Friday, September 11, 2015

The Fifteenth Sunday After Trinity

This section of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:19-34) probably has the most verses in the Bible that have been twisted by false teachers. There are so many gems here that everyone just loves to lift them out of context and run with them.  There are the verses about laying up your treasures in Heaven.  There's the verse about true Christians being unable to love God and money at the same time.  There is the whole section on not being anxious for things.  Finally, we have the verse about seeking first the kingdom of God.  These individual verses are powerful, but the whole passage is a singular idea from Jesus, comparing the material to the spiritual and exhorting us to seek the latter.

The first section, about laying up treasures for ourselves in Heaven, not only gets yanked out of context, it also gets reversed.  Let's look at it: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." These verses are obviously anti-materialistic, and yet I have heard a pro-materialistic, pro-earthly wealth and success message preached from these very verses.  Worse, many teach the crucial verse (6:21) as "for where your heart is, there your treasure will be also."  Not only is the verse reversed, but the meaning gets reversed, too.  A verse that once meant, "when your treasure is the kingdom of God, what you love on earth changes; the selfish, sinful, worldly things you used to love, you now hate; and the holy, beautiful, heavenly things you used to hate, you now love," now means, "hey, what do you love on earth?  Seek it!  Follow your heart!  And God will turn that sought-after thing, even if it's sinful, into your treasure!" Where does your heart want to go? An ideology?  A social cause?  A business opp? That's great!  Follow your heart, and there your treasure will be.  This is idolatry.

But Jesus is talking against materialism, against earthly posterity, against wealth and success in the world.  He wants us to focus our minds on heavenly things, because those things last for eternity.  The rest of the section confirms this line of thought.  The next passage is usually skipped because it doesn't seem to make sense: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!" Jesus isn't talking about light or darkness shining out of our eyes.  Pair it with what he spoke before about treasure.  The eye is not a lamp shining outward but shining inward, which is why he says, "your whole body will be full of light."  Whatever your eye falls upon, like a lamp that illuminates something, that is what fills your soul.  If your treasure is earthly, your eye falls upon your treasure, you are looking at it constantly, admiring it, worshiping it, and the idolatry is brought into your heart, your soul, which becomes dark.  If your treasure is heavenly, your eye falls upon heavenly things, like studying the Word, and God's Word enters the heart, filling it with light.

To drive the point home as clearly as possible, Jesus continues, “No one can serve two masters, for 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 God and money." Money, being the ultimate signifier of earthly treasure, materialism itself, is laid bare as an idol standing against God.  You certainly cannot serve both God and money.  Likewise, you cannot have both earthly and heavenly treasures.  

Anticipating his disciples' anxiety about this eternal truth, Christ then goes deeper into their reasoning.  The train of thought goes like this: if the disciples gave up ALL materialism, they would starve, naked in a gutter.  Obviously there needed to be some "treasuring" of material goods in order to live.  Jesus knows this, but his answer is not what they are expecting.  He re-affirms his previous statements by even including food and clothing: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all."  His is an appeal for complete faith in God.  He drives in the final nail: "But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble." 

This is a complete renouncement of materialism, and Jesus has given them an impossible task.  This kind of living is impossible without an amazing faith, and he knows that we sinful creatures are unable to drum up that kind of faith.  Once again, Jesus has given us a rule to follow, a law of the new covenant, that will break us down into despair.  However, he gives us a clue to the Gospel in that famous verse: Seek first the kingdom of God AND HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS.  In other words, the righteousness with which we renounce materialism is not our own, since ours is completely inadequate.  The righteousness is Christ's.

Remember that the Epistles in the New Testament are the Gospel explained, and we find that Paul can help us understand seeking Christ's righteousness better.  The one-year historic lectionary provides a great supporting text with our Epistle reading (Galatians 6:11-end): See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand. It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen. The false teachers who came to the Galatians after Paul left have corrupted this congregation with the addition of something worldly, fleshly.  In this case it is the rite of circumcision, but it can be anything else worldly, too.  The prosperity "gospel" preached in many churches today focuses on finances and how to be successful.  But Jesus himself said that you can't have those two treasures in the same storehouse together.  The false teachers want this false addition to the Gospel to take place so that they can position themselves as the true teachers of the Gospel.  The extra-biblical focus of today's false teachers does likewise, drawing the attention of the followers away from Christ and onto the teachers themselves.  Paul rebuts this plan of attack by saying that he boasts only in the "cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world."  The cross itself has separated Paul and the world, preventing him from laying up earthly treasures.  He is a "new creation" that does not take any pride in anything worldly but is heavenly minded, only storing up treasures for himself in God's kingdom.

So, instead of aspiring to have an impossible faith in our own works, trying to live by Jesus' new, tighter rules of renouncing materialism in the middle of a materialistic world, never succeeding, and falling into despair, Paul encourages us to focus on Christ's work on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins.  That way we will find our minds turning more toward heavenly things, until our focus is entirely on the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness.  As new creations, we sin less and less, and feed on Christ more and more.

You cannot possess earthly and heavenly treasure; you cannot serve both God and money; you cannot continue in sin and be a new creation.  Remember, continuing in sin means making a practice of it.  Christians still sin, but Christians repent and confess their sins, and the blood of Christ cleanses us from all unrighteousness.

The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel; boast in the Cross of Christ.