Gordon Stewart was a retired cabinetmaker who lived alone and was often seen picking up cardboard boxes and bags full of rubbish. When neighbors hadn’t seen Stewart after several days they called police. Officers had to break in and when they did, they found a house so full of trash that the only way to get around was via an elaborate series of tunnels running through the accumulated rubbish. Eventually they found Mr. Stewart, deceased. Police believe Stewart became disoriented in the mountains of collected stuff and died of dehydration.
Stewart suffered from what is 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 we would call “junk.”
Compulsive hoarders hold on to old newspapers, magazines, old clothing, bags, books, mail, notes, lists, and who knows what else—all 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 all to a point where the setting becomes dangerous.
According to a survey by the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation (OCF), hoarding constituted a physical health threat in 81 percent of identified cases, including threat of fire, falling, unsanitary conditions and inability to prepare food. 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.
Behavioral therapist Karron Maidment writes, “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 overwhelming.”
The OCF says an estimated 1.4 million Americans suffer from Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome. All of this is clear indication of a mental health issue the requires intervention, treatment, and ongoing compassion. But while syndrome sufferers represent extreme cases, an argument can be made 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 even what some mental health professionals call “chronic wealth syndrome.”
Whatever the name, it has the potential to be no less debilitating or even deadly to sufferers because when the overwhelming desire to accumulate and hold on to things begins to dominate a person’s life, whether you’re holed up in an apartment or living in a luxurious mansion, it’s a serious problem.
Hoarding, in any case—physical, mental, or even spiritual—is dangerous and needs to be managed. Which is what Jesus is doing in our text for today.
The Gospel of Mark, as well as the other two synoptic gospels, presents to us a case study of one afflicted with hoarding. He’s often called the “Rich Young Ruler,” because he had “many possessions.”
Furthermore, it becomes clear that he’s a bit of a perfectionist, at least when it comes to how he perceives himself in relationship to the Ten Commandments. The conversation begins with the rich young ruler saying to Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In response Jesus gives him a quiz on six of the Ten Commandments; not the first four that deal with humans’ relationship with God— but more on that later.
The rich man says, “I have kept all these since my youth,” and thus passes the quiz, showing that he is a Godly man who keeps these commandments, showing that, he is perfect. He has managed to maintain a perfect standard, at least in his own eyes, while also managing to accumulate a good deal of stuff, which is important to note because in Hebrew thought, prosperity was associated with God’s blessing, which was the result of faithful living. Therefore, to the casual observer because this guy was faithful and right with God, he guy had it all. It’s hear where the wheels start to come off for our Rich Young Ruler, and soon we see how 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, which is why 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 stacks and stacks of stuff that the wealthy 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 serious psychological intervention, most people with chronic wealth syndrome really need only one prescription, which Jesus spells out for the rich man. 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.” That’s it. Give it all up. Give it all away. Do that, and there is treasure in heaven for you. Not so hard, right?
Usually this verse elicits a couple of standard responses from congregations. On the one hand, many people read it and say, “Well, Jesus surely isn’t talking to me in this story because I’m not rich!”
It is easy to look at our bank accounts and quickly infer that we are not rich. But the truth is that by living in the United States and having even a very modest home and income, it still makes us wealthier than the 2.8 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, would be fine if we got richer.
This story about the rich ruler, whether we want to believe it or not, is a cautionary tale for all of us.
The second response to this text has to do with the rationalization people put to Jesus’ prescription. People tend to think: Jesus isn’t really asking us to give up everything; he’s using a hyperbolic metaphor. Disciples of Jesus shouldn’t really get rid of everything we own, right? Surely, this Rich Young Ruler’s problem with possessions required a much more radical intervention than we need?
Well, maybe. But Jesus’ words here do have a more universal application. Even the disciples caught the force of it, saying to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus’ advice and command to the rich man wasn’t lost on those who had indeed done exactly what Jesus was recommending. But somehow, today’s followers of Christ expect that discipleship shouldn’t cost that much. We believe we can somehow maintain our consumerist lifestyle and still call ourselves followers of Jesus. It’s as scholar Tom Sine writes, “Western Christians seem to want the American dream with a little Jesus overlay.”
Is this true? For our culture? Is it true for us, as individuals?
Jesus challenges this rationalization directly, and his words are convicting for all who want to be his followers. He calls us to think about how we continue to hoard and hold on to things. He calls us to think about our priorities, and then be radically honest about where they are.
And then, after having done so, Jesus implores us to ask ourselves…Will we seek health and wholeness by learning to give up our stuff when we’re asked… Or will we continue to cram our houses, bodies, minds, and spirits full of the junk that our culture makes us believe we need. Only when we’re willing to let go… Only when we’re willing to see all our stuff as belonging to God… Only when we’re willing to have our priorities Christ-centered will we begin to see the full light of the kingdom break through all our hoarding.
We need to go back to those missing commandments—the first four that were missing from Jesus’ quiz to the rich man— 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.
You see, 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.
So what do you need to get rid of—and no fair saying your spouse or maybe a certain teenager living in your house.
What do you need to get rid of? What are you hoarding?
Is it a Rubbermaid bin of kitchen gadgets, closets of old clothes and shoes, a garage packed with stuff that you can’t even remember what’s there? Or maybe it’s something else.
Maybe it’s a debilitating perfectionist attitude that keeps you from being able to move forward. Maybe it’s a past failure that inhibits you from taking a risk and making yourself vulnerable. Maybe it’s a harboring grudge against someone—or even God, and it has eaten away at you to the point that you are only a shell of who you once were.
Whatever it is, take it to God, ask God to help you let it go and give it up.
After all, all the clutter, all the stuff—it already belongs to God. And all the heart and spirit clutter—its uselessness only holds us down. But that which God can and will replace it with is easy and light, and will give us rest for our souls says Jesus.
So may we stop hoarding in this world, and start find the treasures of heaven.
To die in a squalid pile of junk is a dishonorable end for a life. But all of us will die eventually.
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 living the life Jesus invites us to live. Amen.