I was tempted to title this study, “The Message No One Hears”. Of course, in one sense many will listen to what I say (or read what I write). But “listening” to a message is not the same thing as “hearing” it. It is always physically possible to “listen” to my words while spiritually not “hearing” so much as a syllable. That is to say, the content of what I say may well ring in your ears while failing to register in your heart.
The reason this happens is that we are quite often convinced that what is being said, though true enough in itself, does not apply to us personally. We pray silently that someone else would pay close attention, but we are persuaded that we need not do so. Experience has taught me that there is one particular message that virtually everyone treats that way. It is a message that we believe applies to others but not in the least to ourselves. The result is that many “listen” to it, but few actually “hear” it. The subject of that message is materialism. Most Christians, if pressed, would have to acknowledge that, whereas they occasionally experience a slight twinge of materialism, on the whole they fancy themselves free of it.
One of the primary reasons for this is that virtually everyone compares himself/herself either with those who are their equal in monetary status or with those who are above them on the socio-economic ladder. When everyone is either as well or better off than you, it is easy to carry on with a clear conscience! Another reason we do not readily confess to being materialistic is that we mistakenly define materialism as the possession of great wealth. But poor people can be just as materialistic as the rich! Materialism, as the Bible portrays it, does not consist in the acquisition of money and property but in the attitude one has with respect to money and property, however much or little of it we may actually own. Some of the more greedy people I have known actually own very little. And I know some extremely wealthy people who maintain a very loose grip on their possessions. It is true, of course, that the Bible issues stern warnings to the wealthy (or, better still, to those who want to be wealthy). The wealthy are exposed to certain temptations of which the poor know nothing. But the Bible nowhere tells the wealthy to be ashamed of their wealth, unless they obtained it by dishonest means. The Bible nowhere tells the poor to be ashamed of their poverty, unless they became poor because of sloth and irresponsible behavior. My point is this:
Materialism is not a problem with possessions but with perspective. I say this only to awaken the middle class and even the poor to the very real threat that materialism poses to them. The issue is not how much you have in your grasp but how tightly your grasp is on what you have.
A. The Commands - 6:19-20
Jesus begins by issuing two exhortations or commands, the first of which is negative (v. 19) and the second of which is positive (v. 20).
Note: Everyone has treasures, even the poor. A treasure is whatever you value and protect. It may have minimal monetary value. It may be worthless to someone else, but is something you cherish and delight in.
1. the negative – v. 19.
This is not a divine prohibition on possessions. It is not a ban on private property. Many of Jesus’ followers were quite wealthy: Joseph of Arimathea, Zacchaeus, Lazarus, Mary and Martha (who financially supported his ministry). Although Peter left all to follow Jesus, he retained his house in Capernaum and after the resurrection briefly returned to his fishing business. Most of Jesus’ parables presuppose a property-owning society. See 2 Cor. 12:14; 1 Tim. 5:8; 6:17-19.
His point is that we must be careful not to hoard wealth as if it had no other purpose than to be possessed. He does not denounce having things, but rather having for having’s sake. Jesus has in view that sort of unnecessary extravagance and excessive opulence which betrays a greedy spirit and a callous disregard for those in need.
Do you recall the infamous declaration of Michael Douglas in the movie Wall Street: “Greed is good! Greed works!” But good for what? Works to accomplish what? . . . undoubtedly, the acquisition and stockpiling of more and more wealth for no other reason than to obtain more and more wealth.
Note the emphasis: “Do not lay up for yourselves . . .” He is not condemning accumulation. He is not forbidding us to have a savings account at the bank. Again, the issue is not wealth per se but why we obtain it and how we use it. See 1 John 3:17.
He tells us not to lay up for ourselves “treasures upon earth.” The treasure he condemns is that which is built up for exclusively earthly ends. Earthly wealth, says Jesus, should be employed for and applied to heavenly ends. There is a good reason for this: earthly treasures are both corruptible and transient.
Ancient wealth often consisted of two things other than money: expensive clothing and storehouses of food and grain. The rich would often weave gold threads into their garments both to display their wealth and to store it. But most clothing was made of wool, which in the ancient world was especially vulnerable to moths. The word translated “rust” literally means “to eat away.” The reference is probably to the loss of crops and grain due to worms, rats, and other vermin. Also, houses in the ancient world were not made of brick or aluminum siding! They were made of baked clay. Thieves could dig their way in. The word translated “break in” literally means “to dig through.” Today we have mothballs and safety deposit boxes and burglar alarms, but we also have (on occasion) double-digit inflation and rising interest rates and economic slumps and stock market crashes!
2. the positive – v. 20
Clearly Jesus does not eliminate desire. He merely redirects it. He does not condemn ambition. He elevates it. The Christian is to be ambitious, passionate, enterprising, and zealous, but for the treasure of the Father’s approval, for the “well done” of God’s final judgment (cf. 2 Cor. 5:9-10).
How do we lay up the sort of treasure that will last? Surely it is by pursuing, through the enabling grace of God, those virtues already explained in the Sermon on the Mount. “Spiritual treasure,” says Blomberg, “should be defined as broadly as possible – as everything that believers can take with them beyond the grave – e.g., holiness of character, obedience to all of God’s commandments, souls won for Christ, and disciples nurtured in the faith” (123). It would also entail directing “your actions toward making a difference in the realm of spiritual substance sustained and governed by God. Invest your life in what God is doing, which cannot be lost” (Willard, 205). Invest in your relationship with Jesus: in knowing and loving him more intimately and enjoying his knowledge and love for you. Invest in other people. Piper put it best:
“Quit being satisfied with little 5 percent yields of pleasure that get eaten up by the moths of inflation and the rust of death. Invest in the blue-chip, high-yield, divinely insured securities of heaven. A life devoted to material comforts and thrills is like throwing money down a rathole. But a life invested in the labor of love yields dividends of joy unsurpassed and unending” (Desiring God, 110).
