"19 Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also."
Jesus has just finished speaking at length about the foolishness of practicing one’s piety in front of others, and the need to remember that God is a Father who is present and ready to reward those who come to Him. If we have become preoccupied with getting noticed by others, with getting our value, our identity from others, then we are no longer putting ourselves in a place where we can receive anything from our heavenly Father. We cannot both seek to find the affirmation we were created to long for from those around us and from the triune God.
Jesus now turns to another place that we often seek to receive our affirmation, our value and identity from--possessions, or wealth. In the previous section, Jesus drove home the point that seeking to receive our identity and value simultaneously from others and from God is impossible. He makes the same point here about wealth. Jesus depicts the person who treasures and “serves” wealth or earthly treasures as one who is deeply divided in his/her very core. Jesus emphasizes His points by the use of three different images.
In the first section Jesus contrasts treasuring the treasures on earth with the treasures that are in heaven. “Laying up” is not actually in the Greek text. It literally reads “Do not treasure to yourselves treasures on the earth...” The idea of “laying up” is too narrow I think, because it mainly leads one to think in terms of working for, gathering, storing away. If this is what the meaning is, then when you look at the idea of “laying up treasures in heaven” you are tempted to think of things you need to do to store up for yourself treasures in heaven. “Treasuring to yourself” can include the idea of “laying up”--because if you are treasuring these things, you may also work to keep or store them up for yourself. But I think the meaning is broader and deeper than this. Jesus is warning against treasuring, that is, setting our desires on, whatever are considered to be treasures here on earth.
So what does it mean to “treasure to yourselves”? It means to think highly of, to focus on, to believe that this thing, whatever it is, is crucial to your livelihood and happiness. You can know what you treasure by considering what you think about, hope for, dream of, and spend time working towards owning or keeping. If it is something you “must have” or if you have it, you believe that you “must keep it,” then you treasure it. What are some of the things we are tempted to treasure on earth?--the latest fashions or technologies, success in business, an easy retirement, a lovely home, ageless skin, a perfect body, power and control over others, or our circumstances? If you treasure something to yourself, you have your affections, your passions, your heart set on it. Its presence in your life is of supreme importance to you. You will put in a lot of time and effort in acquiring, maintaining and keeping it.
Why are we tempted to treasure to ourselves these earthly riches? I think that ultimately we treasure something else much deeper, than what we (mistakenly) think these riches will give us. We treasure our lives, our well-being, feeling valuable or important, security. We want to hold onto our lives, to make sure that we count, to be sure of our identity. We treasure material wealth, power, physical beauty, etc. because we think that they hold some key to what is deeper: our lives or our identities. We want our wealth to give us the security we crave. We choose to believe that obsessing about our physical appearance will bring us the attention that will show our value. We tell ourselves that our wealth, our possessions, or our lifestyles will guarantee that we won’t suffer or die.
I think this is what Jesus means when He says that where our treasure is, that is where are hearts are also. For Jesus’ Jewish audience, the heart didn’t merely mean the source of our feelings. The heart was the center of one’s very will. The heart was at the core of one’s life. You, your very life and identity, become connected to what you are treasuring. We can certainly understand this when we consider our fears of losing what we treasure. If we have come to believe that our very life, or security, or worth is bound up in that thing we treasure, then its loss would be devastating.
How does Jesus appeal to His audience here in His telling them not to treasure to themselves earthly treasures? He reminds them of the temporary and corruptible nature of all earthly treasure. Earthly treasure, whether it is wealth, beauty, or power, is transient and susceptible to change. When Jesus tells His listeners, and us, this truth, He is reminding them and us of what we already know. Our wealth doesn’t guarantee happiness, security, or long life. We have no guarantees that our efforts at looking good will keep us eternally youthful and pain-free. We see evidence of the transience of life every day. We hear of changes in fortune, or diseases, natural disasters, or accidents that suddenly take away all that others have been treasuring. Deep down inside, we know the things we are tempted to cling to can offer no permanent life or sense of belonging to us.
