“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Matthew 6:19-21 (NRSV)
Chapter divisions, verse numbers, and subheadings are very helpful additions to Bible translations to help us locate things. However, they also break up the text, which can cause us to break up the text in our heads and treat them as if they are self-contained units.
Throughout this stretch of the series, I’ve tried to emphasize that the Sermon on the Mount is not a diverse collection of separate topics but is rather a discourse on who faithful Israel ought to be in light of the fact that the promised restoration of Israel and judgement of her oppressors is at hand. Everything in the Sermon is eschatological in this way, and every seemingly disconnected topic finds that common wiring with all the other topics like individual Christmas lights on the same cord.
This particular text is particularly tempting to deal with as its own “nugget” because, even outside the context of the Sermon, it is a very cogent teaching. Possibly Jesus even said it at some other point, or said it multiple times on different occasions, and we’re seeing Matthew present it to us, here.
But it belongs here for a reason.
Prior to this, Jesus has been talking about the dynamic of receiving rewards from the world that is passing away versus receiving rewards from God. The scenarios Jesus uses are very practical ones (giving alms, praying, fasting) but they all serve the same purpose – to illustrate the difference between the people who get their rewards in the present world system (e.g. most of the Sanhedrin, Rome-sanctioned Temple officials, etc.) and faithful Israel who do not seek the rewards of that world, but rather the approval of God who will reward them in the future. All this has the larger context of the Sermon, which is that the present world system is about to be judged, and the kingdom of God promised to a renewed Israel in the Old Testament is right around the corner.
So, in many ways, Jesus is explicitly stating the principle behind the little practical scenarios that have come before – you can be rewarded by the present world system now, but it is passing away. Or, you can experience a lack of rewards now so that you might be rewarded by God with rewards that will last into the ages. You can be rich, powerful, and famous in the present world system and have it all stripped from you in the coming judgement, or you can be humble, powerless, and a Nobody in the present world system, and you will find yourself exalted and inheriting the land.
But it’s not just the dynamic that Jesus makes explicit; he also makes explicit that the path you choose is a marker of what sort of person you are. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. You can love the present world system, or you can love the new creation. You can love the approval of man, or you can love the approval of God. You can love wealth and power, or you can love humble righteousness. No man can serve two masters, and you will either love the wealth of the present evil age, or you will love God.
There is no room, in Jesus’ mind, for the person who plays both sides of the fence. You can’t side with faithful Israel while you get rich off their oppressive taxes. You can’t be on the side of God’s people when you enjoy riches and power while they languish in poverty and prison. If the rich young ruler wants to enter the kingdom of Heaven, he must become poor for the kingdom’s benefit. You must be willing, as my good friend Bill pointed out last night, to say with the apostle Paul that all the status and power and reasons for boasting you might have is all crap compared to belonging to Jesus.
As always, we have to take into account the fact that there are circumstances in Jesus’ sermon that don’t directly carry over into a modern situation. For instance, Israel’s situation was going to change radically Any Day Now. Jesus is not asking people to give up the regard of man and wealth as an abstract moral principle; they do this in preparation for an imminent event where God will bring low those who are exalted and exalt those who are lowly.
Further, there was a much more direct connection between being wealthy and powerful and being an oppressor and a traitor than perhaps there is, today, where the global economy is so much more differentiated and complex. We find ourselves in the odd position of being quasi-wealthy without directly oppressing anyone, although the nature of the global economy almost guarantees that we’ve oppressed someone or destroyed something in the process of the whole engine working.
But at the same time, we must keep in mind that in God’s restoration of Israel, we aren’t just seeing the triumph of one kingdom over another (although that’s certainly the form that it takes), we are seeing the continuation of God’s new creation project – a project that you and I are still part of.
There is a world system around us, dear readers, that is passing away. It may pass away with a bang; it may pass away with a whimper. I don’t know the form that the future will take for the people of God in the world, but I do know that there are more troubles ahead. I do know that Death has yet to be destroyed. I do know that God isn’t done.
All around us is an Empire in ruins that is still trying to keep going as if it will go on forever. It’s in every commercial and catalog. It’s in every boardroom and government office. It devours trees and stuffs landfills. It takes more from the poor and less from the rich. It incarcerates undesirables. It divides and isolates and controls. It disguises itself with entertainment and cloaks itself with trivial distractions and distributions of possessions. It is not just a system; it is a beast of steel and fire, and it believes it will live forever, and it demands your worship because it is a god, and if you will not be part of the program, you will be crushed by it. It rewards the people who are conditioned to master it, and it runs off the blood of everyone else.
I tell you – this beast is dying. All of this that seems like such inevitable staples of civilization and “just the way things are” is on its way out. Clock ticking, sands running. It doesn’t look like it, perhaps, because it is designed specifically never to look like it, but we know that it is – only held together by the will, wealth, and the power of those who like it and benefit from it.
And we as individuals and as a people have a choice. We can seek our identity, rewards, lifestyle, you name it from that whole, horrid engine that will one day sputter out. Or we can make our lives testimonies to the reality that there is another world that is not only possible, but has arrived. That Jesus has all authority and Israel’s God is over all the nations. And this world is the reparation of everything that has plagued us since the days of Abraham. You can be part of that world. Anyone can be. And we profess this with our lips, but we prove it with our lives. Perhaps we, like others, will die in faith having seen the promises far off, but even so, we profess that we look for a city that is built without hands, whose author and finisher is God.
- How much of your identity, sense of worth, and even ability to survive is defined by the “rules” of the present world system? How does this affect where your heart is?
- What are the things you are most afraid of losing? Are these potentially idols?