9. Temptation to Greed, that is, Idolatry (Matthew 6:19-24)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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Rembrandt, The Parable of the Rich Man (1627), oil on panel, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.
Rembrandt, "The Parable of the Rich Man" (1627), oil on panel, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.
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19 "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
22 "The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
24 "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." (Matthew 6:19-24)

In the first part of his teaching in Matthew 6, Jesus talks about true piety towards God: that which seeks its reward in God rather than temporal rewards. It is our purity of heart towards God that he looks at as we worship him. In 6:19-24 he applies this principle of inward purity to the matter of money and storing up treasures (rewards) in heaven.

Storing Up Treasures (6:19-20)

Verse 19 -- "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth...." -- seems rather abrupt. Though we have no way of knowing for sure, the Sermon on the Mount (which can be read through in about 15 minutes) seems to be a condensed version of Jesus' teaching. In a similar context (just before Jesus' teaching on worry, Luke 12:22-31 || Matthew 6:25-33), Jesus tells the Parable of the Rich Fool in response to a question from the crowd that hinted of greed. Jesus responded:

"'Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.'
"And he told them this parable: 'The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, "What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops."
'Then he said, "This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, 'You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.'"
'But God said to him, "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?"
'This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.'" (Luke 12:15-21)

I see this parable as the probable missing context of Jesus' similar teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (6:19-24). It contains the same elements of greed and storing up.

Storing up itself is not wrong. Israel was an agrarian culture that took in crops in certain seasons and then stored the grain for use during the rest of the year. An examination of the way the Bible refers to "storing" indicates that normally storing up was considered a positive virtue:

"In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil,
but a foolish man devours all he has." (Proverbs 21:20)
"Go to the ant, you sluggard;
consider its ways and be wise!
It has no commander,
no overseer or ruler,
yet it stores its provisions in summer
and gathers its food at harvest." (Proverbs 6:6-8)

Even the Temple had storerooms where the tithe of the people's produce was stored up to be distributed during the year to the priests and Levites whose families depended upon it (Malachi 3:10). Storing up for later use was wise and prudent. Jesus is not commanding against this kind of storing.

In our culture we save for "a rainy day," for times of unemployment. We save to make purchases, to send our children to college, and for retirement. In Israel the elderly could depend upon living with their grown children and being supported that way. In our culture we can't expect that.

Jesus is protesting against the kind of storing up that is a symptom of greed and acquisitiveness, of the love of money, and a love of the independence from God that it seems to allow.

Money is deceptive. If we were to be rich, we imagine that we wouldn't have to be dependent upon the vicissitudes of poor harvests, or working for a living, or having to ask God for our daily bread.

Consider the TV advertising that our state governments use to try to get people to gamble. They appeal to this elusive dream of becoming rich and never having to struggle again. This deceptive greed causes people to invest dollar after dollar in the lottery or other games of chance in pursuit of the dream. The poor, especially, believe the lies that 37 state-run lotteries propagate. In the low-income city of Chelsea, Massachusetts, for example, residents spend 8% of their incomes on lottery tickets.1

"You can be the one who wins," the lottery ads tell us, "and you'll never have to worry again."

That's what the Rich Fool believed: "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry," he told himself. But he was poor towards God (Luke 12:16-20).

Q1. (Luke 12:15-21) Read the Parable of the Rich Fool. What did Jesus condemn him for? Storing his harvest? What is the key verse in this passage? What is the context of this parable? How does this relate to the Sermon on the Mount?
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Q2. (Matthew 6:19) Jesus says, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth...." Is he speaking figuratively? Hyperbolically? Generally? Specifically? Is this a new teaching, or an old one?
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Treasures in Heaven (6:20)

"But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal." (6:20)

So how does one become rich towards God? Just previously, Jesus had taught about doing acts of piety "in secret" so that "your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you" (6:4b). As examples, Jesus spoke of giving alms to the needy, praying in private, and fasting. These acts of love toward God are ways of storing up treasures in heaven (6:20). There's a saying, "You can't take it with you." No, but you can send it on before you, and you do that by your good works with a pure heart for God alone.

I think some Protestants have so absorbed a "saved by grace, not by works" theology (and so we should), that we downplay the concept of rewards in heaven, such as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 3:8-15, and this final testimony before he was martyred:

"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day -- and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing." (2 Timothy 4:7-8)

See the elements of "storing" and "reward" that are in common with Jesus' teaching in our passage?

Q3. (Matthew 6:19-21) According to the Bible, how does one "store up treasures in heaven"? What advantage does this have over accumulating earthly possessions? Why are we uncomfortable with the concept of rewards in heaven?
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Your Heart Is the Key to Your Real Treasure (6:21)

Throughout the Sermon on the Mount Jesus returns to the spirit and heart as opposed to the exterior. Here he utters a keen observation.

"For where your treasure is,
there your heart will be also." (verse 21)

To find out what we really love, he says, examine the heart.

Over the years I've married several couples, only to hear later (usually from the wife) that her husband is extremely stingy when it comes to money. It wasn't just frugality, though that's where it may have begun. It is now full-blown loathing to part with money. Who did the husband love more? His wife or his money? I wonder. Sometimes you can tell where a person's real treasure is by examining his heart.

