexia. There will never be enough barns to satisfy his craving for more.
I am sure you have heard of the expanse of military victories Alexander the Great was able to amass in his time as king in Ancient Greece. He won over nation after nation, until all the world was under his rule. One oft quoted line summarizes well the attitude he had to such success:
“When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.”
That is Pleonexia. When the world we live in is not enough, and still we long for more, that is a clear indication of greed, avarice, pleonexia. It is said that by the end of his life Alexander finally understood the futility of such a thirst for power and possessions. He arranged to be buried with his hand sticking out of the coffin, palm outstretched and empty. He wanted the world to know that no one—not even Alexander—can take it with them!
No one is exempt from Pleonexia. It can affect all of us, even priests! When I first began my priesthood after being ordained, I moved into my first assignment with only one car load of things. Everything I owned fit into that one car.
When I moved last month into the rectory here at St. Mary’s, I still had that same car filled with my possessions…plus a pick-up truck with the rest of them! It was what I had accumulated in three years. By the time I leave St. Mary’s, if I’m not careful, I’ll need an eighteen wheeler! Pleonexia! It can affect us all.
In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the poet Virgil takes Dante on a little tour of the Inferno and shows him the place reserved in hell for the greedy, those guilty of the sin of avarice. Dante is awed by the sheer number of miserable persons in that place.
Suddenly he notices that a very large number of them are tonsured. (In Dante’s time, those who entered the clerical state were tonsured: they shaved the hair on the top of their heads to show that they were clerics.) He questions Virgil, almost surprised to believe that there could be such here in the Inferno. Virgil’s response is sobering:
“Those bare of head were clerics, cardinals, popes, in whom the passion of avarice has wrought excess.”
No one is exempt from the temptation of greed and avarice; none of us are safe from the plague of Pleonexia. Yet the Good News is that there is an antidote for Pleonexia. There is a cure for that illness, and we find it in our second reading from St. Paul. But you’re probably not going to like it! The cure for Pleonexia, according to St. Paul, is death! He says:
Brothers and sisters…You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
In other words, St. Paul is saying, the old life that you used to live is dead. Your old desires for possessions and the things of this earth are dead. Now you live your life for Jesus Christ. He continues:
Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed (pleonexia) that is idolatry.
There is a story about an old man on the Alaskan coastline that used to raise wolves. Every week he would bring two of them into a small village nearby, and have them fight against each other. The people in that village would come out and bet on which of the wolves would win.
A little boy in the village noticed that, although there were always different wolves each week, whichever one the old man bet on always won. One day he asked the old man how he knew which one would win. The old man said to him:
“That’s easy. I am the one who takes care of them. Each week I pick out two of them, and one I starve all week long. I give him table scraps, just enough to get by. But the other wolf I feed with three meals a day, until he is healthy and strong. The wolf I feed is the wolf that wins.”
We can ask ourselves this weekend: which wolf are we feeding? Are we feeding the wolf of Pleonexia? The greed and desire for more of the things of this world that will consume us in the end? Are we feeding the things that St. Paul mentions: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed?
Or are we, instead, feeding our spiritual lives and allowing Christ to live in us? Are we being fed by the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, who feeds us right here from this table in the gift of the Holy Eucharist?
Let us be fed here in this place, and strengthened by Christ, so that we can leave here and witness to Christ in the world that we live in. May those we encounter this week recognize that the strength we have in this world is not from us, but that it is the strength of Christ Jesus, who lives in us.
Sunday, August 05, 2007
(18th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given 4 & 5 August, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; read Colossians 3:1-11 and Luke 12:13-21)