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A Christian's Relationship to Wealth – Br. David Vryhof

Matthew 6:19-24

Over the past few days I have been re-reading Brian McLaren’s book, Everything Must Change.1 McLaren tells us that, for the past several decades, he has been wrestling with two important questions:

The first question is, “What are the biggest problems in the world?” by which he means, [What are the] “problems that cause the most suffering in the present, that pose the greatest threat to our future, …[and] that lie at the root of what’s wrong with the world.” (p.11) He speaks, among other things, of the challenges of global poverty, environmental destruction, and the increasing level of, and potential for, violence in today’s world.

The second question he asks is, “What does Jesus have to say about these global problems?” As a “follower of God in the way of Jesus,” McLaren insists that Jesus’ words and actions have much to teach us about how we should live in a world facing such enormous problems as these.

There could hardly be a better place to look for answers to McLaren’s question than in the Sermon on the Mount, a section of which we have just read.  Jesus’ words describe the values and priorities he wishes his followers to adopt.  They give clear and ready guidance for how we ought to live as “followers of God in the way of Jesus.”

It is clear in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus expects those who would follow him to live in ways that are clearly different from the popular culture around them.  He tells them they should avoid the hypocrisy of the religious when they pray, fast, and give alms; and that they should avoid the materialism of the irreligious when they are engaged in the public business of the world.  He expects them to have different priorities, different values, from the people who live around them.

In the passage we have just read, Matthew 6:19-24, Jesus outlines how his followers should relate to wealth and property, which is certainly at the core of global issues such as widespread poverty and the ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor, environmental destruction, and increasing violence.  In these five verses, Jesus outlines three choices that must be made by those who are committed to living the way of Jesus:

  1. They are to store up for themselves treasures in heaven rather than treasures on earth.
  2. They are to have sound and healthy eyes, living in the light rather than in darkness.
  3. They are to serve God rather than wealth.

Let’s take a look at what these three choices might mean for us.

Jesus urges us to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven rather than on earth because heavenly treasures are incorruptible and secure, whereas earthly treasures may be consumed by moth or rust or stolen by thieves, and are therefore corruptible and insecure.

What are we to understand when Jesus tells us not to lay up treasures for ourselves on earth? First we should be clear about what he does not mean.  Jesus does not mean that we should not have possessions, nor does he mean that we should not plan ahead or make provision for the future, nor does he mean that we should not enjoy the good things that God has given us to enjoy.

He is forbidding the selfish accumulation of goods.  He is forbidding extravagant, wasteful, luxurious living.  He is opposing the hardheartedness that fails to feel compassion in the face of the tremendous sufferings of the world’s poor.  He is rejecting the foolish fantasy that a person’s life consists in the abundance of his or her possessions and that one’s worth should be judged by what one owns.  He is decrying the materialism that tethers our hearts to the earth.2

It is an undeniable principle that our heart follows our treasure: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” says Jesus (Mt 6:21).

Instead of laying up treasures for themselves on earth, as others are inclined to do, Jesus instructs his followers to lay up for themselves; that is, to aim at doing those things whose effects will last for eternity.  Laying up treasure in heaven does not mean accumulating a store of good deeds on which we or others can draw, a sort of “heavenly bank account” that will keep us in God’s favor.  To imagine that we can store up good works in heaven for our benefit or for the benefit of others is to deny the doctrine of grace, which maintains that God’s love and favor are given freely to us and cannot be “earned.”

Laying up treasures in heaven means investing ourselves in things that will last beyond the grave, and that has more to do with who we are and what kind of people we become rather than with what we possess or what we’ve accomplished. Worthy goals for a follower of Jesus would be to develop a Christ-like character; to increase in faith, hope and love; to grow in the knowledge of Christ; to endeavor to introduce others to the good news, to use our money and time and resources for the building of God’s kingdom on earth. Such treasures can never be lost or stolen or eaten away by moth or rust.  They have no need to be protected or defended because they are indestructible.  They will last forever.3

The second exhortation in this passage is an exhortation to live in the light rather than in darkness. “The eye is the lamp of the body,” Jesus tells us, “so, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness” (Mt 6:22-23).  Everything depends on our ability to “see” – not in a literal sense, but in a figurative or metaphorical sense.

New Testament scholar Douglas Hare tells us that in Jewish literature, an “evil eye” referred to an envious, grudging or miserly spirit, whereas a “sound eye” or a “good eye” referred to a generous, compassionate attitude towards others.  Jesus is saying that just as a blind person’s life is darkened by the malfunction of the eye, so the life of a miser who hoards his wealth is darkened by his failure to deal generously with others.4 When our eye is sound, when our hearts are fixed on things of eternal value, we live in the light and our lives are full of meaning and purpose.  We are “in sync” with God’s desires and will for us.  Because we have put our trust in God rather than in earthly treasures, we can be generous and compassionate in our dealings with others.

