Imagine a lavishly wealthy man, among the richest in the world, who had been a shrewd businessman and innovator in his field, who had founded his own company and toiled all his life to build his corporation, amass his fortune, and jealously guard it against all comers. All this was done to the admiration—and envy—of his competitors, who openly marveled at his business acumen.
On the day the man’s death was reported, two men were seated at a restaurant, discussing the demise of the famously wealthy man. One said to the other, “How much did he leave?”
To which the other one replied, “All of it.”
That tragic tale is the crux of the matter, when Jesus tells his congregation, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven… for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” These words follow on the heels of comments about the inward attitude with which Christ’s followers are to practice piety; and in fact, there is no clean break between the previous post and this one. It is part not only of the same sermon but the same point that Jesus began to make in the previous post. And so rather than treat this as a new segment, we have to review where we left off, realizing that Jesus’ thoughts on the subject of piety have not yet reached their conclusion.
Previously, Jesus taught that when we give alms, we should do so quietly, without seeking acclaim from others; that when we pray, we should do so secretly and simply, and not publicly or with many flowery words intended to impress others; and that when we fast, we should do so privately, not seeking the admiration of others. As commentator Patrick Willson summarizes it, “Rewards will come to those who give themselves away in almsgiving, who shed themselves in prayer, and who empty themselves to be filled by God’s goodness.” Piety, then, is a denial of self in order to glorify God—a subject about which Jesus will have much more to say and to model throughout his ministry.
All of this is followed up by today’s opening words: “Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth… instead, collect treasures for yourself in heaven. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21, CEB). If you, like me, have heard these words preached a hundred times in your life, it was likely almost always about money. But I suggest that while these words can be applied to money, the teaching itself hardly has anything to do with money at all, and that’s because Jesus has not been teaching about money, but about bad religion versus good religion, and these words are a continuation of that train of thought. “Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth,” taken in the context of Jesus’ teaching about good almsgiving, good prayer, and good fasting, points back to the “rewards” that the hypocrites receive: namely, the accolades of their fellow human beings. Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting do not enrich us monetarily, but may be twisted to enrich us socially. That is what Jesus continues to guard against, so these words are not about money but are a continuation of his warning not to seek the praises and honor of others for our acts of piety. We shouldn’t give to impress others, but give our very selves away; we shouldn’t pray to impress others, but shed our very selves in seeking God’s will; we shouldn’t fast to impress others, but to empty ourselves so that we may be filled by God’s righteous goodness.
Consistently, the treasure about which Jesus speaks is not money, but honor. Our inner motivations—provided that we are sufficiently self-aware to notice them—reveal to us the kind of treasure we seek: honor in the eyes of others, or honor in the eyes of God. Jesus summarizes all of this teaching with the final phrase: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” That is, the one whose honor matters most to you is the one to whom you will give your allegiance. If we want to achieve what this world calls success, and be esteemed by our colleagues and friends, then we will give our allegiance to ourselves, or to that which will help us achieve status and success. If what we want is to live as citizens of God’s Kingdom, then we will give our allegiance to God’s will for us, as revealed in, and modeled by, Jesus Christ.
From here, Jesus finally seems to change the subject—but he doesn’t. He begins talking about eyes, and light, and darkness, and we might think, “Ah! Jesus is onto something else, now.” But we’d be wrong. These verses are cryptic and weird. (In contrast to our modern understanding of how our eyes work, that is, that our eyes allow light in, and our brain interprets that light, the common understanding in the ancient world was that the eye was like a lamp, casting light upon objects so that they can be seen. If one’s eyes were bad, it was indicative of the darkness within oneself.) But Jesus’ intent is still true, regardless of our understanding of optic physiology: if our eye is bad, we experience darkness. Or, to interpret the allegory, if our self-understanding is not clear as to our attitude concerning everything Jesus has been saying, then our entire life will be cast into the darkness of corruption.
