Matthew 6:19-24 – Where Is Your Loyalty Placed?

Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (New International Version)

Nobody can pursue two diametrically opposed commitments. 

Trying to live in both worlds of pursuing earthly treasure and heavenly treasure is not possible. 

Jesus has no place for any of his followers to ride the fence between those two worlds.

We cannot practice God’s will, and at the same time have a moonlighting job with the world.

As followers of God, we must have a single-minded loyalty to kingdom values. 

We are to do the will of God, from a right and sincere heart, and follow Christ’s teaching alone. 

We may give of ourselves, and give of our money, with sincerity, but if we walk away from that and believe the rest of my money, time, talents, and resources are mine to use as I want (since I fulfilled my duty) then we have a divided loyalty between the kingdom of God and the domain of darkness.

Jesus, as he typically does in the Gospels, used metaphors to communicate that we must have an unswerving loyalty to God’s kingdom values.

The Treasure Metaphor

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. So, what are earthly treasures? 

Stuff, money, possessions, control, power, position, and recognition from others. 

You may rightly ask in response, “Is any of that really, in and of itself, wrong?” 

No. However, that’s not the real issue. The real question is this:

Do we use our earthly treasure to build heavenly treasure, or do we hoard earthly treasure for our own purposes apart from Christ’s kingdom values?

A man in a crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to give me my share of what our father left us when he died.”

Jesus answered, “Who gave me the right to settle arguments between you and your brother?”

Then he said to the crowd, “Don’t be greedy! Owning a lot of things won’t make your life safe.”

So, Jesus told them this story:

A rich man’s farm produced a big crop, and he said to himself, “What can I do? I don’t have a place large enough to store everything.”

Later, he said, “Now I know what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones, where I can store all my grain and other goods. Then I’ll say to myself, ‘You have stored up enough good things to last for years to come. Live it up! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.’ ”

But God said to him, “You fool! Tonight, you will die. Then who will get what you have stored up?”

“This is what happens to people who store up everything for themselves but are poor in the sight of God.” (Luke 12:13-21, CEV)

Earthly possessions are tools to be used. Jesus warns that we must not accumulate personal wealth, esteem, and success for the sake of placing ultimate security in money, but for advancing God’s kingdom values. 

Why do that? 

Because earthly treasure is temporary, and heavenly treasure is permanent. 

Heavenly treasure is righteousness; it’s right and just relationships. Humility, peace, grace, mercy, purity, and forgiveness are all relational values. The only thing that we will take with us when we die is relationships; it’s the only thing that’s permanent.

If I am genuinely committed to God’s kingdom, my most cherished values will be established by God. 

Whatever it is that we value, those values consume our thoughts and our efforts. In other words, what’s truly in our hearts directs our work.

And what we value derives from how we perceive our identity. For many Americans, we are defined primarily not as citizens or workers, but consumers. Jesus is neither advocating that we take vows of poverty, nor that we ought not to enjoy the good things in life. Rather, Jesus wants us to define where our loyalties truly lie.

The Light Metaphor

In the ancient world, the eye represented what you fixed your gaze on, or what your focus was. In our culture, we could replace the word “eye” with the word “goal.” The word “body” represents the entirety of one’s life.  So, we may interpret Christ’s words in this way: 

A goal is the focus of a life. If your goals are good, your whole life will be full of proper focus. But if your goals are bad, your whole life will be full of blindness. If then, the focus within you is only really blindness, how great is that darkness!

If the goals and dreams of life are toward earthly treasure, you will blindly move in that direction and your life will end up in disordered love and misplaced values. At death, you will have nothing to take with you because all the eggs have been put in the temporal basket.

The Slavery Metaphor

Jesus flatly stated that we cannot simultaneously serve God and money. Pick and choose. You must go one way or the other; there is no middle ground. 

The question Jesus is posing is: “Who’s your Master?” 

  • When deciding between two jobs, or two homes, or how to spend your time or your money, what set of values comes into play?… values that define me as a follower of Jesus?… or values that define me as an American consumer? 
  • Will I be a bondservant of Jesus, or a slave to credit card debt? 
  • Will I serve God, or serve the lifestyle that I believe I deserve?