On the other hand, when our eye is unhealthy and our hearts are fixed on things that pass away, we are in darkness and will never realize the full potential of our being.

Finally, Jesus says we are to serve God rather than “mammon.” “Mammon” is an Aramaic word for money or possessions.  A choice has to be made between these two masters, says Jesus; no one can serve both.  Any attempt to compromise between the two will prove to be impossible.  We can serve God or we can serve mammon, but we cannot be the servant of both.

These are bold words for us who try to serve God in a cultural context that is characterized by the pursuit of wealth and privilege.  The desire to acquire money and possessions has become so much of the air that we breathe that we’re no longer able to be objective.  Materialism is rampant in our civilization.  Of all the followers of God in the way of Jesus, we who enjoy such tremendous wealth and privilege have the most urgent need to ask ourselves questions like these: “What is it that I value most?  What sets my priorities and determines my choices in life?  Is it God that I serve, or is it some object of my own creation that I have come to value even more than God?  Where does my ultimate loyalty lie – with God, or with my possessions, my accomplishments, my status in the eyes of others, or anything else that I have treasured to such a degree that it has become an idol in my life?  In what or in whom have I put my trust – in God, or in things material and temporal?”  We shall need to be ruthlessly honest with ourselves about this.  Are we truly serving God, or are we putting our trust in our wealth, our possessions, or our property?  Has financial security become the god to which we have given our ultimate loyalty and trust?  Hear Jesus’ stern warning: you cannot serve both God and mammon.

The popularity of McLaren’s book, Everything Must Change, indicates that his questions have struck a responsive chord among the followers of Jesus: What are the biggest problems in the world? and What does Jesus have to say about these global problems? These are crucial questions to be asking ourselves in the face of the world’s great need.

A seminary professor of mine had a poster on his office door which read: “A Modest Proposal for Peace: Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other.”  We might well modify it to say, “Let all people of faith throughout the world agree that they will not kill each other.”

A similar proposal might be made for the advancement of economic justice in a world in which the rich continue to become richer and the poor continue to become poorer.  “Let people of faith throughout the world choose to store up treasures in heaven rather than on earth.  Let them develop ‘sound eyes’ so that their eyes and hearts may be fixed solely on serving God and their fellow human beings. Let them agree and pledge themselves to be servants of God rather than slaves to ‘mammon.’”

What a revolution we might inspire if we took Jesus’ words to heart, if we wove his values into the fabric of our lives, if we made his priorities our priorities, if we followed his teachings and imitated his actions, if we adopted his principles and gave ourselves wholeheartedly to the doing of God’s will – “on earth as it is in heaven.”  How many of the world’s greatest problems might be solved!  How rich and full of meaning our own lives would become!

We are followers of God in the way of Jesus.  Our treasure is in heaven and not on earth.  Our eyes are to be sound and our bodies full of light.  We are to serve God– and not money, wealth or possessions.

1 McLaren, Brian D.; Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope; (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2007).

2 Stott, John; The Message of the Sermon on the Mount; (Downers Grove, Illinois; Inter-Varsity Press, 1974); p.155.

3 Ibid, p.156.

4 Hare, Douglas A.; Matthew (Interpretation Commentary); (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1993); p.72.  See also William Barclay’s comments in The Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1975), pp.245-246.

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28 Comments

  1. Rhode on May 12, 2017 at 08:33

    Our Rector shared with me that when his sermon topic was about money he could physically see the congregation squirm.
    Jesus was concerned with our “love” relationship to money…. how it to defines and motivates us. Money buys us comfort, security and safety… 3 things we will do almost anything to attain and then almost anything to keep. Our collective love for money is well hidden in those 3 words.
    Rethinking our Christian individual (and voting) relationship with money is a goal worth praying and perhaps even fasting over with actions following. I love Ruths’ reply above….as those were among my mom’s last written words to me – ‘Seek ye first the kingdom’…this is surely the best motivating priority to keep in our hearts. So, Brothers, bring on the money sermons and I will squirm with the rest and pray my love for God opens my purse and heart deeper and wider.

  2. Ruth West on November 26, 2016 at 16:41

    Here it is six years since you wrote this homily, but it still rings fresh and true. One of my favorite little choruses which retells this message so well is: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you.” Although I am financially poor, according to the standards of our society, I have never gone to bed hungry, lacked clothing to cover me, or lacked a home or means of transportation. God has so richly blessed me!
    The best blessing, of course, is having the means of salvation, our Savior’s redemption, which says it all. I so loved rereading your sermon and all these thought-provoking comments. Thanks to all of you.