Jesus then brings the point home, saying, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to one and have contempt for the other” (Matt. 6:24a, CEB). Now, “love” and “hate” do not refer to emotions, of course, but are common Biblical idioms that mean, “to choose” and “to reject.” You cannot serve two masters, because ultimately, you will choose one over the other. This is particularly true where the last several paragraphs of Jesus’ teaching are concerned. He has told us that when we give alms, we must choose whether to do so in a way that glorifies us or glorifies God. When we pray, we must choose whether to do so in a way that glorifies us or glorifies God. When we fast, we must choose whether to do so in a way that glorifies us or glorifies God.
Ah! But Jesus, why can’t it be both? If I give money to charity, and this raises my esteem in society, what’s the harm? Hasn’t the charity profited? And if I pray publicly, and people believe me to be very pious, what’s the harm? Haven’t I set a good example for them? And if I make it plain that I am fasting, and this proves my devotion and reverence in the eyes of others, what’s the harm? Isn’t God glorified?
As it turns out, Jesus anticipated these lines of argument. What Jesus has been saying all along in the Sermon on the Mount, is that every choice we make is the acceptance of one thing and a rejection of something else. We choose evil or good; we choose the righteousness of the Pharisees or the righteousness of Jesus; we choose kindness or hostility. There’s always a choice, and our choices are indicative of whether we serve God or serve ourselves. We cannot give our undivided attention to two different things; and God, who describes himself as a “jealous God,” who commands us to have no other gods before him, desires our undivided attention.
Finally, Jesus puts a capstone on this argument with the simple statement: “You cannot serve God and Mammon” (6:24b). Many Bible translations offer us a common concept of what “mammon” means: money, wealth. But that is insufficient to properly understand what is being said here. It’s not money being served here, nor is it money being rejected. What Jesus is imploring us to reject is self-sufficiency. Mammon represents the means to take care of ourselves, to make something of ourselves, to ensure our own futures. This concluding statement bears out what this entire section of the Sermon amounts to: Human beings are not intended to be self-sufficient or self-reliant; and this applies not only in the material sense, whereby we provide for our own food shelter and creature comfort, but perhaps especially in the salvific sense. Our piety does not—can not—make us “right with God.” Only God’s own grace is sufficient for that. So if that’s why we give alms, pray, and fast, we do all of them for the wrong reasons. God intends for us to find life’s meaning outside of ourselves, in our loving relationships with our neighbors and with God.
Obviously, this is leading directly to the next passage, where Jesus will say “Therefore, don’t worry about food, clothing, etcetera. Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and trust God to see to your needs.” But let’s not jump ahead just yet! Clearly, that is one of the pitfalls of taking Jesus’ single sermon and breaking it down into many parts. Jesus wants to keep talking, but we need him to pause before he’s reached his conclusion.
Instead, I want to draw our attention to another scripture reading, from the Old Testament book of ancient wisdom, Ecclesiastes. If we take the allegorical principles we’ve learned from the Sermon on the Mount and apply them to the teachings of Quoheleth, the teacher of Ecclesiastes, we perhaps find from whence Jesus’ wisdom has come. “Whoever loves money never has enough,” Quoheleth points out, “and whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income,” but living in such a way is pointless. “What’s the use in acquiring ‘stuff,’” Quoheleth asks, “other than to say, ‘Look at all my stuff’?” But he also notes the peace that comes to those who don’t devote themselves to enriching themselves. “The sleep of the laborer is sweet, whether he eats a little or a lot,” he says, while the rich lose sleep, worrying about whether all that they have will be enough.
To me, this speaks directly to what Jesus teaches in his sermon. Those concerned about status have their reward: whatever honor they have acquired in society is all the honor they will ever have. But those of lower estate needn’t worry; indeed, they have few possessions to worry over, and God will see to the rest. Remember, Jesus began his sermon by telling the hopeless, the grieving, the meek, the hungry for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers that God blesses them, and will continue to do so.
Their reward, their honor, comes from the treasury of the Kingdom, where there is no moth to be found, and where no corrosion can ever touch what God has granted.