August 7, 2016
William G. Carter
Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
A brief text from the Bible usually means a brief sermon, isn’t that right? Time will tell. But when the text is as rich as that final line from Jesus, we might be here a while.
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” It is a proverb. Proverbs are portable. You can take them anywhere. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” That is equally true in Poughkeepsie and Piscataway. “A stitch in time saves nine.” That’s good advice about planning ahead, whether it plays in Atlanta or Algiers. “Pants get shiny even on the throne.” I like that one, in the middle of an election year. It’s a proverb.
A proverb is a wise one-liner, distilled from years of experience. It is true because it is true. The wise person goes around the track many, many times, and begins to see the truth about everything. So Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Let’s make sure we understand the nouns. “Heart” is a venerable Bible word. The words of Jesus are translated into English from the Greek, although he probably spoke them in Aramaic and was conversant in Hebrew. Whatever the language, “heart” has always meant the same thing. It’s the center of a person’s life. Just as the heart is in the center of the chest, the spiritual sense of “heart” signifies the center of our souls. It’s where we give our devotion.
And the biblical word for “treasure” has to do with the things of ultimate value. It’s what we accumulate and preserve. It’s what we keep safe. The treasure includes those resources that we live out of, the stockpile of gifts and graces that we expend.
So Jesus is saying what we already: we devote ourselves to the things that matter the most to us. So the proverb begs the question, what is the most important thing in your life?
A week ago, on a Friday night, I was in the center of Kalamazoo. I had to look it up on a map to find out where I was. It was a beautiful night. The park in the center of the city was filled with young people. What a wonderful thing, to have the under-thirty crowd filling a city park. But then I noticed everybody had a cell phone and they were chasing Pokémon in the park.
Have you heard about the game? One kid was so obsessed he walked onto the street in front of a moving car. The driver hit the brakes, laid on the horn, and the kid didn’t even look up. I walked up behind somebody else. His gaze was focused on a four inch screen, so I said, “Hey, there’s one right behind you.” He turned around to look. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
When you have a treasure, that’s where you put your energy. It’s where you focus your attention. It’s where you put in your time. Ask the man on my street that has a perfect lawn of green velvet. Not a wayward stick, not a dreaded dandelion, not even a leaf of clover. He’s out on that lawn all the time. The neighbor walking by would say, “That’s his treasure.” If you look at my lawn, it’s obviously not my treasure. But it’s his.
Where do we put our value? It’s a good question. I heard a story about a missionary in China, in the middle of the last century. He lived there with his wife and kids, and the Chinese government put him under house arrest. They didn’t want a Christian missionary wandering around loose and preaching the Gospel.
One day, the soldiers came and said, “You can go home.” Then they added, “But you can only take two hundred pounds with you.” Well, that forced a lot of decisions. They had been in China for many years, and had accumulated a lot of nice things. There was hand-carved furniture, dazzling art work, a beautiful vase. And being a preacher, he had a lot of books. So the family got out the scale and began to talk about what they would take.
They weighed this, they weighed that. Finally they got it down to two hundred pounds. And the soldier said, “Did you weigh the kids?” And in a moment, all their other treasures became trash.
Should we have to make those kinds of decisions: what comes before everything else?
As Luke reports this proverb, he drops it in the middle of a chapter on money, possessions, and all the glorious stuff that people buy and possess. Of course he does. For a lot of people, money and the stuff that it buys comprise the treasure. It’s where they devote their heart.
Just remember the parable that precedes this text, which some of you heard last week. Jesus said there was a wealthy man who made even more money. Leave it to the rich to get richer, while others are paying late fees on their mortgages and credit cards. The rich man has crops that produce abundance. So he says to himself (and only to himself), “What am I going to do with my extra stuff?” He decides to tear down his storage facilities and build bigger ones.
That’s what happens when money and your stuff insulates you from other people. You fall into the foolishness of hoarding and increased accumulation. You give as little as possible to help anybody else out. You contribute as little as possible for the public well-being. You vote for the leaders whose politics will keep you rich. You structure your whole life to save your assets. Just think of Ebenezer Scrooge; the Jesus of the Bible would call him an “idiot,” a fool (Luke 12:20).
Isn’t life more than our stuff, asks Jesus? The clothes we wear, the food we eat? Is that your treasure? Is that where you devote your heart?
Just the other night, I was talking to my friend Bob. He spent some time in Haiti earlier this year with the Methodists. He said, “It was overwhelming for me was to see how happy were the people that I met in Haiti, even when they don’t have very much.” Their hearts seem to be devoted to something else.
So where is the treasure in your life? To what will you give your heart?
If it’s money, well, someday you can’t take that with you. Money is only a temporary thing, and it does no good if it’s not doing good. Our riches should not be digging moats around the castle, but building bridges. That’s the wisdom of Christ, not the insulation of a fool.
And do you give your energy to buying more stuff, to piling up more stuff, to protecting more stuff? Again, Jesus wisely says, if you have a lot of stuff, the thief can steal, the moth can destroy. And one day, if you try to relocate, it’s really difficult to unload what you really don’t need.
I know this first-hand. When I merged households with my wife twelve years ago, we filled up the living room with so much excess that it took us a year to unload it. And we’re still working on purging the basement.
So Jesus gives us a proverb about our priorities. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He does not specify heart or treasure, but leaves it open-ended enough to raise the question. What is it that gives us the fullness of life? What is the one true pursuit that is worthy of our hearts? How would you answer?
While we are pondering the question, leave it to Jesus to turn the proverb on its head. According to the paragraph, he’s not merely referring to money. He’s talking about the kingdom of God. “It is God’s great desire to give us the kingdom,” he says.” The kingdom is not a place, it’s a situation. The kingdom is wherever God is ruling our lives. The “kingdom come” for which we pray is now here in Jesus, and the kingdom is wherever anybody puts God first, listens for God to speak, and does what God wants to get done.
To have God rule over us – that is the greatest treasure. He has to tell us this, because the world is full of a lot of other distractions. If you walk through the store, there’s always something calling out for your attention. It will never satisfy you. In fact, enough of it may enslave you.
So the holy antidote, according to Christ, is to be generous. Sell you possessions and give it away, he says. In that delightful Semitic euphemism, “Make purses that do not wear out.” You know, he’s talking about the kind of purses that empty themselves for the needs of others.
I bet you could make that kind of purse today. Most of us here could empty our wallets into God’s offering plate and we’d still have enough to share. If we did it, we might begin to feel how good it is to give generously, how good it is to free ourselves from the tyranny of having to have things.
It’s like my friend Bob said: “I made friends in Haiti who don’t have much, but they are really happy.” He took a lot of musical instruments down there to jam with them. He ended up leaving all the instruments behind, and coming home with a full heart.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.