Forsaking the World


Matthew 6:19-24

Text Comment

 

The section that follows really runs from v. 19 to the end of the chapter.  It is a connected argument.  But I am breaking it in two, as do the editors of your NIV because, though devoted to the same general theme, each section has a different emphasis.  It is interesting also that from this point on in the Sermon the contrast with the thinking and living of the Pharisee falls away and attention is devoted more immediately to the attitudes and the conduct of the Lord’s disciples and the “greater righteousness” that should and must characterize them.

v.19     The Bible has lots to say about the impermanence of wealth and the insecurity of this world’s possessions and pleasures.  Moth and rust are just illustrations of the many ways we may and finally must lose what we acquire of this world’s goods.  Actually it may be “rust” but the word used here is not the ordinary word for rust.  It may be better taken “decay” or “rot.”  They had thieves then as now and had fewer ways to protect their treasures and other assets:  There were banks, but no FDIC!  Many people stored their money in strong boxes that were kept in the safest room of the house or buried in the floor.  Excavations of large homes at Pompeii have uncovered strong-boxes containing small fortunes.  But, of course, the strong-box was no protection against Vesuvius!

v.20     “Treasures in heaven” are the rewards of a disciple who puts God first.  [France, 138] 

v.21     The Lord’s concern is not with your wealth but with your loyalty.  A wealthy man can be utterly devoted to the Lord’s cause and a poor man can be utterly indifferent to it.  The question is:  where is your treasure to be found?  What do you love?  What do you seek?  The pronouns are plural in vv. 19-20, but the “your” is singular in v. 21:  the application is direct and personal.  What about you?

v.23     This enigmatic statement has been taken in different ways.  But, in context, obviously, the “eyes” under discussion are to be understood metaphorically.  Jesus turns from the relative durability of the two treasures to the comparative benefit of the two conditions – loyalty to the world and money, on the one hand, or loyalty to him, on the other. “…the eye is a useful illustration of spiritual possibilities.”  [Morris, 154]  Almost everything we do depends upon the ability of the eye to see.  A sound eye then becomes a picture of having one’s heart in the right place.  In other words, as the ability of our eye to see affects our whole body, so our ambition affects our entire life. [Stott, 157]  A single-minded ambition to serve God throws bright light on all we do and directs us in the way in which we should go.  If the eye, which brings light to the body, is dark, however, how great is that darkness.  If your heart is set on the world, you will not see God or his will or the future at all.

v.24     Wealth is only the most conspicuous and obvious example of that which can distract from true discipleship.  Only the rarest of individuals can possess much of this world’s wealth without becoming entangled with it and enslaved to it.  The love of money cuts the nerve of true discipleship.  For that reason the Bible often warns us about the love of money.  But the heart can be turned from true loyalty to the Lord by other things as well, of course: desires for all kinds of things.  [Hagner, i, 160]  Some of those desires, such as the desire for recognition and praise, have already been mentioned in the Sermon.

It is the very nature of slavery that a slave is the property of a single owner and owes that owner absolute loyalty.  A slave cannot decide to give part of his time and part of his service to another master.  Once again the point is that the true disciple of Christ lives in undivided loyalty to the Lord.  He cannot delude himself into thinking that somehow he can have both the world and Christ.  “Who is not for me is against me” Jesus once said, and no one can be “for” the Lord who is a devoted servant of money.  As slavery involves an absolute commitment to a single master, so the Christian disciple must be absolutely committed to the will of his master.  Earthly success, earthly accumulation, earthly pleasure cannot be the aim of his activity.  [Morris, 152]   And that is because your heart always follows your treasure.  [Stott, 155]

Two notices involving India caught my attention this week.  The first was in a letter Charles Hodge, the great Princeton theologian of the 19th century, the greatest American Presbyterian theologian, wrote to his brother, a medical doctor.  He was giving him an account of an address he had heard the night before given by the distinguished Baptist missionary William Ward.  This was 1820 and Ward was closely connected with the pioneer missionary work of William Carey in India.

“We had the pleasure, last evening, of hearing Mr. Ward.  If you have heard him, you know he has little of the graces of elocution wherewith to adorn his discourse, but he has what is far more important even for an orator, a heart alive to the importance of the object for which he pleads.  After describing the difficulties they had met in India twenty years ago, he told us how all in a great measure had been surmounted. … The schools connected with Serampore alone contain eight thousand children.  One thousand of the natives have been baptized, and, as a profession of religion there involves a living martyrdom, we may hope they are sincere converts.  But what is above and beyond all is that they have given the Bible to hundreds of millions in twenty-five different languages.  This is good beyond all estimate.  I never felt the importance and grandeur of missionary labors as I did last evening.  I could not help looking round on the congregation and asking myself, ‘What are these people living for?’  Granting that each should attain his most elevated object, what would it all amount to?  Then looking at these men in India, giving the Bible to so many millions, which I know can never be in vain, I see them opening a perennial fountain, which, when they are dead for ages, will still afford eternal life to millions.  Should we die, which of our works would we wish to follow us?  Which would mark our path to the grave with a ray of light?

