Matthew 6:7-21, 25-34
(watch here: https://youtu.be/tvHQlce_8Vo)
7‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9‘Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
16‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
19‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’
Our reading reminds me of the one about a woman who answered her front door and saw a little boy standing there holding a list. “Ma’am,” he explained, “I’m on a scavenger hunt, and I still need three grains of wheat, a pork-chop bone and a piece of used carbon paper to earn a dollar.” “Wow,” the woman replied. “Who sent you on such a challenging hunt?” “My babysitter’s boyfriend.”
It may seem like Jesus is not unlike that clever boyfriend who bought himself a little alone time with his girlfriend. Right in the middle of our reading, he appears to send us on a similarly difficult scavenger hunt: “do not store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” He knows it is in our nature to want to store up treasures. Whether it’s because of pride or selfishness or jealousy or just plain fear, we want to gather belongings around ourselves. And if we’re not careful, those treasures will grow and grow and grow until they finally smother us. But sometimes we just can’t help ourselves. We need treasures around us to show for our labors. We need treasures to reflect how smart or strong or clever we are in this world. We are all in a fight to survive in this world and the rewards we receive along the way only seem to validate our fight. We need treasures to encourage us to fight longer and better. How else are we going to claim Paul’s affirmation, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith,”(2 Tim. 4:7) without treasures along the way?
Well, believe it or not, those treasures mean nothing at the end of the fight. We don’t get to trade them in for a ticket into heaven. No, the only real value they have is to encourage us to stay in the race that God sets before each of us. And the race itself isn’t about seeing who can accumulate the most earthly treasure. The race that God sets before each of us to see how faithful and loyal we are to him in this world. God grants us an allotted time in this world to share his love and grace and mercy with this world. I’ve often believed that there is a direct correlation between length of years and a consistency in sharing God’s love and grace and mercy. The more we share, the more He lets us stick around here. Each of us has been placed in this world to bring him the glory with our lives, not to earn glory for ourselves. Only fools are in it for personal glory and God is quick to draw them home.
So Jesus recognizes our drive to store up treasures. And it may seem like Jesus is giving us a difficult hunt by shifting our focus to treasures in heaven. After all, it is difficult to see treasures in heaven. How do we know how much we have in store? Perhaps more importantly, how do we store up treasures in heaven? We all understand what treasures on earth are—money, fame, status, wisdom, physical belongings, etc. But these all have no value in heaven. So what does have value in heaven? In answering that question, we have to first ask ourselves what God values. Over the years, I’ve prayed and prayed over this question and for the longest time I’ve believed that God values love the most. Our God is a loving God and wants nothing more than for us to love him and each other. But beneath the love is another equally important thing to God: to be in relationship. God wants to be in relationship with us, albeit in loving relationship. But if it can’t be loving, He’ll accept any type of relationship—angry, frustrated, doubting, argumentative, defiant…you name it, He’ll take it! Just stay in relationship with him! Our God himself is a God of intimate relationship between the three entities of the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are forever working in relationship with each other. And those relationships are not always loving. Recall the fear and doubt and frustration Jesus had for the Father at his crucifixion. God highly values relationship, preferably loving relationship, but relationship nonetheless.
Storing up treasures in heaven involve doing things to stay in relationship with each other and with God. Recall last week’s wisdom from the Beatitudes. We are “blessed” or “rewarded” when we endure persecution from others: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” (Matt. 5:11-12) God sees our faithfulness to him even as those around us cause us to suffer. Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being rewarded day by day.” (4:16) Staying in relationship with God often involves suffering but God rewards us. Paul, in his second letter to Timothy, goes on, “From now on there is reserved for the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (4:8)
God not only rewards us for faithfully enduring persecution for his name’s sakes but encourages us to stay in relationship with each other, even with our enemies. Recall what Jesus taught us in his Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:43-48) God rewards us for staying in relationship with those we don’t want to.
A little earlier in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us to stay focused in maintaining relationship with God through prayer. “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matt. 6:5-6) Prayer is not meant to gain earthly treasures but rather to store up treasure in heaven through on active, ongoing relationship with God. These are three great ways to store up treasure in heaven: faithfully enduring persecution, loving enemies, and praying in secret. At their roots, they are about relationships. This is because God is all about relationship! Several times in Scripture we hear of characters being “cast out into the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Many people believe this to be the definition of hell itself—to be eternally separated from the light and relationship of God. Indeed, to be out of relationship can be an anguishing fate. We were created to be in relationship with God and with each other.
Earlier in our passage for today we heard Jesus teach us how to pray his prayer. We then were advised not to serve money or be consumed with worry and anxiety. In effect, Jesus was teaching us the importance of our relationships. It is through our relationships with God and each other that we store up treasure in heaven. Let us seek right relationships and place priorities on the relationships in our lives and the life to come.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.