Laying Up Lasting Treasure
Laying Up Lasting Treasure
St. Matthew 2:19-24
by William Klock
Once upon a time there was a very rich man. He’d spent his life working hard, investing wisely, and had made himself a fortune. When he found out he had a terminal illness, he went to his priest. And his priest wanted to be sure this man was right with God. As they talked, it became pretty clear that the man’s priorities were really out of whack – his whole life’s focus was on his wealth and his worldly possessions. His priest suggested that the man take what little time he had left to devote himself to heavenly things. He said to the man, “Remember, you can’t take it with you!”
Well, when the man heard that he was distraught. He went home and decided he’d better start talking to God. He started every day on his knees, praying, “God, I’ve worked hard for everything I have. It’s not fair that you won’t let me bring it with me. So until the day I die, I’m going to pester you until you change your policy. This is mine and I’m not giving it up. For the next few months he prayed that prayer every morning and every night, and as many times as he could think in between. Then as he was nearing the end, just a few days before he died, an angel came to his bedside and said, “God has heard your prayers. He’s going to make an exception for you. You’re permitted one suitcase. Pack wisely.” And with that he disappeared.
The man called for his wife. He told her to find the biggest suitcase she could find. He called his broker and made plans to cash in a bunch of his stock. And on the day he died he was ready, with the giant suitcase next to his bed. When he arrived at heaven’s gate, St. Peter greeted him, took one look at the suitcase and told him, “You can’t bring that in here.” And so the man told him his story. Peter picked up his phone and made a couple of calls and turned back to the man wide-eyed. “Well, sir, you’re the first, but somehow you managed to get an exception. You can go right on through. But I just have to know: what was so dear to you that you had to bring it with you?” And so the man smiled smugly and unzipped the suitcase to give Peter a glimpse inside. Dozens and dozens of solid gold ingots sparkled out of the suitcase. And St. Peter looked at him like he was crazy and said, “You brought paving bricks???”
Today I want to start looking at the next section of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is going to give us some warnings about three of the most common things we do that cause us to stumble spiritually – that cause us to miss out on the victories he’s promised. Jesus warns us about a love of possessions, anxiety, and being judgemental toward others. I want to look at the first of those today.
It’s not hard to find examples of people who have allowed their love for money and possessions to destroy their Christian witness. One of the more profound – and with profound consequences – was Achan. Joshua had led the Israelites into the Promised Land. As they went into the land they had to take it away from the Canaanites by force, and yet under God’s protection they just kept winning the battles one after another. The Israelites had just conquered Jericho, and in obedience to God, they had dedicated all the plunder to him. But there was a problem. One of the men, Achan, as he went through the destroyed city happened on a beautiful Babylonian garment, two hundred pieces of silver, and a gold ingot. He liked what he saw, so he smuggled them home and buried them under his tent. You might think it was no big deal. And yet the next time the Israelites went to battle, they lost miserably. Men died. And God let it happen, because one man among all the Israelites had been disobedient. God led Joshua to Achan’s tent where the treasure was found and judgement came not only on Achan, but on his whole family.
Or think of Ananias and Saphira. They sold some property and gave some of the proceeds to the apostles for the ministry of the Church. That was just fine. The problem is that they claimed they were giving all of the proceeds. God told Peter what was happening, he confronted the two of them, and they dropped dead. St. Paul wrote to Timothy about a man named Demas saying that the man had forsaken him out of love for this present world. But this isn’t a new problem. We do it all the time. Sometimes we put the world before God in subtle ways, but often we see it blatantly. The writer of Hebrews warns us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, and yet we duck out of church on Sunday because we have “things to do.” Sometimes we may really need to do those things, but usually we could do them some other time and putting them first shows where our priorities really are. Some Christians spend so much time focusing on the material that they neglect their families and the essential spiritual life of their homes. So it shouldn’t be any wonder that St. Paul warned Timothy, telling him that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Timothy 6:10).
Now we have to be careful with that warning. Notice that it doesn’t say that money itself is evil. Money is a tool. Money and possessions aren’t the problem. It’s the love of it that leads to evil. Consider that before he even created humanity, God created a big world full of “things” for them and called it all good. It’s our sin that takes those things that were meant to help us and puts them in the place of God in our hearts – that makes us fight and cheat and steal for those possessions. And yet when we surrender to God and let God start directing our lives, all that should change; a process starts and money and that love for things no longer becomes the centre of our lives. God himself takes the throne.