Hodge was impressed, as he should have been, by a man who so plainly had heard the Lord’s warning and taken it to heart and was laying up his treasures in heaven.  A man or woman gave up a lot to go to India in those days.  You very often exchanged a long life for a short one, an easy life for a very difficult one, a comfortable life for a dirty, very hot, and disease-ridden one.  But William Ward had a good eye and was seeing clearly how to live his life and Hodge was sure the Lord was stacking up Ward’s treasures like cordwood in some heavenly storeroom. 
This morning we prayed for the work of Alan Pritzlaff who is, as we speak, attempting to bring into Kazakhstan 26,000 thousand scriptures, which left by rail from Minsk a week ago and Alan hopes to receive in Almaty within the week, if they are not delayed at his end by bureaucratic regulations or a demand for a bribe.  That work of distributing the Bible by faithful Christians continues all over the world still today and often at great sacrifice.  No gets rich getting the Bible to people who have never had it!

That was one notice of India.  The other came most unexpectedly in reading a few pages of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation [104-107], another study of modern American consumer culture.  In this section of the book, Schlosser was dealing with Peter Lowe, a star in the galaxy of those quintessentially American preachers of salvation, the success seminar leaders.  You know the type:  they sell their books with their version of the secret of success, of making money, or of achieving personal fulfillment; they sell as well a series of tapes or DVDs with a more elaborate presentation of what is in the book; and they hold conventions, filling the great arenas of American cities with people eager to hear the rich and famous tell them how to become rich and famous themselves. 

Peter Lowe is the son of Anglican missionaries to Pakistan.  They had given up the material comforts of their life in Vancouver, British Columbia, to work with the poor.  Lowe, in fact, was born in Pakistan and was educated at the Woodstock School in Mussoorie, India.   That fact is what caught my attention.  I figured Peter Lowe must have been a contemporary of some of the children of our missionaries in India who studied at the same school.  Those who visit the Fiols in India typically make a trip up to Mussoorie, above Dehra Dun, and among the places they visit there is the Woodstock School.  Until recently Ginnie Strom, an MTW missionary, taught at Woodstock.  Our David Fiol, an alumnus of the school, is presently on the Board at Woodstock.  My mother and I have visited that school, so has Dale Woodard.

After Lowe returned to the United States he worked as a computer salesman.  But in 1984, with the vision of the true entrepreneur, he quit that job and organized his first “success seminar.”  Early on he scored a coup by getting Ronald Reagan to appear and speak at one of his “seminars.”  Other celebrities soon agreed to sign on and Lowe has never looked back.  He pays his celebrity speakers between $30,000 and $60,000 a speech, about a half-hour’s work.  Recent speakers include George and Barbara Bush, Oliver North, Barbara Walters, William Bennett, Colin Powell, Charlton Heston, Christopher Reeve, and Mario Cuomo.

When Peter Lowe himself speaks, as he always does at these conventions, he tells the audience to be cheerful, to train themselves for courage, to feed themselves with optimism and never quit.  He recommends that they buy his tape series, “Success Talk,” on sale at the arena, which promises a monthly interview with ‘one of the most successful people of our time,’ the sort of people, that is, who speak at his seminars.  But, he also tells the thousands sitting before him that Jesus is necessary to achieve success.  “Lord Jesus, I need you,” he asks the arena to pray.  Repeat after me: “I want you to come into my life and forgive me for the things I’ve done.”  Most of the time, however, he talks about networking as the key to success, the importance of giving gifts and praise to important people, and of adopting oneself the attitude of a superstar.  He seems rather clearly, in other words, to be encouraging them to love God and money at the same time!

Now I pick up Eric Schlosser’s account: “As the loudspeakers play the theme song from Chariots of Fire, Lowe wheels Christopher Reeve onstage.  The crowd wildly applauds.  Reeve’s handsome face is framed by longish gray hair.  A respirator tube extends from the back of his blue sweatshirt to a square box on his wheelchair.  Reeve describes how it once felt to lie in a hospital bed at two o’clock in the morning, alone and unable to move and thinking that daylight would never come.  His voice is clear and strong but he needs to pause for breath after every few words.  He thanks the crowd for its support and confesses that their warm response is one reason he appears at these events; it helps to keep his spirits up.  He donates the speaking fees to groups that conduct spinal cord research.

