Matthew 6:19-24: Treasures in Heaven

In the first half of Matthew 6, in verses 1-8 Jesus describes the Christian's private life "in the secret place" (giving, praying, fasting); in the second half, verses 19-34, Jesus is concerned with our public business in the world, (questions of money, possessions, food, drink, clothing and ambition). In both spheres, private and public, God is equally concerned and involved. In verses 6:4, 6:6, & 6:18 Jesus repeatedly reminds us that God sees our devotion in secret. But concerning our need of food, drink and clothing, Jesus says that God knows too (6:32). In both spheres Jesus calls us to be different from the popular culture; different from the hypocrisy of the religious (1-18); different from the materialism of the irreligious (19-34). We are to called to renounce the value-system of the world around us. In these verses Jesus paints two stark portraits.

There are two alternative treasures. 6:19-21 (on earth and in heaven) There are two opposite bodily conditions. 6:22-23 (light and darkness) There are two mutually exclusive masters. 6:24. (God and Money) Which one fits? We cannot sit on the fence. We must choose one or the other.

As we begin the season of Lent, its as good a time as any to reflect upon the life choices we are making. But how shall we make our choice? Worldly ambition has a strong fascination for us. The spell of ambition is hard to break. So in these verses Jesus helps us to choose well. He exposes the folly of the wrong way and the wisdom of the right. As in the previous sections on piety and prayer, so here regarding ambition, he sets the false and the true over against each other in such a way as to invite us to compare them and see for ourselves. This issue confronts us with fresh urgency in our generation. What ever interpretation is put on the latest economic figures by the Bank of England, Department of Trade and Industry, or the City, whether we are talking about the green shoots of recovery, unemployment, industrial output, or world trade, the simple fact is that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Technological advances in the media bring into our living rooms night after night, vivid images of famine in Somalia, refugees in Bosnia, humn rights abuses among the Khurds and Palestinians. We can no longer turn a blind eye to the facts. The old complacency of bourgeois Christianity has been disturbed. The sleepy social conscience has been awakened. There has been a fresh discovery in recent years that God is on the side of the poor, the deprived, and those denied justice.

Responsible Christians are increasingly uneasy about affluence. They are seeking to develop a simple life-style which is more appropriate in face of a world in need, and out of loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ in his teaching and example. The verses before us this morning can be broken down into three short paragraphs, each answering an important question.

1. The Question of Treasure 6:19-21
2. The Question of Vision 6:22-23
3. The Question of Loyalty 6:24

1. The Question of Treasure 6:19-21
Jesus is comparing the relative durability of two treasures. It ought to be easy to choose which to store up, he implies, because treasures on earth are corruptible and therefore insecure, whereas treasures in heaven are incorruptible and therefore secure. After all, if our object is to lay up treasure, we shall presumably concentrate on the kind which will last with neither depreciation or deterioration. It was not that long ago that hundreds of Lloyds Names were ruined through escalating insurance claims. It was tragic that so many who were not particularly wealthy, lost not only their capital investments, but their homes and their life savings, and their debts grew as further insurance claims worked their way through the system. It is important to face squarely and honestly the question. What was Jesus prohibiting when he told us not to lay up treasure for ourselves on earth? It may help if we began by listing the things Jesus was and is not forbidding.

1.1 Private Property
There is no ban on possessions in themselves. Scripture no where forbids private property.

1.2 Insurance Policies
"Saving for a rainy day" is not forbidden to Christians. Life assurance policies are only a kind of saving by self imposed compulsion. On the contrary, Scripture praises the ant for storing in the summer the food it will need in the winter, (Proverbs 6:6) and even declares, in 1 Timothy 5:8, that the believer who makes no provision for his family is worse than an unbeliever.

1.3 Material Blessing
Thirdly, we are not to despise, but rather to enjoy the good things which our Creator has given us richly to enjoy. Everything God has created is good" says Paul to Timothy. (1 Tim 4:3-4, 6:17) So neither having possessions, nor making provision for the future, nor enjoying the gifts of a good Creator are included in the ban on storing earthly treasure. What then is Jesus talking about.

1.4 Selfish Accumulation of Goods

Notice the text says, "do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth." Jesus is criticising extravagant and luxurious living; the hardness of heart which ignores the cry's of the under-privileged. Jesus is condemning the foolish fantasy that a person's significance and value is determined by the abundance of his possessions, and the materialism which tethers our hearts to the earth. In a word, to "lay up treasure on earth" does not mean being provident but being covetous. Not with making sensible provision for the future, but being miserly hoarding and always wanting more. This is the real snare Jesus warns against here. "Whenever the Gospel is taught", wrote Luther, "and people seek to live according to it, there are two terrible plagues that always arise: false preachers who corrupt the teaching, and then Sir Greed, who obstructs right living."

The earthly treasure we covet, Jesus reminds us, "grows rusty and moth-eaten, and thieves break in to steal." (6:19) We may and try and protect our treasures with insecticides, rat poison, mouse traps, rustproof paints, padlocks and burglar alarms, personal equity plans and off shore bank accounts. But even if these measures succeed we are still vulnerable to inflation, devaluation, taxation and disintegration. Even if our treasures carry life time warranties and guarantees, or we have them buried with us, we cannot take them with us into eternity. Job was right when he said, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall return." But treasure in heaven is incorruptible.

