“When Enough Is Enough” Mark 10:17-31 October 14, 2018
Gordon Stewart, 74, was a retired cabinetmaker and ponytailed loner who was often seen pedaling his bike around the streets of Broughton, in the U.K., picking up cardboard boxes and bags full of rubbish.
One day, when neighbors hadn’t seen Stewart emerge from his home for several days, they called police. Officers broke in, only to find a house so full of trash that the only way to get around was through an elaborate series of tunnels running through the filth.
The stench was so bad that a police rescue & recovery team using breathing apparatus was called in to search for Stewart, who was found deep inside the unholy labyrinth. Police believe Stewart became disoriented in the mountains of collected stuff and died of dehydration.
The headline from the local newspaper read, “Human mole dies of thirst … lost in his own tunnels of trash”
Stewart suffered from Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome, a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder that causes people to acquire and hold on to stuff that’s useless or of limited value; stuff most of us would call “junk.”
Compulsive hoarders stubbornly hold on to old newspapers, magazines, old clothing, bags, books, mail, notes and lists, as well as other accumulated junk and even garbage, because they believe they might somehow need those items in the future.
The homes of compulsive hoarders thus become a dumping ground, where piles and piles of stuff choke out living space to a dangerous point. It doesn’t take long for the clutter to start spreading onto the floors, countertops, hallways, stairwells, garage and cars.
- Beds become so cluttered there’s no room to sleep.
- Chairs become so buried there’s nowhere to sit.
- Kitchen counters become so cluttered that food can’t be prepared.
Eventually, like Stewart’s home, the living space can be accessed only by a series of narrow pathways or tunnels through the clutter.
But the accumulation of stuff is only a symptom for compulsive hoarders.
According to the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation (OCF), the root cause has to do with an acute case of perfectionism. “People with compulsive hoarding syndrome do not like to make mistakes. In order to prevent making a mistake, they will avoid or postpone making decisions. Even the smallest task, such as washing dishes or checking mail may take a long time because it has to be done ‘right.’ The net result of these high standards and the fear of making a mistake is that compulsive hoarders avoid doing many tasks because everything becomes tedious and overwhelming.”
The OCF says an estimated 700,000 to 1.4 million Americans suffer from Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome. These people are often isolated, lonely and in need of help.
But while syndrome sufferers represent extreme cases, we might argue that much of Western culture is no less focused on the accumulation of stuff. No, it may not be “junk,” and it may not clutter our homes to the point of madness, but the constant drive to acquire bigger homes, cars, televisions, gadgets and other high-end stuff may be symptomatic of a larger and more pervasive human disease — call it greed or avarice, or maybe something such as “chronic wealth syndrome.”
Whatever the name, it has the potential to be no less debilitating or even deadly to sufferers. When the overwhelming desire to accumulate and hold on to material things begins to dominate a person’s life, whether you’re holed up in an apartment or living in a lavish mansion, it’s a serious problem.
The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, & Luke) offer a case study of one so afflicted. He’s often called the “Rich Young Ruler,” a title that’s really a combination of descriptions patched together from each synoptic account.
Here in Mark, we know only that he’s a rich man who had “many possessions” (Mark 10:22). We also know he’s a bit of a perfectionist, at least when it comes to how he perceives himself in relationship to the commandments, the Law of God.
“Good Teacher,” he says to Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus gives him a quick quiz on six of the Ten Commandments & the rich man passes. So far, the man is perfect. “I have kept all these since my youth,” he tells Jesus. He has managed to maintain a perfect standard, at least in his own eyes, while also managing to accumulate a good deal of stuff.
In Hebrew thought, prosperity was associated with God’s blessing, which was the result of faithful living. To the casual observer, this guy had it all.
Eventually, we learn that having it all becomes more of a life-choking burden than a blessing. “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”
When perfectionism causes us to believe that our worth is bound up in all we achieve and accumulate, we become trapped in a maze of our own making.
It is ironic then, that Jesus uses the metaphor of a camel going through the eye of a needle to talk about how hard it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. (The “eye of the needle” is a small narrow opening in the walls of cities in the day of Jesus which allowed for crowd control and defense of the city. The openings were so small that a camel would have difficulty getting through if weighed down with too much cargo.) The stacks and stacks of stuff that wealthy people accumulate as a means of validating their worth can create an ever-narrowing pathway until, eventually, it’s impossible to squeeze their way out.
Jesus, however, offers a therapeutic solution.
While compulsive hoarders need some serious psychological intervention, most people with chronic wealth syndrome really need only one prescription. Jesus spells it out for the rich man when he says: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (v. 21).
Usually that verse elicits a couple of standard responses from people.
On the one hand, many people read it and say, “Well, thank goodness I’m not rich!” It must be someone else’s problem. Like the neighbors who walked past Stewart’s home day after day, we might observe our own wealthy neighbors and friends; and think they’re the ones with a possession problem. Like almost everything we read about in scripture, it is never about us.
But the truth is that if you live in the United States and have even a very modest home and income, you’re still wealthier than the 2.7 billion people in the world who make less than two dollars a day. By that standard, almost all of us are rich and, very likely, want to get richer or at least feel a little more secure.
This is, therefore, a cautionary tale for all of us.
The second approach has to do with the force of Jesus’ prescription. Jesus isn’t really asking us to give up everything we have; he’s using a hyperbolic metaphor. All disciples of Jesus shouldn’t really get rid of everything we own, right? Surely, this man’s problem with possessions required a much more radical intervention than we need. Well, maybe.
But Jesus’ words here seem to have a more universal application. Even the disciples caught the force of it. “Look, we have left everything and followed you,” they said to Jesus (v. 28).
Jesus’ advice/command to the rich man wasn’t lost on those who had indeed done exactly what Jesus was recommending. Somehow, we expect that discipleship shouldn’t cost us that much; we think we can somehow maintain our consumerist lifestyle and still call ourselves followers of Jesus.
Western civilization Christians seem to want the American dream with a little “Jesus” sprinkled over it. Jesus challenges that assumption directly, and his words are convicting for all who want to be his followers.
Jesus calls us to think about how we continue to hoard and hold on to things in our own lives. The question is whether we’ll seek health and wholeness by learning to give up our stuff when we’re asked, or whether we’ll continue to cram our houses and our bodies full of the junk that the culture says we need and should have.
Only when we’re willing to let go, to see all our stuff as belonging to God, will we begin to see the light of the kingdom break through all the clutter.
The rich man was missing those first four commandments — the ones about honoring God, about making everything in our lives subject to God. When we take those commandments seriously, we begin to see that our own idea of perfection is nothing compared to God’s perfection.
For God, perfection and prosperity aren’t about full houses and mountains of material goods. Rather, they’re all about emptying, about giving away, about clearing the clutter and letting go of anything and everything that keeps us from finding the door to God’s kingdom.
To die in a squalid pile of junk is a sad end to say the least. But all of us will die eventually, too.
The question is whether we’ll be found trying desperately to hold on to stuff we can’t take with us, or whether we’ll be found having given the best of ourselves and our material blessings to the service of God, who ultimately owns it all anyway. Amen.
@Rev. Tim Wolbrecht, October, 2018
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “ULC Sermon 10-14-18” name of the sermon.