  3. Michael on November 25, 2016 at 15:23

    If we sit quietly and listen we will hear God’s voice encouraging and guiding us regarding money, poverty, and storing up treasures. Then it is for us to put it into action

  4. george on April 27, 2015 at 14:49

    let us also free the poor from the oppression of the minimum wage laws, which take away their freedom to earn market wages, and keep them unemployed

  5. Barbara Frazer Lowe on April 26, 2015 at 16:47

    Mino Sullivan says it all. Sll the ‘ration alining’ reveals its earthliness. barbara frazer lowe

  6. Barbara Frazer Lowe on April 26, 2015 at 16:30

    All the discussion about Br. Vryhof’s fine and deep homily of 5-11-10, thru several years from various persons as printed on today’s, 4-26-15, SSJE, message, seem like personal, global, political, economical, judgmental, rationalizations in our human way of viewing. Who is to say we do not ‘Love our neighbor..” properly, too little, wrong place, uselessly done, or etc. Whether giving only a sip of water to one person as he lies dinging hospital, (entitled)?!?, or a Ebola victim in Tanzania, a few pence to a beggar in slovenia, or a national foundation for medical science in the (wealthy) United States!!! which aims to bodily

  7. Jane on April 26, 2015 at 14:27

    I remember the bracelets given to my duaghters saying “What would Jesus do?” to make them think before they act. We need a thoughtful look at the world and Mclaren’s book has shown the Christian way in Life just as the Bible does. Yes I agree we should praye that eery person of faith chooses NOT to kill another. But that start has to come out of faith and love not ISIS like revolution, hate and violence.I heard today that Denmark is having success with radicalised youths, encouraging them to return from the Middle east, meeting them with love and a second chance. That love, and intelligent talk is changes them one by one. That as another of Jesus strategies. he spoke to each person one on one to heal or to help He also did it with love an compassion. That way is always worth practising. .

  8. Barbara Frazer Lowe on April 26, 2015 at 13:30

    Is all this human rationalization, personal to global,under the umbrella of “God;s Grace” ? … ‘ we thank You for all he blessings of this world, but above all for …”; ‘”thy will be done..” seems a path to humbly aim to follow on this earth. The core ?

  9. Phillip Brock on April 26, 2015 at 10:53

    Thanks for the topic, brother. I have struggled with my relationship to money for a long time. I was so off-put during my youth at the conspicuous consumption and disregard of our natural resources of the 1% and the disproportionately destructive effect that their choices cumulatively have on the rest of us, that I eschewed money altogether.

    Then I became a burden to those around me, and my poverty became not a spiritual matter, but one born of fear and resentment and not knowing how to participate decently in the world of mammon, which is the world in which we live. Something that struck me was when I heard someone say, “You cannot get poor enough to help one other person. It’s not the money, it’s what is done with it.” No one gets out of this thing pure, and it was childish of me to think I could.

    I have struck a balance in the past few years, but it is a struggle of which I am always conscious.

    Thanks again, and blessings.

  10. Lisa on April 26, 2015 at 09:44

    Thank you for this message. I am making progress moving away from the values of the world. Becoming conscious, observing my instincts before I act, a good first step. Do I always think/feel/do what I should? No. But I have a desire to follow God and that is a step in the right direction.

  11. Ruth West on April 26, 2015 at 08:54

    Br. David, your sermon is so on target. Since I’ve gotten old and somewhat penniless, I can focus more on the things which really matter. I do not recommend that one be financially poor to do God’s will, but I can say, in my case, that the lack of money is a blessing. Thank you!

  12. Haig on April 26, 2015 at 08:43

    Undergirding the infrastructure of what McLaren rightly sees as the challenges facing us today is what in theological circles is called sin: alienation from God, each other and ourselves.

    As long as we lack the clarity of vision to see the poverty in our wealth, to be dependent on our own resources and intellect we will be mired in our problems. To see God for whom God is, to be dependent on God is our path out of exile, to healing and wholeness. The Spirit will live through us and show us creative and new ways of living.

  13. Christopher Engle Barnhart on April 26, 2015 at 08:12

    Over the years as an architect, I have collected many tresured books about architecture. Most of them are large type picture book, I call them “coffee table books.” They are something that I cannot take with me when I have gone. Therefore, I made a conscience decision to give them away as presents at birthdays and Christmas and donations to our local library. I really have no use for them but someone else may find them of interest. In a true senses, In the end they are just “stuff” that I have accumulated and have no use for now or in the future that someone else might enjoy.

