“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal…” (Matthew 6:19) I’ll admit I’ve heard this verse in a whole new way since our house was robbed last summer. Others of you have lived through that experience too and know how it feels. It’s so upsetting, such a violation. On the other hand, we were fortunate that the burglary at our house didn’t involve any casualties or injuries. And that pretty quickly put things into perspective. The things that were taken from our home were only that – things. We knew that our real treasure wasn’t the stuff, even the stuff that was irreplaceable. Our real treasure was each other - our family. So we found ourselves repeating a sort of mantra as we dealt with all of the necessary follow up from the robbery in the weeks that followed: “At least we’re all ok.” As frustrating and time-consuming as it all was, as ridiculous as it felt that so much had been taken so quickly, “at least we’re all ok.”
First things first, right? It’s strange how life provides these kinds of clarifying moments for us. Some of them not much fun. But they can certainly be eye-opening, and help us get our priorities straight.
Today’s text from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is all about getting our priorities straight. But I have to say, even before our house was robbed, I seemed to find plenty to worry about, so this text also has some really challenging words for me. Jesus says in Matthew 6:25 “therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life” and later in verse 34: “do not worry about tomorrow.” Don’t worry? You’ve got to be kidding. And I don’t think it’s just me. We seem to live in an incredibly anxious culture. The news media even help feed our worries to attract an audience. “You may have just eaten something that can kill you instantly. Tune in at 11 to find out more!” It seems everywhere you turn, from security levels at the airport to unsafe product recalls, there are reminders of just how much there is to worry about. So how in the world can Jesus possibly ask us – command us, really – not to worry? “Living totally without worry sounds, to many people, as impossible as living totally without breathing.” (N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, p. 67)
But Jesus often upends the way we think about things, doesn’t he? “You have heard it said, but I say to you” was a refrain we heard a number of times back in Matthew 5. And then there’s all his talk in the gospels about the first being last and the last first, and full grown adults needing to be like little children to understand the kingdom of God. To that growing list of counter-cultural advice, clearly Jesus would have us add one more piece: don’t allow yourself to be overcome with worry. The God who made you is watching over you. He’s got this (whatever this happens to be overwhelming you at any particular moment.) Trust that he’s got this. Which frees us up to step back from the worry-mill of “what ifs” and just focus on what we need to do in a particular day. Keeping first things first not only in terms of priority, but even in terms of simple chronology. Today first, then tomorrow. Ah, right, says the preacher whose life is organized around a multi-tiered, months-long computerized to do list. Today first, then tomorrow. God’s kingdom first, and then the rest will fall into place…
I’m also intrigued by the context of Jesus’ caution against worry here in Matthew 6. Did you notice that today’s passage didn’t actually start by talking about worry? It started with those important words about where our treasure is. And then there was that part about not being able to serve two masters, God and wealth. So this whole discussion about worry is apparently part of a broader conversation about money and treasure. The worry Jesus condemns here in Matthew 6 seems to be, above all, our anxiety over material things. The problem comes when we make money our god. For as preaching professor Tom Long puts it, “God and wealth have different tasks in mind for their slaves…Living the good life and living a good life pull [us] in opposite directions. One cannot serve both God and wealth.” (Thomas G. Long, Matthew, p. 75)
This is important because it helps us make a bit more sense of what Jesus says next. At first, his words about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, lovely as they are, are not very convincing. Sure, birds and lilies may not worry about life, but they also don’t have to worry about mortgages, car payments, grocery bills, or college tuition. We’d all love to be rid of anxiety over these kinds of things, but Jesus appears to be suggesting an unrealistic strategy – “look at the birds, look at the lilies,” to which one is tempted to reply, “Yes, but look at the bills!” (Long, p. 75)
Jesus is not suggesting, however, that we live in a careless or irresponsible way. What Jesus is warning against is a “slavish, anxious, worried service to wealth as though money were one’s owner or master.” (Fred Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year, year A, p. 126)
The cure is not to regard all material things as evil. On the contrary, the text says God knows we need these things, and God will supply them. The cure is to trust in God’s providence, to trust that there is nothing in this world that can take away what God provides – dignity, and the confidence that God loves and treasures us as his children. The cure is to remember that, although a lot of good can be done with money, money can never satisfy our deepest needs, and therefore makes a very poor god.
