“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Jesus. Ash Wednesday Gospel reading; Matthew 6:21)
We are today, on Ash Wednesday, this Lent, being invited to embark on an unexpected journey.
In Chapter 1 of the Hobbit the dragon Smaug is described as “a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm.” Early in the story we are told that dragons guard their loot as long as they live. But they get nothing out of this.
Forbes Magazine last year worked out what Smaug was worth. Smaug’s treasure was calculated to be worth over 62 billion American dollars. But he doesn’t use a penny of it. Smaug doesn’t posses his treasure – this so-called “treasure”, Smaug’s “possession” possesses Smaug.
In the Hobbit this is called “dragon sickness”. We might use another word for dragon sickness – that might be greed. But there’s much more going on. Dragon sickness is confusing means (the purpose of gold, of a treasure, is to be used for something). It is a means – not a goal in itself. Dragon sickness is turning means into the goal.
Tolkein was explicitly clear that the Lord of the Rings is a spiritual story, a religious story. The Hobbit no less so.
There are lots of people in the story of the Hobbit who suffer from dragon sickness – who are trapped, not free, addicted. Who turn means into a goal.
The Master of Laketown explicitly suffered from dragon sickness. But really when you look through the story many, many others did.
Gollum/Smeagol is a pretty obvious one. Gollum is possessed by his possession.
But did you notice Bilbo is caught up in dragon sickness?
Just look at how the story begins. The focus for Bilbo at the start of the story is his obsession not to have problems, not to have any suffering, not to carry any crosses.
Bilbo is essentially self-centered. The irony at the start of the story is that Bilbo is not much different to the dragon who has surrounding himself with treasure in his “home” in the Lonely Mountain.
Remember what Gandalf says to Bilbo: “When did doilies and your mother’s dishes become so important to you?”
Gandalf, the Christ-figure, declares to Bilbo that he needs to go on a journey – an unexpected journey certainly; a painful journey, a via dolorosa. And Bilbo at the end of the journey will not be the Bilbo from the start of the journey. Bilbo will come back with a treasure, certainly – but it is the treasure of finding his true self.
We all share Bilbo’s dragon sickness. We confuse the goal and the means. We get things totally back to front. The dragon treats the treasure like it is the goal, the purpose. We know the gold and treasure is supposed to be the means. For the dragon the treasure is ultimately totally useless. We know this.
And yet, even though we know it, it traps us. We are like the Master of Laketown, like Gollum, even like Bilbo (when he gets the Arkenstone it possesses him).
The goal is God. Everything, everything else is the means. And we get it back to front – making other things the goal of life, and then finding we are possessed, addicted by these. Even using God as the means to get our goal.
Lent is much deeper than simply “giving something up”. Lent is the unexpected journey – with Gandalf as wise guide and each of us as Bilbo. The painful adventure and journey of Lent, where we leave behind our obsessions with the trivia of handkerchiefs, and doilies, and mother’s dishes.
Through the prayer and self-denial and generosity of Lent we may be surprised to find that we arrive at Easter changed.