Conclusion

None of us are immune from the temptations of all the world’s shiny things, of ambling into misdirected goals.  If you find that you are slave to the wrong god, then there is good news: There is an infinite storehouse of grace that flows from the very heart of God through Jesus Christ. 

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong. (1 John 1:9, CEB)

Choose this day whom you will serve.

Our Father in heaven,
may your name always be kept holy.
May your kingdom come
and what you want, be done,
    here on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us the food we need for each day.
Forgive us for our sins,
    just as we have forgiven those who sinned against us.
And do not cause us to be tempted,
but save us from the Evil One.

The kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours forever. Amen. (Matthew 6:9-13, NCV)

Mark 10:17-22 – Jesus Intervenes

Eastern Orthodox mural of Jesus and the rich man

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad because he had great wealth. (New International Version)

We are all addicts. 

We all have our own sin addictions which keep us stuck in guilt and shame.

We may not all struggle with the same sin. Yet we all have some besetting sin(s) that we must be weaned off of. The most pervasive addiction found in Holy Scripture is neither substance abuse nor alcohol – it is the addiction to wealth and money.

Maybe your initial response was of someone else, besides yourself: “I don’t have as much money as____” or, “So-and-so has a real problem with that!” Those statements are what we call, in terms of addiction, denial. 

In truth, all of us are in some sort of denial about how much we really trust in paychecks, bank accounts, investments, and owning material stuff. I’m no exception. I own more books than I’ll be able to read in a lifetime, and yet, I tend to believe I don’t have enough of them.

Even the poor can have an addiction wealth and money by thinking about it and wishing for it to an unhealthy degree, as if wealth is the thing that will ultimately make them happy.

People in denial rarely have any idea how much they are hurting others, themselves, and God.  In fact, the consistent witness of the early church fathers is that the sheer accumulation of stuff is the same as stealing from the poor. 

Because of denial, people need an intervention. They need to be jolted back to their senses. Intervention is a gift. Someone cares enough about the person to intervene. Yet, interventions don’t always work. The person can choose to walk away and refuse to change.

Jesus did a gracious intervention with a rich young man. The man was addicted to wealth and money, but he didn’t see it. In fact, he thought he was quite godly and spiritual. It’s a sad story because the man walks away untransformed by his encounter with Jesus and did not accept the gracious invitation to follow the Lord. 

Chinese depiction of Jesus and the rich man, 1879

The man simply did not see himself as hopeless and desperately needing to change. He held to his denial.

The man approached Jesus with a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Whereas I would probably get all excited about being asked a question like this and launch into some long-winded gospel answer, Jesus immediately picked up on the attitude and the need behind the question. 

What must I do to get? It’s almost as if the man wants to acquire eternal life like he would acquire wealth. “I am a successful businessman with plenty of money, and a respected citizen with lots of wealth – now I want to be a success with God, as well.” 

The question may have been sincere, yet it was misguided. Eternal life is not spiritual real estate for an upwardly mobile person to acquire and possess. The man seems to believe he can purchase eternal life, as if everyone has their price, even God. “After all,” he may have been reasoning, “I have gotten everything else in life, so why not obtain eternal life?”

Jesus questioned the question. He went after the underlying assumption of doing something good to obtain eternal life. The fact of the matter is that the man cannot do anything. He can’t because only God is good. Jesus points him to God by changing the action from getting to entering. And he changed the language from a market acquisition to entering into a journey.

Jesus was inviting the man to walk with him.

Eternal life is a journey of faith in the God who is good, and not a transaction to get it. And, we too, must be careful not to treat eternal life as if it were a transaction, as if we must get a person to sign on the dotted line through a “sinner’s prayer” or some other formula that will seal the deal for eternal life. 

Instead, eternal life is a walk of obedience with God and his commands.

Jesus responded to the rich man with the Ten Commandments, specifically the ones which focus on human relationships. Jesus wanted him to realize that the path into the kingdom of God and eternal life goes through and not around how we treat our fellow human beings.

Christ and the Rich Young Ruler by Heinrich Hofmann, 1889

The Lord sought to expose the impossibility of continuing in life on the rich man’s terms. The guy just could not imagine what he might be lacking. So, Jesus helped him out. Christ gave him some major interventional language…. Sell. Give. Follow.