Long sees it this way: “In this passage, Jesus warns against the perennial human tendency to stockpile wealth as a hedge against insecurity. The problem with investing our sense of worth in cash and possessions is that such an investment is always at peril. It is never safe. Cash can be stolen; Porsches and Cadillacs rust; corporations collapse; moths eat dinner jackets. The ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’ are lifestyles of the always vulnerable and ever fearful. Moreover, there is always someone around who has more than we do, and the quest to keep up is an endless burden. Deadbolts, safety-deposit boxes, tax shelters – none of them finally protect what we really desire; none of them make secure a treasure worthy of our hearts.” Today’s passage is about our basic orientation in life. “If a person sees life as a gift from God, a bountiful outpouring of God’s providence, then that person is free to hold possessions with a light grasp and to be generous toward others. On the other hand, if life is seen as a competitive struggle between winners and losers over limited resources, then one is a slave to this struggle, and the only viable creed is ‘Where’s Mine?’” (Long, p. 74)
This in turn also helps us make sense of those somewhat confusing words about eyes and light, back in verses 22-23. “If one’s eye is healthy – that is, if one essentially has a generous spirit and sees the world in a benevolent light – then one’s total life will be abounding. On the other hand, if one basically sees the world in a pinched and selfish way, then one’s whole existence, even acts of apparent charity, will be begrudging.” (Long, p. 74)
At a workshop I attended this past week the speaker shared a marvelous cartoon of a man about to be baptized by the good old Baptist method of dunking in a river. The preacher explains to the man first, “Now, Charles, when I baptize you, everything that goes under the water belongs to God.” Next frame? All we can see is the man’s hand sticking out of the water, clutching a giant fistful of cash. The rest of him could belong to God, sure. But not his wallet. How many of us laugh because it’s a little too close to home? We laugh because it’s squirm-worthy. We get it, right? We know how that man feels! Take the rest, God, it’s all yours; just let me keep my money. But then that trouble-causer Jesus has to come along and remind us that where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also.
There are all kinds of things we can end up loving more than we love God. All kinds of passions and addictions and devotions that sneak their way up our priority list, and manage to get themselves to first place in our lives. And one of the most widespread is loving money and possessions and allowing them to control us, which is really another way of saying they have become our god. Jesus knows how this eats away at our relationship with the one true God. He knows how incredibly dangerous money can be this way. And Jesus was never one to hold back, when he had a chance to separate people from the things that separated them from God. So here in his Sermon on the Mount he cuts through all of the excuses and makes it as plain as day: “You cannot serve both God and wealth.” Whether it’s a pile of cash or a pile of possessions. You simply cannot care about all of that as much as many of us do, and still think God has first place in your life. It just doesn’t work.
So where is our treasure? If it’s sitting in the bank or the stock market or even in our living room or stacked up in our garage, it’s really not all that secure. And it certainly makes a poor god. No wonder we worry!
But if our hearts rest in the God who made us, who loves us, who calls us his children, if we locate our treasure with him, we may just find worry beginning to lose its grip on us. And find ourselves beginning to loosen our grip on our possessions, and becoming far more generous, as a result.
Long reminds us: “those who know that God summons the sun to rise are confident that, whatever tomorrow brings, it will also bring God with it. So, they are content to leave tomorrow’s trouble to tomorrow, to roll up their sleeves, and as children of the kingdom face the problems that walk through the door today.” (Long, p. 76)
Ah, right. Today first, then tomorrow. God’s kingdom first, then the rest. First things first.