Some Christians have taken things to the extreme of doing away with all their possessions – sometimes even whole churches have done that – using the example of the early church in Jerusalem. You’ll remember that that particular group of Christians was living in the middle of terrible times and those who had possessions sold what they had so they could pool their resources with those in need. Some have argued for what’s been called Christian Communism. But that’s not right. If some Christians feel called to sell their possessions so that they can give to others, that’s fine – it’s even a real blessing – but it doesn’t mean that all Christians have to do that.
Really, if you study Scripture carefully, what you see is that far from condemning possession of private property, God assumes the rightness of it. The eighth commandment tells us, “Thou shalt not steal.” That doesn’t just mean that I shouldn’t take the things belonging to someone else, but also that he shouldn’t take my things either. I mentioned Ananias and Saphira a few minutes ago. In that same story Peter asked Ananias, “Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:3-4). Even in that case, Peter was saying that God recognised their right to private property. He doesn’t force any Christian to dispose of their possessions.
Some people wills still say, “Okay, but didn’t Jesus tell the rich young ruler to sell everything he had and to give the money to the poor?” Yes, he did. But notice that he never said that to anyone else. He said it to “the rich young ruler,” because the main thing in his life that kept him from God and from following Christ was in making “things” his priority. And he proved that by turning his back on Jesus. For someone like that – and there are lots of people like this today – the loss of all their “things” and worldly “stuff” would probably the greatest blessing they could ever receive. But that also isn’t to say that poverty in and of itself is somehow a more blessed state than to be wealthy. A poor man can be just as obsessed with worldly things as a rich man.
You see, the real solution isn’t the size or poverty of our bank account. The solution is in the right perspective and use of what God has provided. God isn’t necessarily calling us to give everything up; he’s calling on us to use his gifts and provisions under his direction. We are to use them for the health and well-being of our families, for giving aid to others, and to help along the great commission Jesus gave us to spread the Gospel message.
And that’s just what Jesus talks about in these verses that have to do with worldly possessions. He wasn’t speaking against them, just our often disastrous preoccupation with them. Look at Matthew 6:19-21:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Jesus goes a step further when he gives us the first reason why being worldly with our possessions is foolish and does us spiritual harm: one day all our earthly possessions are going to be gone. Each of needs to ask, “When I stand before God, what will I have to show for the stewardship he’s given me? I may be redeemed, but is everything I’ve worked for going to burn up like chaff? Will I have anything left to show for my time spent in his service? St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “If anyone builds on the foundation [that’s Jesus Christ] with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it … If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:12-15). You see, the only way to accumulate real treasure that lasts and counts for anything in the Kingdom of God is to use what God has given us to accomplish spiritual things.
But Jesus also says that it’s foolish to be preoccupied with worldly things because if your treasure is on earth, your heart will be on earth too. In other words, if your focus and desire is on earthly things, those earthly things are going to rule you. You may be born again into the Kingdom of God, but you won’t be living like it – you’ll be living just like unbelievers in the kingdom of this world.
Matthew 6:24 is a passage we all know: “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” There’s that funny Hebrew word mammon that the King James doesn’t translate into English. And the word mammon is an interesting word that teaches us about this principle Jesus talks about. You see, the root word that mammon comes from simply means “to entrust” or “to place in someone’s keeping.” It wasn’t a bad word to start with. In fact, to make it bad you had to add something to it. You had to talk specifically about unrighteous mammon, for example. Originally mammon just referred to wealth or earthly things that had been entrusted to someone for safe-keeping.
But by Jesus’ time the meaning of mammon changed. It didn’t refer any longer to what was entrusted to someone, but to what that person trusted in. It turned into a negative word. Mammon was a bad thing, because it came to mean those things in which we trust instead of putting our trust in God.
Now my point isn’t just to tell you how the Hebrew word mammon evolved. You see, that same evolution repeats itself in our lives when our eyes aren’t focused on Christ and on Spiritual treasures. The things that God has entrusted us with end up becoming the things we trust in. They replace God in our lives; they become gods – idols – in our lives. Jesus really asks a very serious questions here. Each of us needs to examine his or her life and ask if the Lord God Almighty occupies the central place in our lives, or have we put something else on that throne? If you spend your time thinking about your house, your car, your bank account, your holidays, your clothes, or your investments and retirement account, then you’re probably building your treasures on earth…and Jesus warns, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
The third reason Jesus warns against putting worldly things first is in verses 22 and 23. It has to do with our spiritual vision. He says:
The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
Jesus is sort of comparing our eyes to windows. He’s saying that the light that gets into your heart and soul comes through your eye, just like the light that comes into a room comes through the window. The colour and texture and cleanliness of a window determine just what kind and how much light comes into the room. If the glass is clean and clear the light will come in and illuminate every corner. But if that window is dirty, or if the glass is dark, or even if it’s textured in some ways, the light in the room won’t be very bright and might even be distorted and give false impressions. So Jesus warns that the light that gets into our heart and soul depends on the spiritual state of the eye through which it comes, because the eye is the window of the whole body.
