Treasures in heaven.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 November

Matthew 6.19-21, Luke 12.33-34.

In Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, after he finished objecting to hypocrisy in giving to charity, in types of prayer, and in public fasting, he moved on to talk about wealth and money.

You’ll notice the three verses in Matthew I’m gonna point to today, don’t by themselves nail down precisely how we’re to stash our treasures in heaven. That, we actually have to pull from the parallel teaching in Luke: Give to charity. And if you know your Old Testament, you might remember this proverb:

Proverbs 19.17 KWL
Put the LORD in your debt: Be gracious to the poor.
He compensates you and gives peace to you.

Jesus’s first-century audience would’ve known that one… and Jesus’s 21st-century audience had better learn that one.

Matthew 6.19-21 KWL
19 “Don’t hoard wealth for yourselves on earth, where moths and corrosion ruin it,
where thieves dig for it and steal it.
20 Hoard wealth for yourselves in heaven, where neither moth nor corrosion ruins,
where thieves don’t dig for it nor steal it:
21 Where’s your wealth? Your mind will be there too.
Luke 12.33-34 KWL
33 “Sell your possessions and give to charity:
Make yourselves a wallet which never wears out.
Infallible wealth in the heavens, which a thief can’t come near, nor moth destroy.
34 “Where’s your wealth? Your minds will be there too.”

This passage has been greatly nullified by our culture. Y’see, we have banks and insurance. Nowadays, if our minds are on our money, it’s only because we worry we don’t have enough. Back then, it was based on the constant fear, Is my money secure? Because the ancients were responsible to secure their own wealth. Neither financial institutions, nor the government, would do it for ’em. Wasn’t their job. Wasn’t anyone’s job.

Americans tend to take property rights for granted. The ancients weren’t so naïve. If the king wanted your stuff, he’d have your stuff. Land, cattle, wives. You remember Abraham was regularly worried different kings would swipe his wife from him—’cause they did. Ge 12.12-13, 20.2 Even though Abraham was powerful enough to assemble his very own army and rescue his nephew.

God mitigated this by having, “Don’t steal” Dt 5.19 apply to kings and commoners alike. True, it’s way harder to get justice when the king’s doing the thievery, like when David ben Jesse stole his general’s wife, or Ahab ben Omri stole his neighbor’s vineyard. The LORD had to punish these kings personally. And in Jesus’s day, Israel wasn’t ruled by a proper king; it was ruled by Roman puppets. You could appeal to the Romans, but good luck getting justice if you didn’t have citizenship; the Romans would treat you just like Americans treat illegal aliens. (Well okay, crucifixion is worse than how we treat foreigners. But still.)

So if you had wealth, you had to secure it. Just like paranoid people do today. Better build a strongroom in your house, or find a clever way to disguise or hide it. Lots of people simply buried it in a hole in the ground, just like the worthless steward in Jesus’s story of the talents. Mt 25.25 Or that buried treasure in Jesus’s other story. Mt 13.44 Hey, if nobody knows where your hole is, thieves can’t dig it up. (The KJV decided to translate διορύσσουσιν/diorýssusin, “dig through” as “break through”—a common enough way to get into a flimsy wooden house in the 17th century, but much harder to do with the solid stone houses of the first century.)

And even so, after all the precautions they took to make sure nobody could find or get at their wealth, the wealthy would worry. ’Cause any disaster could destroy it. Invading armies, or some covetous noble, could grab your land. Earthquakes could flatten your buildings. Determined looters, or even just a fire, could gut your house. Any possession could be lost. Easily.

It’s the very reason we invented insurance. Pay a little each month or year, and your possessions are protected and guaranteed? Brilliant. Now the only thing we need worry about is whether we have enough money.

So we need to climb into the first-century mindset about money before we can really understand Jesus. Imagine you’re in a really bad neighborhood, you’re not carrying a gun or taser or pepper spray, and for some crazy reason you’ve got $5,000 cash in your wallet. How secure are you gonna feel about that money?

Got that mental picture? Good. Now imagine having that worry all the time.

Your mind on your money.

See, that’s the difference between present-day Americans and ancient Israelis: We do worry about losing money, but seldom because we’re concerned someone is gonna steal it. I mean yeah, if you’re a criminal and can’t use banks, you know exactly what Jesus was talking about. But if you’re a law-abiding citizen, your bank, S&L, or credit union is insured by the federal government. If the bank shuts down, you’re still getting your money back.

Same with homeowners. If you don’t have insurance, you know what Jesus was talking about. But if you do, you know if a tree falls on your house, or it burns down, or a tornado sucks it into the air, you’re getting it fixed, or getting another house. Can’t really replace the heirlooms, or the stuff with sentimental value, but still: You have your safety net.