The Window of the Soul (6:22-23)

The next passage is more difficult to understand.

22 "The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!" (6:22-23)

To us Westerners this seems like a mixed metaphor. The eye to us is an organ of seeing. But to the Israelites it also carried something of the idea of a window, a portal through which light or truth would shine into the mind or soul.

The "good" eye is the eye that sees truth clearly. The "bad" eye is the eye that is deceived by money and greed and power. The tragedy Jesus notes in verse 23b is:

"If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!" (6:23b)

Many people believe they have it all, only to discover upon coming to Christ that the supposed "light" in them is darkness, that they have been deceived and have nothing at all. The love of money has a way of blinding us to God's truth.

A Tug-of-War Between Two Masters (6:24)

Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919), The Worship of Mammon (1909).
Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919), "The Worship of Mammon" (1909).
Larger image.

"No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." (6:24)

The final verse in this section speaks about the great tug-of-war between the two Masters of our Age (and Jesus' age): God and Mammon. The word "Mammon" (KJV) is transliterated from an Aramaic word. It means "wealth, property." The NIV translates it "Money" -- capitalized, since it seems to be personified in verse 25 in contrast with God.2

The struggle between God and Money rests chiefly in what we trust in. The Bible says,

"If we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.... 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." (1 Timothy 6:8-10, 17)
"Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, 'Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.'" (Hebrews 13:5)

 

When people "put their hope in wealth," they automatically lessen their dependence upon God who has promised to never leave us or forsake us. In a way, Money becomes an alternate point of hope and trust, a substitute God. Jesus put it very boldly:

"No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." (6:24)

The Apostle Paul was very clear. He calls greed or covetousness what it is: idolatry (Colossians 3:5).

Q4. (Matthew 6:24) Jesus seems to make it sound like you can't seek wealth and God simultaneously. Does he really mean this? Is this hyperbole? Figurative? Literal? Can wealthy people serve God in actual fact?
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Serving Money

George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), Mammon (1884-85), oil on canvas, Tate Collections.
George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), "Mammon" (1884-85), oil on canvas, Tate Collections.
Larger image.

What does it mean to serve Money? I'm sure you've discovered -- perhaps the hard way -- that "no payments until June of next year" is a seductive way of getting you to purchase what you know you can't afford now. The frequency with which you get bombarded with offers of free credit cards is one indication of what a serious problem people have mortgaging their souls by means of plastic. Of one thing you can be sure: banks don't offer you credit cards in the hope that you'll pay them off every month. They want you to charge them up and then pay them the interest each month.

If you're running the rat race of keeping up with payments on debt, aren't you really serving Money? You serve who owns your time. If you're in debt, perhaps Money owns your time. In 1955 singer Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded the hit song "Sixteen Tons," written by Merle Travis:

"You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go.
I owe my soul to the company store."3

You can either "owe your soul" or determine to get out of a situation where you are doomed to "serve Money." It may take years and some sound financial advisors to get your financial affairs in order and under control again so you can be free to serve God again, but it will be worth it.

The Story of the Rich Young Ruler

One of the saddest stories in the gospels is that of the Rich Young Ruler, who wanted to follow Jesus, but the pull of material things was just too great -- and Jesus' demands seemed too much for him:

Heinrich Hoffman (1824-1911), Jesus and the Rich Young Man (1889), Riverside Church, New York.
Heinrich Hoffman (1824-1911), "Jesus and the Rich Young Man" (1889), Riverside Church, New York.
Larger image.

17 "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?'
18 'Why do you call me good?' Jesus answered. 'No one is good -- except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: "Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother."'
20 'Teacher,' he declared, 'all these I have kept since I was a boy.'
21 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.' 22 At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, 'How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!' 24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, 'Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.'
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, 'Who then can be saved?'
Sermon on the Mount: The Jesus Manifesto, by Ralph F. Wilson
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27
Jesus looked at them and said, 'With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.'" (Mark 10:17-27)

Frankly, that's a pretty tough story for rich Westerners to accept. Isn't Jesus just too hard? No. Jesus knows that if a person is that caught up in his own wealth, he can't be a disciple. He can't serve both God and Money. No way!

Where Is Your Heart?

The question, then, becomes, Where is your heart? What is your real treasure? Has Money become the center of your existence? Determine today to put God back squarely in first place. It's where he belongs -- and he will help you do just that if you ask him.

Q5. (Matthew 6:21, 24) The love of money can be a pretty subtle thing. Both the rich and the poor can love money. Can you describe a time in your life when you were deceived about this, and when the light in you was really darkness? According to Jesus, could desire for money damn a person (Luke 12:15-21)?
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Prayer

Father, it's so difficult to really know our own hearts. We can deceive ourselves about money so easily. Purify us, we pray, from a love of money, so that you might be our undisputed King. Help us to love you with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And yes, with our money, as well. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

References

  1. David M. Halbfinger and Daniel Golden, "The Lottery's Poor Choice of Locations," Boston Globe, February 12, 1997, p. A1. Quoted in Dr. James Dobson's April 1999 newsletter on "Gambling's Dirty Little Secrets".
  2. Mamōnas, BDAG 614-615.
  3. "Sixteen Tons," written by Merle Travis (©1947, American-Music Inc / Campbell Connelly And Co Ltd.).



Copyright © 1985-2017, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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