August 2, 2012 by jmar198013
[Matt. 6.19-23: Don’t hoard, share] Don’t stockpile material goods. If they don’t rot or rust or get eaten up by pests, they’ll just be stolen by thieves. Instead, store up heavenly treasures of generosity, mercy, and justice. Those don’t rot or rust, they won’t get a termite infestation, and no one can steal them from you. Whatever you’ve invested yourself in is where all your attention is focused. Your perception—how you see things—is your guiding light. So if your eye is generous, you see clearly and with integrity. But if your eye is stingy, your vision is clouded. All of the light goes out of your life, and you stumble around in dimness and confusion.
The body of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5.21-7.12) is made up of three distinct movements. Matt. 5.21-48, following on the heels of Jesus’ clarification that he has not come to abolish the Torah and prophets, is an interpretation of Torah for the community Jesus is gathering to himself. Matt. 6.1-18 offers Jesus’ commentary on popular practices of piety: alms, prayer, and fasting. Matt. 6.19 begins the third and final movement of the body of the Sermon, which will run through 7.12. In this movement of the Sermon, Jesus picks up the conventional wisdom of the day and offers his take on it. Note that in this movement, Jesus begins with pithy, proverbial sayings. Jesus tends to spin these sayings in a fairly subtle, subversive manner. Unfortunately, the church today tends to internalize the conventional wisdom without grasping the subversive quality of Jesus’ interpretation of them. The consequence of this tendency is that we end up embodying ancient homespun proverbs and not Jesus’ brilliant subversion of them.
My rendering of the text–while cutting to the chase of Jesus’ subversion of the popular saying–does present a disadvantage when it comes to seeing the proverbial structure of the text. A less free rendering allows us to see that clearly:
A Do not treasure up earthly treasures
B Where moth and rust destroy
C And thieves break through and steal
A’ But store up heavenly treasures
B’ Where moth and rust cannot destroy
C’ And thieves cannot break through and steal
Unfortunately, evangelical culture has often not made a direct connection between not storing up earthly treasures and what it means to store up heavenly treasures. This is reflected in some of the popular hymnody of generations past, where song lyrics promised those who were in deprivation in this life a “Mansion Over the Hilltop”:
I’m satisfied with just a cottage below,
A little silver, and a little gold.
But in that city, where the ransomed will shine,
I want a gold one that’s silver-lined.
The confusion is that we often fail to comprehend what constitutes “treasures in heaven” (or as I have it, “heavenly treasures”). A look at Luke’s parallel to this passage is most instructive: “Sell your possessions and give to those in need. This will store up treasure for you in heaven! And the purses of heaven never get old or develop holes. Your treasure will be safe; no thief can steal it and no moth can destroy it” (Luke 12.33 NLT). Storing up heavenly treasures is what happens when we divest ourselves of material resources in order to invest in the lives of the needy. It’s not about getting a “mansion over the hilltop” that’s “gold and silver-lined.” Rather, it is a matter of investing in God’s reign through open-handed generosity. Where God rules, there is no condition where some people hoard resources to the detriment of others.
Whenever we actively invest in correcting the evils that arise from social and economic inequality, we are piling up heavenly treasure, because we are valuing what God values.
Jesus’ brief parable about eyes at the end of this section confirms this reading of the passage. In order to grasp the significance of Jesus’ teaching here, we must understand that the ancients believed in what is called the extramissionary theory of vision. That is, that light emanated from people’s eyes, and that is how they saw. The “good” eye was generous with its light; the “bad” eye had no light radiating from it.
The saying about good vs. bad eyes is an elaborate play on words. The “good” or “healthy” connotes generosity. The “evil” or “sickly” eye connotes stinginess. For instance:
“Beware that there be not a base thought in thy heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou give him nought; and he cry unto Jehovah against thee, and it be sin unto thee.” (Deut 15.9 ASV)
“Distribute alms from what you possess and never give with a grudging eye. Do not turn your face away from any poor man, and God will not turn his face away from you,” (Tobit 4.7 NEB)
In both of these instances, the “evil” or “stingy” eye has to do with withholding assistance to those in need, with being unable or unwilling to look beyond one’s own security to the welfare of others. By contrast, those with a “good” eye are those who look upon others in need with generosity. This generosity is a manifestation of God’s rule, the kingdom of heaven.
The contrast of Matt. 6.19-23 is not a contrast between this life and the afterlife, but between the world, where the needy are neglected and often systematically mistreated, and God’s kingdom, where justice is done and God’s abundance is embodied in his children’s generosity.