So that begs the question: Do you see spiritual things clearly? Or is your vision of God and your vision of his will for your life foggy and obscured by spiritual cataracts? Is your spiritual vision nearsighted because you’re preoccupied with the things of this earth that are often so near to us? Think about that question this week, because I know for a fact that many, if not all of us struggle here – especially those of us who live in the midst of Western affluence. As a priest people come to me all the time. They’re struggling with this or that aspect of life or they’re struggling with sin. Sometimes people tell me that they just don’t seem to be able to understand Scripture or they feel that God is far away from them. And in almost every case, in asking a few questions, what I find is that people have the wrong priorities. The problem is that people know their way blindfolded around a supermarket or a brokerage house, or around a classroom or a car repair shop – even around their church – but they don’t know their way around their Bibles. They put all their attention into the things of this life, but they won’t put even an hour a day into the things of eternity. And as long as that stays the case, their spiritual vision is always going to be cloudy and dark.
It’s interesting that in verses 22, when Jesus stresses the need for what the ESV calls a “healthy” eye, the Greek word used there also has a sense in which it means “liberal” or “generous.” Various translations render that word differently because it’s a word with multiple shades of meaning and that has no real English equivalent. Jesus is saying that a healthy eye lets in the bright and clear light so that we can see, but that a healthy eye in and of itself is on that is generous. The same word occurs in James 1:5 where we read, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all.” A healthy eye is a generous eye and a person with a generous eye is one who has a generous spirit when it comes to those earthly things God has entrusted to them. So I think we need to consider another challenging question: How can you tell if riches have clouded your spiritual vision? The answer lies in the extent to which you are generous with the things that God has given you.
And be careful not to rationalise your not being generous. I know that right now a lot of us can easily justify a lack of generosity by looking at our current downturn in the economy. But consider the early Christians at Philippi. They gave liberally event though they were very poor. In fact, when St. Paul made an appeal for help they fell over themselves, all wanting be the ones to give the assistance that was needed by their brothers and sisters in Christ. They were extremely poor, and yet they gave liberally. And consider what it meant to be poor in the ancient world versus what it means to be poor in Canada in the 21st Century. The real world bears out this truth. Every church treasurer I’ve ever known has always said that while it’s not to say that wealthy people aren’t often generous, that it’s those who are not so well off that are almost always the most generous when it comes to giving to God.
In closing I want to go back to verse 24. Jesus tells us that we can’t serve two masters:
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.
Jesus says the obvious plainly and simply. And what he says should really prompt every Christian to search his or her heart and ask: Can anything be more insulting to God, who has redeemed us from slavery to sin by his own blood, put us in Christ, and given us all things richly to enjoy than to take the name of our God upon us, to be called by his name, and then to demonstrate by every action and every discussion of life that we actually serve money?
Martyn Lloyd-Jones tells the story of a farmer who came running to his wife one day, excited that their cow had just unexpectedly given birth to twin calves, one red and one white. And he said to her, “I’ve been led of the Lord to dedicate one of the calves to him. We’ll raise them together and when the time comes to sell them, we’ll keep the sale price of one of them and give the sale price of the other to the Lord’s work.”
So his wife asked him whether the red one or the white one was the one dedicated to the Lord. But he said there wasn’t any reason to decided right away: “We’ll treat them both the same,” he said, “ and when the time comes we’ll sell them like I said.”
Well, a few months later the man walked into the house looking sad and miserable. His wife asked what was wrong. He said, “I’ve got bad news. The Lord’s calf is dead.” “But,” she said, “you hadn’t decided which one was the Lord’s yet.” And he said, “Oh, yes, well I had really always known that the Lord’s was the white one, and it’s the white one that died.”
Dear friends, it’s always the Lord’s calf that dies, unless we’re absolutely clear about our service to him and about the true nature of our possessions. You need to ask who owns your possessions, because the Lord Jesus Christ tells us that either God owns them and you serve him, or your possessions own you, and you serve them. The bottom line is really that none of us every really owns them ourselves, even though we might think we do. We need to pray that God will give us the victory that comes when our gifts, wealth, time, friends, ambitions and talents are turned over to him and we use them to establish lasting treasures in heaven.
Please pray with me: Heavenly Father and Eternal Creator, you have blessed each and every one of us with more than we can ever deserve. You have given us our talents and our treasures and even our very lives. Remind us daily that we are stewards of those thing – that they are yours and not our own. Give us wisdom to use them wisely, investing in your kingdom and laying up treasures for ourselves in heaven. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. Amen.