Notice also that Jesus does not say that treasure in heaven will be merely the unexpected result of generosity on earth. “No, he says we should pursue treasure in heaven. Lay it up! Provide yourselves with unfailing purses and treasures [Luke 12:32-34]! This is pure Christian Hedonism” (165).
A few years ago a Russian jet shot down a Korean airplane over the sea of Japan, killing all 269 people on board. Someone made the observation that before the crash there were on board, among others, a noted politician, a multi-millionaire, a playboy with his girlfriend, a child of missionaries returning to Korea following a visit to his grandparents. After the crash they all stand before God utterly stripped of worldly status and wealth. No more Master Cards, no checkbooks, no credit lines or bank accounts or fashioned-designed clothing or how-to-succeed books or reservations at the Hilton Hotel. Here are the politician, the executive, the playboy, the missionary kid, all on the same level with nothing, absolutely nothing, in their hands. All they brought before God was what they possessed in their hearts. I wonder how they fared?
B. The Basis – 6:21
The basis for our Lord’s exhortation is clear: “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (v. 21). Those things we ultimately treasure govern our lives. That which is a priority to us dictates how we live and what we pursue. Identify a person’s goals and you will identify their god. What we value, tugs at our mind, pulls at our emotions; it consumes our time and energy; we devote ourselves to getting it, keeping it, protecting it, increasing it, enjoying it. What is your treasure? What are your priorities in life? On what do you place supreme value? Answer me, and I’ll tell you where your heart is.
C. An Illustration – 6:22-23
The language and imagery here are a bit difficult. Some argue that by referring to the “eye” Jesus has in mind a “goal”, or whatever it is we treasure. The “body” refers to one’s life; i.e., how you spend your time and energy. The light of your life is your goal. If your goal is good and godly, so will your life be. If not, your whole life will be darkened. Again, the point is that the priorities and commitment of your mind will determine and shape your behavior and the sort of person you ultimately turn out to be. Or, as Willard puts it, “the person who treasures what lies within the kingdom sees everything in its true worth and relationship. The person who treasures what is ‘on earth,’ by contrast, sees everything from a perspective that distorts it and systematically misleads in practice” (206).
Blomberg suggests that “good and bad eyes probably parallel a good and bad heart and thus refer, respectively, to storing up treasures in heaven versus storing them up on earth. Verses 22-23 therefore restate the truth of the previous paragraph, that the way people handle their finances affects every other part of their lives, either for good or for bad” (123-24).
The NASB translation in v. 22, “clear”, is rendered “good” in the NIV. Literally, it has the sense of single-minded purpose, undivided loyalty. The emphasis is on the focus and fidelity of your heart. He is not highlighting money or property but rather the need for total commitment to God and the cause of his kingdom. Wealth is simply one example of a rival for the devotion of your heart. If the goal of your life is single-minded devotion to Jesus, neither possessions nor poverty will have any appreciable influence on your happiness.
D. Conclusion – 6:24
The conclusion he draws from this is simple but profound. It is not another exhortation or command. Neither is it merely good advice. It is a simple statement of unalterable and undeniable fact: you cannot serve two masters. He does not say you should not but that you cannot.
By “master” Jesus does not mean “employer”! Jesus isn’t saying that you can’t hold down two jobs at once. He is referring to a slave whose master owned him: lock, stock, and barrel. A slave in the ancient world had no time to himself. Every minute belonged to the man who owned him. Today you can moonlight if you choose (stockboy by day, concern violinist by night). But not so in the day when Jesus spoke. In our relationship with God we have no rights of our own. We belong to him: our time, talents, energy, efforts, are all his. “The Christian has no time off from being a Christian; there is no time when he can relax his Christian standards, as if he was off duty. A partial or spasmodic service of God is not enough” (Barclay, 249).
Note well: he does not say you cannot “have” mammon at the same time you serve God. He says you cannot “serve” it and “serve” God simultaneously. What does it mean to “serve” mammon or money?
We cannot assist money. We do not enrich it. We are not the benefactor of money. How, then, do we serve it? “Money,” explains Piper, “exerts a control over us because it seems to hold out so much promise of happiness. It whispers with great force, ‘Think and act so as to get into a position to enjoy my benefits.’ This may include stealing, borrowing, or working. Money promises happiness, and we serve it by believing the promise and walking by that faith. So we don’t serve money by putting our power at its disposal for its good. We serve money by doing what is necessary so that money’s power will be at our disposal for our good” (142).
As long as you believe that financial worth is the measure of personal worth, these exhortations will have no effect on you. The question is: Why do we feel driven to serve mammon, to hoard up possessions, no matter the cost? The answer is that we believe that money can give us something that God can’t: personal fulfillment, happiness, joy, satisfaction of ego, etc.
Samuel Johnson, English lexicographer and author of the 18th century, was shown a luxurious and noble castle. He walked through the structure, taking special note of its fixtures, the elegant furniture, the exquisite beauty of the grounds, and said: “These are the things that make it difficult to die.” Does your perspective on your possessions make it difficult for you to die? The answer to that question is the measure of materialism in your heart.
Perhaps the best way to conclude is by meditating on the “better” texts of Proverbs:
“Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it” (15:17).
“Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice” (16:8).
“It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud” (16:19).
“Better is a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife” (17:1).
“Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity than a rich man who is perverse in his ways” (28:6).