Clearing the door to God’s Kingdom
Mark 10, 17-31
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to You O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen
I don’t know if any of you remember reading a story about a man by the name of Gordon Stewart. He was a retired 74 year old cabinetmaker and ponytailed loner who was often seen pedalling his bike around the streets of Broughton, in Buckinghamshire, picking up cardboard boxes and bags full of rubbish. One day, when neighbours hadn’t seen him emerge from his home for several days, they called the police. Officers broke in, only to find a house so full of rubbish 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 diving team using breathing apparatus was called in to search for the man, who was found dead deep inside the unholy labyrinth. Police believe he became disoriented in the mountains of collected stuff and died of dehydration. “Human mole dies of thirst … lost in his own tunnels of rubbish,” read the headline in The Sun.
Stewart suffered from something called 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.” Now some of you may think that you or, more likely your partner are suffering from a mild for of this affliction but compulsive hoarders stubbornly hold on to everything and anything. Old newspapers, magazines, old clothing, bags, books, mail, notes and lists, as well as other accumulated junk and even household waste, 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.
According to a survey in America by the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation (OCF), hoarding constituted a physical health threat in 81 percent of identified cases, including threat of fire hazard, falling, unsanitary conditions and inability to prepare food. Stewart’s case shows what can happen when hoarding reaches a critical stage. But the accumulation of stuff is only a symptom for compulsive hoarders.
According to the OCF, the root cause has to do with an acute case of perfectionism. Apparently, 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. 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.
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 a little flat or living in a palatial mansion, it’s a serious problem.
The gospels offer a case study of one so afflicted. He’s often called the “Rich Young Ruler,” a title that’s really an amalgam of descriptions cobbled together from each of the gospel accounts. Here in Mark, we know only that he’s a rich man who had “many possessions”. 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. “Good Teacher,” he says to Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus gives him a quick quiz on the Ten Commandments (well, at least five commandments, plus another that deals with human relationships), and the rich man ticks all the boxes. 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 chap had it all. But, as a comedian once quipped, “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” Eventually, we learn that having it all becomes more of a life-choking burden than a blessing.
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’s 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. It’s a very powerful visual metaphor when you think about it. 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: “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”.
Now 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. But like the neighbours who walked past Gordon Stewart’s home day after day, we might observe our own wealthy neighbours and think they’re the ones with a possession problem. Let’s leave it to them to give some money to the poor – they can afford it more than me!
But the truth is that if you live in the Western world 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. This is, thus, a cautionary tale for all of us. You might not be rich in the Bill Gates way – but you’re a lot richer than most people.
The second response to Jesus’ command to give it all away has to do with the force of Jesus’ prescription. His command to the rich young ruler to ‘Give everything away’ feels ridiculously extreme – so extreme as to be impractical and so we can ignore it with impunity. But Jesus isn’t really asking us to give up everything we have; he’s doing two things with this statement.
Firstly, he’s making a point that we’re all going to remember by taking it to an extreme. It’s rather like the reading that we had 2 weeks ago from John’s gospel. Remember – “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off.” Jesus doesn’t want us to go around self-maiming but it makes a strong point. It’s what the scholars call a hyperbolic metaphor. If Jesus had said “Give away what you think you can afford”, it would not have had the impact of the statement to “Give everything away”.
Secondly, Jesus recognises in this young man, a particularly difficult case of “Chronic Wealth Syndrome”. This young man’s problem with possessions was so extreme that he required a much more radical intervention than most of us would need. Wouldn’t he? 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. Jesus’ advice 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 without adjustment and still call ourselves followers of Jesus. Jesus challenges that assumption directly, and his words are tough for all of us who want to be his followers. He 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 bodies full of the junk that our culture says we need.
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 honouring 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 an ignominious end. 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.
Let us pray