  14. John Fritschner on April 26, 2015 at 07:51

    A very thoughtful explanation of the approach to material goods, as well a behavior to which Jesus is calling us. I especially liked “laying up treasures in heaven means investing ourselves in things that will last beyond the grave, and that has more to do with who we are and what kind of people we become.” Thanks for this. John

  15. Michele on May 2, 2014 at 09:22

    This posting could not have come at a better time in my life. Thank you for share. I have been struggling with question, what does God want me to do with my life? I am at a personal crossroads in my work life. This reading is a reminder to me of what is truly important. I will use this reading as a guide to help me discern my work. And, I am looking forward to purchasing the book that was referenced, McLaren, Brian D.; Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope; (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2007).
    Thank you again,
    Michele

  16. Margo on April 30, 2014 at 09:03

    Br. David,
    Systemic sin is still sin – it puts distance between us and God and we can at least try not to collude with it.
    May I suggest Thomas Piketty’s current bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Amazon have sold out but Harvard University Press still have copies. Margo

  17. Larry Blomberg on October 30, 2013 at 09:50

    Your word on, “Priority” are what inspire me to write. I study the Scriptures with Aramaic Scholar, Dr. Rocco Erricco and we (you, he and I – at least) agree. Jesus’ way is revolutionary. It is simply challenging. Simple concepts of love, forgiveness, gratitude and grace allow us to turn around and around again. Remembering to use these attitudes and attributes as action verbs allows us to turn back to God when mammon and materiality manage to distract us.

  18. Mino Sullivan on October 30, 2013 at 07:38

    Intellectual discussions on how to address poverty from a macro perspective are important. However, when a prisoner tells us, “I have never felt so cared for in my life than how you volunteers have made me feel,” you know that each of us working one person at a time to end suffering equally essential.

    Your capacity to inspire, Brother David, is a true gift. I shall not join my friends in bridge lessons, but use the time in another way.

    Blessings to you.

  19. Haig McCarrell on April 16, 2013 at 09:41

    Wealth is or ought to be a blessing, but how often it becomes a snare, controling us: its pursuit and possession ending up de-humanizing us. One of the many problems with poverty is how to empower others so they can partake of the abundance that God has given.

    But poverty is not only material – deprivation can be real, but to have no hope, few if any relationships, no vision, no compassion, to be a stranger to God and ourselves, is perhaps the root of material poverty. Afterall, God is a God of abundance, not scarcity.

    • Bob on October 30, 2013 at 13:33

      Read Br. Curtis Almquist’s description of blessing in the New Testament.

      • Christina on April 30, 2014 at 09:31

        I wish you had given Br. Curtis’s date – As your reply is a year ago, perhaps you won’t see this request. Christina

        • Margo on April 30, 2014 at 11:30

          Christina you can use the search on the first page of the web site to find topics like blessing. Other wise Br. Curtis’s last gift in his book the 12 days of Christmas has his take on blessings.
          Hope this helps. Margo (Bob)

  20. george miller on April 14, 2013 at 21:41

    the poverty in the world is not caused by the wealth of others. there is a path out of poverty, one of the examples is singapore, where income per capita grew from the equivalent of $400 to $50,000. over a period of forty years. Freedom, protection of property rights, and the rule of law are some of the essential ingredients

    • Margo on October 30, 2013 at 13:31

      Population of Singapore is about 6 million, small but not insignificant but not even a whole number percent of Americans. They were able to cash in on the digital age very effectively. How long this will be sustainable remains to be seen. The intricacies of its political system I am not very familiar with. The USA has allowed its pursuit of mammon in the 1% and the 30% of ‘know based’ jobs to undermine its democracy and reduce many of its people to poverty. I find it impossible to believe that God intends some to be over abundantly provided for and others to go very short.

  21. Margo on April 14, 2013 at 16:18

    How about the letter of John and if you have the world’s goods and see a brother in need… or Matt whatsoever you do to the least in way of shelter, food ect We know we are living with 49 million people here in US alone who suffer from food scarcity on a daily basis – so who is supposed to give what, in what proportion?
    Are multi million dollar endowments that preserve a way of life and support particular privileged communities like Universities for the elite something God weeps or rejoices over ? ” If we wove his values into the fabric of our lives, if we made his priorities our priorities, if we followed his teachings and imitated his actions, if we adopted his principles and gave ourselves..” Are you speaking from lived experience? Are the standards of giving different from community to community ? Somehow this would be more convincing from one of those 49 million than from the well fed, clothed, respected, protected men of God.

    • Dale on April 30, 2014 at 10:29

      Right on, Thank you for being inclusive in all the ways man should serve his fellow man. All are needed and I shall not fault the man who gives of his personal fortune in a different manor than I might. All are needed, let us never judge another’s use of “his” “her” funds. Be thankful that his funds will in anyway serve God’s creation.

      • Margo on April 30, 2014 at 11:39

        Hi Dale, That is a very individualistic approach. God gives everyone on earth the earth as an island home and all the resources of it. We are our brother’s keeper when we operate as co-creators with God of our society both local, country and global and that includes economic regulation . Discernment of what effect our individual actions have on others is an essential component of love of neighbor – all of them and that may involve saying there is such a thing as greed. Live more simply that others might simply live. Margo

  22. Alison on April 14, 2013 at 05:58

    Thank you for these challenging, practical and inspiring words.

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