If you could have one treasure in this world that would be a source of unending joy and happiness, what would it be and what means would you expend in order to obtain it? Now if you received an e-mail from someone who said they could procure this treasure and it was yours at no expense as long as you travelled to pick it up, would you be suspicious? Or would you drop everything and go out of your way to pick it up trusting the word of the proprietor? Our gospel lesson this evening is a very small portion from what is commonly known as the ‘sermon on the mount.’ (1) Matthew says that Jesus’ fame was spreading throughout the region and that people were seeking him out as far away as ‘Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.’ People were suffering in body, mind, and spirit and Jesus’ words and actions were giving the hope and healing that were so desperately needed. Due to the growing demands of his ministry it was necessary for Jesus and his disciples to withdraw from the crowds for moments of respite where they could enjoy fellowship and process all that they had experienced.
I imagine that Jesus’ disciples were full of questions as they sat together recounting the previous leg of their journey. They had left everything behind to follow this itinerant rabbi because they believed him to be the long awaited Messiah of Israel. The expectation was that their leader would lead a revolution that would overthrow Rome and restore stability and prosperity back to the Jewish people. But the freedom Jesus was offering was not from the yoke of Rome, but rather from the yoke of their own ego and self-reliance. While Jesus’ words and actions were charismatic and drawing an incredible amount of attention, his message was unorthodox to their ears and not on par with their thinking. Jesus used these moments alone with his disciples to teach them and recalibrate their expectations.
At the initial reading of our gospel lesson it seems Jesus is giving the disciples some very practical advice. He says: ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.’ On the surface this makes perfect sense today as then. If you are looking to make an important purchase like a car, for instance, you don’t go to the first car lot you find and buy the first car you see in your favorite color. There are several factors you have to take into account first. How much money are you willing to invest? Do you need the car primarily for city driving or will you be making long distance trips regularly? What type of terrain will you have to navigate in your vehicle? Most of us agree that for a typical New England winter, all-wheel drive is not just a luxury, but a necessity if your responsibilities demand you to be mobile. Some research into these questions will insure that you make a wise decision and get a good return on your investment.
But Jesus teachings were always multi-faceted. He often used metaphor to point to something much deeper. Notice that Jesus is not speaking here about mere practicalities, but rather he uses the word ‘treasures.’ A treasure is not just a possession, but something which you love and whose value cannot be calculated. A treasure is ‘priceless.’ Jesus says ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ Jesus was speaking to the disciples about their relationship to God. According to the Jewish authorities, God’s love was something to be earned and you did this by keeping to the letter of the Law. In all there were around 613 commandments in the Talmud including restrictions on what you could eat, when you could work, and the appropriate sacrifice you had to make to the Temple. (2) But if you were poor, unable to work due to poor health, unable to keep dietary restrictions or any other portion of the Law, you were considered unworthy of God’s love and therefore were restricted from the Temple and cast out of community life. Unless of course you could make the appropriate sacrifice to atone for your sins against God.
This was a burden only the privileged could fulfill and even at that the goods were shoddy. Even without the occupation of Rome, the Jewish people would still be enslaved to a Law they could never live up to. In a deeper sense, Jesus ‘good news’ is that the love of God is a priceless treasure that is given rather than earned. This is what he meant by not storing up treasures on earth (the notion that we can win or buy God’s love by any human means) but rather by storing up treasure in heaven (by the knowledge and acceptance that God loves us simply as we are and have created by him).
Jesus uses another metaphor: ‘The eye is the lamp of the body. 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. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!’ The minutia of the Law was like clutter in the hearts of the people, in essence blocking the light of God’s unconditional love and acceptance. Living under the yoke of the Law was so burdensome, people could not see the reality of God’s love for them. In his last book of mediations published before his death, Jesuit priest and writer Anthony De Mello used this example to describe this same notion: “A group of tourists sits in a bus that is passing through gorgeously beautiful country; lakes and mountains and green fields and rivers. But the shades of the bus are pulled down. They do not have the slightest idea of what lies beyond the windows of the bus. And all the time of their journey is spent in squabbling over who will have the seat of honor in the bus, who will be applauded, who will be well considered. And so they remain till the journey’s end.” (3) If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
Just as in Jesus’ day we continue to desire and shop around for this light. Everywhere we turn our gaze and attention society is trying to sell us the latest ‘treasure’ that will make our lives easier and happier. From every direction on social media we are told the right belief to have and why. But these promising goods turn out to be shoddy and ineffective. After a while the glow dies down, the newness fades and we find ourselves more isolated, burdened, and unhappy than ever.
What is the key to freedom? First, let go of the notion that love and happiness can be bought. This is completely false. Anthony De Mello writes: “Right here and now you are happy and you do not know it because your false beliefs and your distorted perceptions have got you caught up in fears, anxieties, attachments, conflicts, guilt and a host of games that you are programmed to play. If you would see through this you would realize that you are happy and do not know it.” (4) God’s love for us is a treasure that we cannot buy or earn and it is available now. Second, it may be necessary to a spring cleaning of the heart. It could be that you’ve been carrying around so much for so long that God’s light and love cannot penetrate into the depths of your being. If this is so, bring these things to God in prayer and ask him to take them. In 12 step programs, the first three steps say: we came to believe that we were powerless, that our lives had become unmanageable. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Turned our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God. (5) When you come forward to the altar in a few moments, extend your hands and give to God your burden so that you can be open and ready to receive his love, light, and provision. It is a priceless treasure it is yours for the taking, and it is available now!
- The Sermon on the Mount is a discourse on discipleship Jesus gives to his disciples in the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7.
- Harrington, Daniel, ed. Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. 1991. Print.
- Mello, Anthony De. The Way to Love: The Last Meditations of Anthony De Mello. New York: Doubleday, 1992. Print.
- From the Twelve Suggested Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
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