The Priceless Treasure – Br. Jim Woodrum
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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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Brother Jim, This is beautiful! I love the analogy from Anthony De Mello also. Beautifully crafted sermon. Thank you!
Thank you Br. Jim. Your sermons always seem to connect with me. My heart has been in need of some spring cleaning for a long time. I’m very fortunate to have you and your brothers with me daily to help carry the broom.
Thank you Br. Jim for this quote from de Melo: “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.” I needed this today and I need to reflect on it constantly as we all are so deceived by what we think will make us happy we fail to recognize we have all we need already. We just keep looking in all the wrong places. Elizabeth Hardy+
” 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. ” Brother Jim, These words open many possibilities for my prayers. I do, indeed, carry many burdens from the past which I need to bring to God and ask for His forgiveness. Then I will make space for his love to shine in my heart and become a better reflector of His grace to others. May this be so. Thank you. John G.
“‘If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!’” – “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord”
Sadly it appears very often these days that
‘the church’ is ” riding along with the shades down”, still arguing over whose in, whose out, whose ordained, whose not, who is worthy, who is not, schisms among all mainline denominations, or worse bringing courtroom trauma battles over who ” owns what” and, missing all the beauty going by. Well I could go on but I’m sure you ”see’ my point. Yet, we still cling to the hope and promise of God’s word that He is ” with us, even to the end.” While the earthly buildings draw their shades, Jesus still says, ” follow me”.
Br. Jim, as a fan of your preaching in general, I agree with much of your thought on ‘treasure’. But I have to disagree with two points. One is that, while Matthew certainly does believe that we do not earn God’s love, he equally certainly focuses our attention on what we do rather than what we believe. He is no radical Lutheran: for him (or her) ‘treasure’ is deeply related to those deeds of charity and mercy that Jesus’s new ‘law’ proposes in this sermon. ‘Let your light so shine…. that they may see your good works…’; ‘be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’ … are not about correct belief or ‘acceptance’ of God’s grace; they are about ACTING as people do who have genuinely internalised their own acceptance by God – those who don’t just say ‘Lord, Lord’, but DO the will of their Father.
Second, in this era of gross and terrifying anti-Semitism, it seems necessary to note that the entire New Testament was not written by St. Paul, to whose OCD the law did apparently seem a burden. In order to say that Jesus offers us liberation from having to earn God’s favor, it is not necessary to repeat the age-old Christian caricature of Israel’s Torah (better translated as ‘instruction’ than ‘law’) as something harsh and to be escaped. No observant Jew that I know regards obedience to Torah as a burden, nor do they hope to ‘earn’ God’s love for doing it. Rather, it is seen as itself a gift of grace, a way kindly given to us so that we can declare our fidelity to God’s purposes in the small ways we are capable of – something like little children ‘helping’ make the cookies for which their mothers do all the work, so that the little ones can feel worthwhile and accomplished within their limited capacities. A perfect definition of ‘grace’…..
I am dead sure that in the 6 years since this sermon was written you have learned better ways to describe the Judaism within which our Lord was so at home, and which he loved enough to antagonise its exclusionary authorities. These are another of those phenomena on which Judaism has no monopoly – we see it quite as clearly in our modern ‘Christian’ power-brokers who likewise make God’s mercy a matter of ‘earning’ and love to hate those who don’t measure up to their cruel standards. Blessings on you and your continued growth in wisdom and charity.
Thank you! At age 71 I am beginning to see that my house is full of earthly treasures that my children will never want. Thank God they are all born again Christians, so I have given them some Godly treasures which they can pass on to my grandchildren.
Just a brilliant shining start to my day. I looked out my window and realized I am truly happy (blinds up). I listen every morning to SSJE. Starting my day with a reflection of God. Greetings from Oregon’s wine valley.
I’m in the darkness now. My earthly treasures bring a measure of safety and remove certain kinds of stress. But I am still bowed down by sorrow. I will try to keep following the light .
On a lighter note – your mention of New England cars rings very true. It is now almost impossible fo find a new car without heated seats – which I do find an excellent choice. And most of the folks I know who own a truck make sure that they can attach a plow.
Br. Jim, thank you for this very significant message. (It came while I was on vacation in May, and am just now getting all the sermons read.)
In my old age, God is opening more and more truth to me; things I have read and heard all my life, but now have a special important meaning.
My focus has diminished on material possessions and is more beamed toward treasures in heaven.
May God grant me more and more of His Holy Spirit that I can be enriched by His presence.
Thank you Br. Woodrum – You have touched on the subject of our earthly treasures so clearly for me, a relief, I am able to enjoy instead of feel guilty, ; the Path is full of light . thankfulness . aiming to love . receive. giving.
Thank you. I was having a bad day and this reminded me of what is important.