Sell everything. Give to the poor. Come, follow me.

One cannot simply add Jesus to their life, like adding a new car or a new fishing rod. Rather, one’s heart must change in order to accommodate real, genuine eternal life. 

Jesus offered the rich man someone to be, rather than something to get

It’s one thing to give from what you have; it’s another thing to surrender your life and all you have. 

In the New Testament Gospels, there are no easy conversations with Jesus. He gets personal in every encounter and gets under everybody’s skin. Christ doesn’t settle with superficial small talk when there are people whose hearts are little more than idol factories. 

Jesus never leaves us alone, because there is always the invitation to “Come, follow me.”

Christ exposed the wealthy man’s divided loyalties – he was trying to serve both God and money. But he would have to choose between the two. 

And that is our choice, as well. 

The question for us is not, “Am I completely devoted to money?” Instead, the question from our Gospel story today is, “Am I trying to serve God while maintaining a moonlighting job with the world?” 

God wants from us an undivided heart; the Lord desires absolute allegiance.

Jesus is looking for those who are poor in spirit, who recognize their great need for God – instead of believing that they are okay and just need to add a little Jesus to their lives. 

God is looking for spiritual beggars who understand their desperate situation and don’t practice denial by sugar-coating their actual spiritual state.

Like a drunkard who won’t give up his vodka; like a sex addict who won’t give up strip clubs or emotional affairs; or like a workaholic who just can’t come home; the rich man would not give up his disordered love for money and possessions. 

So, Jesus did an intervention. 

The Lord Jesus didn’t ask everybody to do exactly as he called the rich man to do. He didn’t ask the very wealthy Zacchaeus to do it, and he didn’t tell Peter to sell his fishing business. 

But Jesus does tell us to do something which seems impossible. Yet, where the impossible exists, so exists grace.

Blessed Lord, you have taught us that all our doings without loving generosity are worth nothing. Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your gift of love, the true bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whoever lives is counted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Amos 8:1-12 – A Prophet’s Perspective on Power and Poverty

Miners’ wives carrying sacks of coal by Vincent Van Gogh, 1881

This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: a basket of ripe fruit. “What do you see, Amos?” he asked.

“A basket of ripe fruit,” I answered.

Then the Lord said to me, “The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.

“In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “the songs in the temple will turn to wailing. Many, many bodies—flung everywhere! Silence!”

Hear this, you who trample the needy
    and do away with the poor of the land,

saying,

“When will the New Moon be over
    that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath be ended
    that we may market wheat?”—
skimping on the measure,
    boosting the price
    and cheating with dishonest scales,
buying the poor with silver
    and the needy for a pair of sandals,
    selling even the sweepings with the wheat.

The Lord has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.

“Will not the land tremble for this,
    and all who live in it mourn?
The whole land will rise like the Nile;
    it will be stirred up and then sink
    like the river of Egypt.

“In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord,

“I will make the sun go down at noon
    and darken the earth in broad daylight.
I will turn your religious festivals into mourning
    and all your singing into weeping.
I will make all of you wear sackcloth
    and shave your heads.
I will make that time like mourning for an only son
    and the end of it like a bitter day.

“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord,
    “when I will send a famine through the land—
not a famine of food or a thirst for water,
    but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.
People will stagger from sea to sea
    and wander from north to east,
searching for the word of the Lord,
    but they will not find it. (New International Version)

I’ve been in the church most of my life. I have listened to thousands of sermons, as well as preaching thousands of them myself. I can count on both hands how many times I’ve heard a sermon from one of the twelve minor prophets in the Bible. Although I personally have preached on them more times than that, it still pales in comparison with how many sermons I’ve preached from the New Testament gospels or epistles.

This, I believe, is an indictment on us, especially those with privilege and power. If you add the major prophets, we have sixteen books contained in Holy Scripture calling out powerful and influential people’s oppression of others. To overlook such a girth of text is to stick our fingers in our ears and refuse to listen to God.

Those with power, position, and privilege must continually be vigilant to use such influence for the benefit of all persons – not just themselves or people just like them.

The books of the prophets make it very clear that God cares about justice. God will uphold the needy. The Lord will stand with the oppressed. If we fail to share a divine sense of justice and injustice, there will be hell to pay.

