A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 6:19-34. A Christian’s ambition: Not material security but God’s rule.
Here the point to which Jesus directs our attention is the comparative durability of the two treasures. It ought to be easy to decide which to collect, he implies, because *treasures on earth* are corruptible and therefore insecure, whereas *treasures in heaven* are incorruptible and therefore secure. After all, if our object is to lay up treasure, we shall presumably concentrate on the kind which will last and can be stored without either depreciation or deterioration.
It is important to face squarely and honestly the question: what was Jesus prohibiting when he told us not to lay up treasures for ourselves on earth? It may help if we begin by listing what he was (and is) not forbidding. First, there is no ban on possessions in themselves; Scripture nowhere forbids private property. Secondly, ‘saving for a rainy day’ is not forbidden to Christians, or for that matter a life insurance policy which is only a kind of saving by self-imposed compulsion. On the contrary, Scripture praises the ant for storing in the summer the food it will need in the winter, and declares that the believer who makes no provision for his family is worse that an unbeliever. (Pr.6:6ff; 1 Tim.5:8). Thirdly we are not to despise, but rather to enjoy, the good things which our Creator has given us richly to enjoy (1 Tim.4:3,4; 6:17). So neither having possessions, nor making provision for the future, nor enjoying the gifts of a good Creator are included in the ban on earthly treasure-storage.
What then? What Jesus forbids his followers is the *selfish* accumulation of goods (NB ‘Do not lay up *for yourselves* treasures on earth’); extravagant and luxurious living; the hardheartedness which does not feel the colossal need of the world’s under-privileged people; the foolish fantasy that a person’s life consists in the abundance of his possessions (Lk.12:15); and the materialism that tethers our hearts to the earth. For the Sermon on the Mount repeatedly refers to ‘the heart’, and here Jesus declares that our heart always follows our treasure, whether down to earth or up to heaven (21). In a word to ‘lay up treasure on earth’ does not mean being provident (making sensible provision for the future) but being covetous (like misers who hoard and materialists who always want more). This is the real snare of which Jesus warns here. ‘Whenever the Gospel is taught’, wrote Luther, ‘and people seek to live according to it, there are two terrible plagues that always arise: false teachers who corrupt the teaching, and then Sir Greed, who obstructs right living’.
The earthly treasure we covet, Jesus reminds us, ‘grows rusty and moth-eaten, and thieves break in to steal it’ (NEB). The Greek word for ‘rust’ (*brosis*) actually means ‘eating’; it could refer to the corrosion caused by rust, but equally to any devouring pest or vermin. Thus in those days moths would get into people’s clothes, rats and mice eat the stored grain, worms take whatever they put underground, and thieves break into their home and steal what they kept there. Nothing was safe in the ancient world. And for us moderns, who try to protect our treasure by insecticides, rat poison, mouse-traps, rustproof paints and burglar alarms, it disintegrates instead through inflation or devaluation or an economic slump. Even if some of it lasts through life, we can take none of it with us to the next. Job was right: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return’ (Jb.1:21).
But ‘treasure in heaven’ is incorruptible. What is this? Jesus does not explain. Yet surely we may say that to ‘lay up treasure in heaven’ is to do anything on earth whose effects last for eternity. Jesus was certainly not teaching a doctrine of merit or a ‘treasury of merits’ (as the medieval Roman Catholic Church called it), as if we could accumulate by good deeds done on earth a kind of credit account in heaven on which we and others might draw, for such a grotesque notion contradicts the gospel of grace which Jesus and his apostles consistently taught. And in any case Jesus is addressing disciples who have already received the salvation of God. It seems rather to refer to such things as these: the development of Christlike character (since all we can take with us to heaven is ourselves); the increase of faith, hope and charity, all of which (Paul said) ‘abide’ (1 Cor.13:13); growth in the knowledge of Christ whom one day we shall see face to face; the active endeavour (by prayer and witness) to introduce others to Christ, so that they too may inherit eternal life; and the use of our money for Christian causes, which is the only investment whose dividends are everlasting.
All these are temporal activities with eternal consequences. This then is ‘treasure in heaven’. No burglar can steal this, and no vermin destroy it. For there are neither moths, nor mice, nor marauders in heaven. So treasure in heaven is secure. Precautionary measures to protect it are unnecessary. It needs no insurance cover. It is indestructible. Therefore, Jesus seems to be saying to us, ‘If it’s safe investment you are after, nothing could be safer than this; it’s the only guilt-edged security whose gilt will never tarnish’.
Tomorrow: Matthew 6:22-23. A question of vision.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.