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:
- They are to store up for themselves treasures in heaven rather than treasures on earth.
- They are to have sound and healthy eyes, living in the light rather than in darkness.
- 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.
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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