God is longsuffering. The Lord patiently awaits us to pay attention. Yet, eventually, that patience will run its course. A prophet will be sent to voice God’s concerns. Like a basket of ripe fruit now finally ready to be eaten, so God’s justice is ripe and ready for action.

The prophet Amos delivered a scathing message to the ancient Israelites about their total disregard for the poor and needy in the land. The people in positions of authority and power only looked on the less fortunate as commodities – as pawns to be taken advantage of for the rich merchants. 

Because the wealthy never took the time to listen to the poor, God would not listen to them. Judgment was coming, and it would not go so well for the power brokers of society who only thought of their business and squeezing others for more money.      

Peasants planting potatoes by Vincent Van Gogh, 1885

Few people rush to have poor folk as their friends. Those in poverty are often overlooked and disregarded. Either they are ignored altogether or are given hand-outs and services without ever having any significant human contact. Even when there is help, it comes from a distance.

In other words, those in authority rarely take the time to listen and get to know the real face of poverty. If there isn’t a photo opportunity, then encounters with the poor are not likely to happen with politicians, or anyone else. After all, so many are busy making money, checking stock portfolios, and considering how to get bigger market shares…. 

Perhaps we have an answer as to why there is no revival in the land. God shows such solidarity with the poor that to ignore them is to ignore him.  No matter our financial picture and outlook, every one of us can grace the poor with the gift of time and listening.  For in doing so we might just be listening to the voice of God.

Justice is the responsibility of everyone, not just a few.

God identifies closely with the poor, the distressed, the underprivileged, and the needy. The Lord listens to the lowly. So, we as God’s people, are to share this same concern. It is a theme throughout the entirety of Holy Scripture.

From the Old Testament:

God will rescue the needy person who cries for help
and the oppressed person who has no one’s help.
He will have pity on the poor and needy
and will save the lives of the needy. (Psalm 73:12-13, GW)

Those who mock the poor insult their Maker; those who rejoice at the misfortune of others will be punished. (Proverbs 17:5, NLT)

Those who are gracious to the poor lend to the Lord, and the Lord will fully repay them. (Proverbs 19:17, CEB)

If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard.

Proverbs 21:13, NRSV

Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who turn a blind eye will be greatly cursed. (Proverbs 28:27, CEB)

Give your food to the hungry
    and care for the homeless.
Then your light will shine
    in the dark;
your darkest hour will be
    like the noonday sun. (Isaiah 58:10, CEV)

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor. (Isaiah 61:1, NIV)

From the New Testament:

“If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven.”

Jesus (Matthew 19:21, CEB)

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. (1 Timothy 6:17-18, NIV)

 If we are rich and see others in need, yet close our hearts against them, how can we claim that we love God? My children, our love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action. (1 John 3:17-18, GNT)

Poverty is not only an issue in some far away place; the poor are found everywhere, and they are always among us.

I believe an honest hearing of the prophet Amos would change the world. I’m not talking about angry ranting which works people into a frenzy of fear and suspicion. I am referring to giving Amos a serious hearing, just like we give the Apostle Paul our focused attention.

Just because poverty has always been with us, doesn’t mean we ought to only shrug our shoulders and say, “Meh, what’s a guy to do?” Instead, we can determine to address the issues which create a large class of poor people to begin with – including malevolence and materialism.

The moral compass of many of the earth’s nations is askew, even broken. It needs to be recalibrated to the true north of biblical justice. Back in the prophet’s day, bullying, bribery, and backstabbing were tools used for malevolent purposes. Those same implements are still being used by some today.

You must not pervert justice or show favor. Do not take a bribe, for bribes blind the eyes of the wise and distort the words of the righteous. (Deuteronomy 16:19, NET)

Those who plant injustice will harvest disaster,
    and their reign of terror will come to an end. (Proverbs 22:8, NLT)

But why would people be so unjust to other people? What would motivate someone to purposefully harm another in this way?… Materialism would.

Whenever people have an exorbitant amount of stuff, generosity is typically not their first impulse (Ecclesiastes 5:10). Rather, the extremely rich among us have an equally extreme temptation to hold on tight to their wealth – so much so that money and acquiring more stuff becomes their religion. That’s why Scripture is replete with warnings about money.

