You’ve likely heard the story of Ethan Couch, the 16-year old kid from Texas, convicted in the deaths of four people in a drunk-driving incident last June. Ethan and a group of friends had gone to a local Wal-Mart where they stole two cases of beer and then headed to Ethan’s house to drink and then on to the highways for a joyride in Ethan’s father’s F-350 pickup. Ethan was driving at speeds up to 70 MPH on the rural roads near Fort Worth and had a blood alcohol level of three times the legal limit. That’s when he plowed into a group of four people standing at the side of the road near a disabled car. All four were killed, including the driver of the broken down car and three people who had come to her aid, a mother and her teen-age daughter who were friends of the driver and had responded to her call for help and a local youth pastor on the way home from his son’s high school graduation ceremony who had stopped to see if he might be able to assist them. Two of the six passengers in the pickup were seriously injured, one is now permanently paralyzed.
No one contests the events of June 15 or whether Ethan Couch was guilty. He pleaded guilty. He is guilty.
Why this tragic local story has become national news is that the judge has just handed down the sentence in the case. Ethan will receive ten years of probation and his prison will be a (parent-paid) $450,000 a year rehab center near Newport Beach, California. Here’s a summary of the story and the judge’s sentencing.
That’s right, Ethan’s parents can afford $450,000 for rehab. And who knows how much for attorneys to defend their son. It turns out that the judge bought the defense argument that Ethan was less than fully responsible because he suffers from “affluenza.” As the Washington Post reports, affluenza is said to be a pathology affecting the very wealthy who have come to believe that they have no moral responsibility since their wealth can be used to negate the consequences of their immoral behavior. You buy a verdict, pay for a settlement, hire an attorney, a therapist or a plastic surgeon to make everything okay.
The bloggers and the commentators are rightly outraged at the judge’s decision. She says she will not run for reelection. Ethan’s parents are depicted as a despicable pair as they apparently are.
The families of the victims are stunned by the verdict. They have every right to be.
But what about affluenza? It sounds completely bogus. The expert witnesses ought to be sent to jail along with young Ethan and his parents.
But wait. I think Jesus knew something about affluenza and cautioned us to avoid exposure to it. Jesus didn’t call it a virus, though. He knew affluenza by its real name, Mammon, the false god who would seduce us and trap us in his tight grip.
In cautioning us not to lay up treasures for ourselves where moth and rust destroy; in telling us that our devotion to money will, surely, cause us to despise God and the ways of God, Jesus was describing the symptoms of the disease.
But as he continues in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also offers us the only known antidote to affluenza, the only defense against Mammon’s power. The preparation for the inoculation may seem strange at first. We are to look at the birds of the air and consider the lilies of the field. From the birds and the lilies we are to learn trust. Then comes the medicine itself. We are to seek God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness.
We may not be among the very wealthy who are able to buy a half-million dollars of overpriced therapy for our criminal kids. We have been affected by affluenza, however, and even a mild case of it has serious consequences for our spiritual, emotional, relational and civic life. We seek to buy happiness to assuage the loss of God’s joy in our lives. We blanket our existence with things to keep at bay the bitter cold of loneliness and despair. We steal the well-being of the other as we careen through the curves of life intoxicated by the fleeting pleasure Mammon offers to anesthetize against a world of injustice, pain and sorrow.
And, yes, December is flu season. Outbreaks of affluenza are reported across the country and in our own community. So, before you head to the mall for more stuff, look at the cardinal as he darts a red flash across the snow covered yard, consider the beauty of the winter fields. Thank our trustworthy God who supplies all we need. And then, even at the mall, seek God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness, the righteousness of the God who gave his only Son that we might life.
In seeking God’s Kingdom, we must seek the King, the King who lies in Bethlehem’s manger bed and who loves from Calvary’s executioner’s cross. In seeking God’s righteousness we must give, a reflection of the One who gave all for us.
So, stay healthy. Pause and look at the birds of the air, consider the (snow-covered) lilies of the field. And give – not so much stuff as love.