What is this "treasure"? Jesus doesn't explain, but it must have to do with earthly activity whose effects last for eternity. This must surely mean the development of Christ-like character, (the only thing we take with us to heaven); things like faith, hope and love which Paul said will remain. Then there's leading other people to Jesus who will share eternity with us. Even the giving of our money to Christian work has eternal consequences. These are the investments whose dividends are everlasting. All these are temporal activities with eternal consequences. This then is "treasure in heaven". No burglar can steal this, and no vermin destroy it. For there are neither moths, nor mice, nor marauders in heaven. Its as if Jesus were saying, "Only treasure in heaven is secure. If its a safe investment you're after, nothing could be safer than this; its the only gilt-edged security whose gilt will never tarnish." The Question of Treasure. 6:19-21.

2. The Question of Vision 6:22-23
Read 6:22-23. Jesus turns from the comparative durability of the two treasures to the comparative benefit derived from two conditions. For the way we view the world will determine what we treasure. The contrast here in these two verses is now between a blind person and a sighted person, and so between the light and darkness in which they respectively live. Read 6:22.

Almost everything we do depends on our ability to see. We need to see in order to run, jump, drive a car, cross a road, cook, paint. The eye as it were "illumines" what the body does through its hands and feet. True, blind people often cope wonderfully, and learn to do many things without their eyes, in fact they develop their senses to compensate for their lack of sight. Yet the principle holds good: a sighted person walks in the light, while a blind person is in darkness. And the great difference between the light and the darkness of the body is due entirely to this small but complex organ, the eye. All this is factual description, but it is also metaphorical.

In the Bible, the eye is frequently synonymous with the heart, our motivation, our desire. So just as a seeing eye gives light to the body, so a noble and single minded ambition to serve God and people adds meaning to life and throws light on everything we do. Again, just as blindness leads to darkness, so a selfish and earthbound ambition plunges us into moral darkness. It makes us intolerant, inhuman, ruthless, greedy and deprives life of all ultimate significance. It is all a question of perspective, of vision.

This July I will be 46. I am beginning to realise that time seems to be slipping away faster and faster. I am more aware of the frailty of life but also that it is transitory. The days seem to shoot by with increasing rapidity. I want the life I have left to count for something. I know more than ever before that it is only in God's hands that we can achieve anything of lasting value. One consequence is that I am more questioning, more discerning about what I want to invest my life in. Watching three hours TV a night is the equivalent of spending 6-7 years of our lives. Is it worth it? Just one extra hour in bed dozing lazily, is equivalent to 2.5 years of our lives. Is it worth it?

If we see clearly, from an eternal perspective, and adjust our life priorities accordingly, then our lives will always be filled with purpose and drive, meaning and dignity. But if our vision becomes clouded and distracted by the false gods of materialism, we lose not only our sense of value, but our whole life is in darkness and we cannot see where we are going in life. So Jesus adds this second reason for laying up treasure in heaven. Not only does he want us to question what it is we treasure, he wants us to question our perspective, our vision for the future. This leads back to the prior, more fundamental question, of whom we serve.

3. The Question of Loyalty 6:24
Read verse. Jesus now explains that behind the choice between two treasures (where we store them) and two visions (where we fix our eyes), there lies the still more basic choice between two masters (whom we are going to serve). Because loyalty determines vision which in turn reveals what we treasure. It is a choice between God and money, that is between the Creator himself and any object of our own creation. We cannot serve both. The Hebrew word for mammon, or money comes from the root word "to entrust". It originally referred to the wealth which a person entrusted to a banker to keep safe. But as the years went on, mammon came to mean not that which is entrusted but that in which a person trusts.

Some people disagree with this saying of Jesus. They refuse to be confronted with such a stark and outright choice, and see no necessity for it. They blandly assure us that it is perfectly possible to serve two masters simultaneously, for they appear to manage it very nicely themselves. Maybe they feel they serve God on Sundays and materialism the rest of the week, maybe their heart is the Lord's but their head belongs to the company, maybe they feel since they give a 10% tithe of their income to the church, they can do what they like with the rest.

It is this kind of compromise solution which Jesus declares to be quite impossible. Notice Jesus repeats himself in verse 6:24. The analogy he is using is of the slave and the slave master. When I was a teenager, one summer, I had two part time jobs on the go at the same time. I worked in a fish and chip shop at night, and a garage as a petrol pump attendant during the day. Neither knew of the existence of the other. It worked out fine. Until that is, August Bank Holiday Monday. Both employers assumed I would work all day and neither was happy to learn I was working for someone else. I had to choose. It may be possible to work for two employers, but no slave can be the property of two owners. For single ownership and full-time service are the essence of slavery. So just think about it. Anybody who tries to divide his allegiance between God and mammon has already given in to money, since God can be served only with an entire and exclusive devotion.

This is because he is God. "I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other." To try to share him with other loyalties is to have opted for idolatry. God has entrusted us with all we have. It is the supreme treason to prize the gift above the giver. When the choice is seen for what it really is - a choice between Creator and creature, between the glorious personal God and a miserable thing called money, between worship and idolatry - it seems inconceivable that anybody could make the wrong choice. And yet I believe some here today will continue to do so.

A question of treasure, a question of vision, a question of loyalty. It is the question not just of comparative durability and comparative benefit, but of comparative loyalty. The intrinsic worth of knowing and being known by the Living God, and the intrinsic worthlessness of being known for our attachment to money. Bob Dylan put it even more starkly in a song he wrote following his conversion. The song is called "Serve Somebody". Dylan reminds us that who ever we are, and no matter how wealthy we are or important or famous we may be, we still have to serve somebody. In the haunting refrain he sings, "It may be the devil or it may be the Lord but you're gonna have to serve somebody".

Who are you going to choose today? This Lent?, this year? For eternity? For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also. Amen.