In short, poverty must be tackled, from a biblical perspective, on both the personal and systemic level. Individuals, families, churches, faith communities, organizations, corporations, and governments must all remove the obstacles which keep people in poverty. This is an appropriate use of power and authority.

What will you and I do?…

Gracious God, you are found everywhere – both the halls of power, and the back alleys of slums. As we seek you more and more, help us to see the face of Jesus in everyone we encounter, whether rich or poor, so that we might share the gift of life with them, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

James 5:1-6 – Avoid the Temptations of Wealth

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you. (New International Version)

Everyone’s station in life has it’s own particular temptations. It just so happens that in the church for which the Apostle James wrote his letter, the wealthy persons had completely given in to the temptation of using wealth to build more wealth on the backs of the poor. And the Apostle called them out on it.

Just because you nor I might not be rich in assets and wealth, doesn’t mean today’s New Testament lesson has nothing to do with us. We all inhabit some position of influence or authority, as well as own something, even if it is not much. So, how we use what has been given to us by God is of utmost importance for everyone.

The poor are tempted to envy the rich. And the rich are tempted to trust in their money, resources, and business acumen with no thought to God. Both rich and poor can identify so closely with their respective situations that their primary identity is defined by wealth, or the lack thereof.

Hoarding Wealth

Its not unusual for a person who appears middle or lower class to have hundreds of thousands of dollars stashed away. I have met more than a few of them in my life. Some people die millionaires, having been penny pinchers their entire lives.

Stockpiling wealth, whether hiding it or flaunting it, without the intention of using it for godly purposes is tragic. No one is blessed with such an approach to wealth. Money is temporary; relationships are permanent. A wise Christian focuses on storing heavenly treasure and taking an eternal view of their resources.

Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse! —stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being. (Matthew 6:19-21, MSG)

Fraudulent Wealth

A person can become addicted to wealth, or so desire to be wealthy that they use illegal and dishonest ways of obtaining it and holding on to it. Withholding wages from workers is a crime, both legally and biblically. In the ancient world, and still in many places around the globe today, workers are paid daily, at the end of the day. To not receive their pay means their families will go hungry that night.

Don’t take advantage of poor or needy workers, whether they are fellow Israelites or immigrants who live in your land or your cities. Pay them their salary the same day, before the sun sets, because they are poor, and their very life depends on that pay, and so they don’t cry out against you to the Lord. That would make you guilty. (Deuteronomy 24:14-15, CEB)

Self-Indulgent Wealth

The one living completely for self is only building wealth in vain, like a hog being fattened for the slaughter. Day-dreaming and fantasizing about possessing money for personal indulgence, at the expense of others, will not end well.

Jesus said, “Be careful and guard against all kinds of greed. People do not get life from the many things they own.”

Then Jesus used this story: “There was a rich man who had some land. His land grew a very good crop of food. He thought to himself, ‘What will I do? I have no place to keep all my crops.’

“Then he said, ‘I know what I will do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger barns! I will put all my wheat and good things together in my new barns. Then I can say to myself, I have many good things stored. I have saved enough for many years. Rest, eat, drink, and enjoy life!’

“But God said to that man, ‘Foolish man! Tonight, you will die. So, what about the things you prepared for yourself? Who will get those things now?’ (Luke 12:15-20, ERV)

Murderous Wealth

When the rich and powerful are so bent on accumulating and hoarding wealth, they step all over workers to get what they want. And the poor laborers possess neither the ability nor the authority to handle the injustice. They are helpless.

By withholding wages and resources, or purposefully paying a non-living wage, the neglect puts people in poverty. Then, the poor struggle to survive. They may starve, even die, through no fault of their own. And the ones who put them in such a position will have to answer to a higher authority – God. (1 Kings 21)

How, Then, Shall We Live?

The Lord gives us money, resources, even wealth, for us to enjoy and give to others. We are stewards, accountable for the time, assets, and relationships, given us by God in this life. So, then, we must emulate godly models of asset allocation and thoughtful stewardship.

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:17-19)

May we all use whatever resources, gifts, abilities, and time we have to bless others and contribute to the common good of all persons.