The ancients, in comparison, were living without a net. Lose your money, and it’s never coming back. Some invading army steals your land; good luck ever getting it again. Your house burns down; it’s on you to raise the funds for another. And so on. For us, disaster disrupts our lives; for them, disaster ruined them.

Poor countries know exactly what Jesus is talking about. Wealthy ones, not so much. So the way wealthy countries interpret this verse is, of course, in the incorrect context of our own circumstances.

Starting with the misinterpretation of the word καρδία/kardía. It literally means “heart.” In our culture, that figuratively means emotions: We leap to the conclusion Jesus is critiquing people for loving money too much. After all, we do love money too much. Hence we wind up the sort of misdirected advice we find in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary.

The love of wealth is a great evil, 1Ti 6.10 calling forth frequent warnings. For heirs of the kingdom to hoard riches in the last days Jm 5.2-3 is particularly shortsighted. Yet as with many of Jesus’ prohibitions in this sermon, it would be foolhardy so to absolutize this one that wealth itself becomes an evil; (cf. Lk 14.12, Jn 4.21, 1Pe 3.3-4 for other statements that cannot properly be absolutized). Elsewhere the Scriptures require a man to provide for his relatives, 1Ti 5.8 commend work and provision for the future, Pr 6.6-8 and encourage us to enjoy the good things the Creator has given us. 1Ti 4.3-4, 6.17 Jesus is concerned about selfishness in misplaced values. His disciples must not lay up treasure for themselves; they must honestly ask where their heart is. Mt 6.20-21

This verse does not prohibit “being provident (making sensible provision for the future) but being covetous (like misers who hoard and materialists who always want more)” Stott 155 But it is folly to put oneself in the former category while acting and thinking in the latter (cf. France, “God and Mammon”).

D.A. Carson, EBC at Mt 6.19

I mean yeah, materialism and money-love produces all sorts of evil, but none of this stuff is what Jesus was talking about.

The reason I keep translating kardía as “mind” is because the ancients believed we think with our hearts. (Not feel; that’d be our guts.) Jesus isn’t talking about love. He’s talking about thoughts. What is your mind on? What’s occupying your thoughts all the time? Your God? Your neighbors? The needy? The kingdom? Or the talent of silver you’ve got buried in the backyard, ’cause you’re pretty sure some passing stranger’s gonna notice the ground’s been disturbed, and wonder if he’ll find buried treasure if he comes back at night with a shovel? Or—to use Jesus’s more mundane examples—whether bugs got into your silk clothing, or whether rust is eating away at your pricey tools?

These worries aren’t gonna grant us peace. And that’s what God wants us to have: His peace. The freedom from stress, which opens us up to do all sorts of other things for him. Rather than be anxious about whether we’ve hidden our cash properly, God wants us to invest it in his kingdom. Remember, being gracious to the poor means the LORD owes you.

So… does this apply to us anymore?

Since our culture has arranged things so we don’t worry about whether people are gonna swipe our money, or whether disaster is gonna impoverish us, you notice Christians regularly miss the point of this lesson. Instead, we make it about materialism. Or class warfare.

The poor like to use this, and Jesus’s other teachings about wealth, to snipe at the rich. After all, Jesus did teach wealth can get in the way of our Christianity. Mk 10.23-25 Meanwhile the wealthy—who are in denial that their possessions actually do get in their way—turn this passage 180 degrees in the other direction, and use it to justify how they don’t give to the poor. After all, the poor don’t need their money; they have treasures in heaven! Pie in the sky when they die, by and by.

Yeah, a lot of Christian teachings turn into self-justification. Humans are selfish like that.

But there are little ways in which people fret, in much the same way Jesus is talking about in these verses. There’s one thing we can’t insure ourselves against, and that’s depreciation. Every possession loses value. Clothes get old. Cars wear out. Computers become obsolete. Even our bodies begin to break down: Skin gets wrinkly, hair goes gray, muscles lose tone, joints creak, nerves hurt, and organs don’t work like they used to. A lot of people go absolutely bonkers trying to keep things—and themselves!—in pristine condition. But it’s not a game you’re gonna win. Everything falls apart. It’s physics; it’s a law of thermodynamics. It’s entropy.

But here’s the thing about thermodynamics: If you have a tremendous source of power, like the sun, constantly pouring energy into a system, we actually see growth instead of decay. It’s why forests burn down, but grow back. Turn off the sun and that won’t happen. Can’t.

And that’s how God’s kingdom works. Treasures in heaven can’t decay. Too much energy being poured into that system. Makes more sense to bank our wealth there, rather than here.