Rather than discouraging His listeners from treasuring anything, Jesus tells them to care for, treasure, love and desire, and work for, heavenly treasures. Both earth and heaven have treasures. Jesus points out to His readers the superiority of the heavenly treasures and so encourages them to set their hearts on those. And what are the heavenly treasures Jesus wants us to treasure to ourselves? To speak of "the heavenly" for a Jew meant to speak of God--it was a reverential way to refer to Him. So, the heavenly treasures are God Himself and all of His blessings to be received in relationship with God. Jesus has already talked about these treasures in the Beatitudes. The treasures God has for us are the well-being of shalom, knowing ourselves as His true children, inheriting the earth--in short, having a share in the very life and love of the triune God. And, Jesus reminds us, these treasures are permanent, eternal. It would not be foolish to treasure these treasures for they will never fail us as earthly treasures will.
As with the previous teaching on seeking notice from others or from God, it seems here that the issue is not so much whether to treasure or desire something outside of ourselves, but what to treasure. We are indeed created with strong longings: longings to belong, to be secure, to know ourselves as having worth. Only God and His life are able to truly satisfy these longings. And we are created to treasure or cherish. We are created to see the value of something or someone outside of ourselves and to cherish, love, treasure, and ultimately use up our lives for that which is truly worthy. This is an amazing gift God has given us and reflects His own nature. God knows, sees, and rejoices in what is good--we see this in the Genesis account of creation.
What we treasure, desire, love, reflects who we believe we are, and where we draw our life from. This need to treasure is deeply wrapped up in our very lives: “for where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.” This longing to know and treasure to ourselves that which is truly valuable and worthy is not a light thing. It is actually our longing to worship. And we can see the strength of this pull in us every day. People get caught up in treasuring, giving their best efforts to, all kinds of things here on earth. The passion, the commitment, that we see others, or ourselves, exhibit over various things or causes is really quite remarkable. We can have a hard time taking what we do or care about lightly. We move from being involved in something to being obsessed by it. And we don’t just give it more time and attention. We want to believe that it is worthy of our best, and we treasure it to ourselves. Whether it is our possessions, our success in the work or business world, our commitment to a particular ideology, our fame in athletics or entertainment--when we treasure it to ourselves, we really worship it. We give it the best that we have, our whole being, because to do less would be not to treasure it.
What Jesus is telling His listeners here, is that we should not treasure, worship, give our best to, that which is not worthy. Because we are fallen and distorted human beings, we often attach this God-given longing to worship to inferior objects. We give our best, and therefore our lives, to that which cannot give life, and can never satisfy this deep, deep longing in us. How sad to worship that which can only break the heart of the worshiper!
We have a great capacity for passion and devotion. Because of this, we will try to believe that what we treasure to ourselves is worthy of our passion and devotion. But in the end, everything except for God Himself is just too small, too inferior a focus for our hearts and our lives. The British writer, C. S. Lewis, understood this very well. He once wrote:
If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea ... We are far too easily pleased. (Transposition and Other Addresses, ch. 2)
Of course, in our sin and ignorance, we do not know the Object for whom we were created to long for. Jesus, as God incarnate, reveals to us the true nature of our Creator and the true nature of ourselves. In this sermon, as in all of His life, death, and resurrection, Jesus reveals to us the heart of the triune God. This God, in His overflowing love, created us to have a share in His own triune life. He desires to give us Himself, nothing less, and for us to know ourselves, finally and truly, as His children, brothers and sisters of the Son, Jesus. He gives us a share in His very life, love, joy, peace, blessing, and creativity. Wow! No wonder our desire to treasure, our longing, is so deep and consuming. And when we see who He is and what He desires for us, we see how puny the earthly objects of our longings truly are. So in the end, Jesus does not tell us it is wrong to treasure something for ourselves, but rather that our hearts must only treasure the one and only Someone, who deserves our complete worship and can fulfill our true longings.
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