“‘I’ve had to leave the physical world,’ Reeve says.  A stillness falls upon the arena; the place is silent… ‘By the time I was twenty-four, I was making millions,’ he continues.  ‘I was pretty pleased with myself…I was selfish and neglected my family…Since my accident, I’ve been realizing…that success means something quite different.’  Members of the audience start to weep.  ‘I see people who achieve these conventional goals,’ he says in a mild, even tone.  ‘None of it matters.’

“His words cut through all the snake oil of the last few hours, calmly and with great precision.  Everybody in the arena, no matter how greedy or eager for promotion, all eighteen thousand of them, know deep in their hearts that what Reeve has just said is true – too true.  Their latest schemes, their plans to market and subdivide and franchise their way up, whatever the cost…vanish in an instant.  Moments after Reeve is wheeled off the stage, Jack Groppel, the next speaker, walks up to the microphone and starts his pitch, ‘Tell me friends, in your lifetime, have you ever been on a diet?’”  [106-107]  There is the recognition of the truth, but it is quickly forgotten.  It is the snake oil that fills the arena and sells the books and tapes, not the truth; the love of money, not the love of God!

You cannot serve both God and money.  You cannot have two treasures:  God and worldly success; heaven and this world; godliness and worldliness.  It has not kept vast multitudes from trying, but the Lord’s words are as true today as they were when he first uttered them.

Don’t underestimate the importance of our Savior’s warning about covetousness and the love of money and worldly things.  Worldliness is ever the most constant, subtle, and powerful enemy of your salvation and eternal life.  There are multitudes who imagine that they can serve God on Sundays for an hour or two and money for the rest of the week; or God with their lips and money with their hearts, or God in appearance and money in reality.  [Stott, 158]

As Luther once put it, “Whenever the Gospel is taught, and people seek to live according to it, there are two terrible plagues that always arise: false preachers who corrupt the teaching, and then Sir Greed, who obstructs right living.”  [in Stott, 155]  And remember: you don’t have to be rich or intend to be rich to love money – wanting to be rich is enough.

This love of money and of the world is a subtle danger because so constant, so powerful, yet so universally deplored.  Everyone knows that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.  Everyone will say that money cannot buy happiness.  Every religion in the world teaches its adherents that they cannot buy with money what they are truly looking for in life.  Every philosophy of any consequence has taught the same thing.  Seneca, the first century Stoic philosopher and moralist, said “It is not the one who has too little but the one who desires more who is poor.”  Well, that could be found in Proverbs or on the lips of Jesus himself.  Every person has heard and purports to agree that there are far more important things than money or power or fame or physical pleasures.  That is why the arena fell silent when Christopher Reeve spoke.  They all knew that what the paralyzed actor was telling them was nothing but the truth. 

But, nevertheless, despite the lip-service we pay to this truth, the love of money, the love of the world is everywhere to be found, the treasure of very many hearts, even the hearts of those who are very religious in certain ways.  In the Gospels the Pharisees are condemned largely for sins that were, in the main, spiritual.  They fasted twice a week, but did so in pride.  They prayed and they tithed faithfully but in a wrong spirit.  They worshiped God but imagined themselves righteous before him.  Nevertheless, the Lord also condemns them for covetousness.  We read in Luke 16:14, “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.”  It is very easy, as human life has proved in every age and every culture, to decry the love of money while worshipping money in your heart.  That is the Lord’s point.  Men want to worship both God and money; they imagine that somehow they can.  But each is a demanding master and each requires absolute loyalty and will have it.

But that is not the Lord’s only point.  There is something more that the Lord reminds us of here.  It is not only that money and other worldly attractions can easily become the idol even of people who ought to know better.  The fact is, even Christopher Reeve did not get it entirely right.  It is not only that family and love are far more important than money or worldly fame, as the Lord makes a point of saying here, and often elsewhere, life in this world must come to an end and, without heaven, without the blessing of God in your future, even the purest pleasures and the deepest joys of human life in this world must soon be left behind.  That too is a truism to which everyone pays lip-service.  Here is Shakespeare:

                                    “If thou art rich, thou art poor,
                        For like an ass whose back with ingots bows,
                        Thou bear’st thy heavy riches but a journey,
                        And death unloads thee.”

 

Here, however, the conventional wisdom of the world stops short of the hard truth that Jesus so often forces upon us.  In view of eternity, in view of the judgment day, in view of the reality of two very different destinies in the world to come, as Bernard of Clairvaux so memorably said, “There are no greater miseries than false joys.”  And joys that don’t last and that distracts us from eternity, of course, are the most false joys of all.  Dante has the same thought:  “No greater grief than to remember days of joy, when misery is at hand.” [Inferno, canto 5]  It is not only that one cannot take one’s money with him into the next world; the greater problem by far is that having loved money in this world, one has the wrath of God to face in the next.

But here our problem; here is everyone’s problem:  you cannot see that future.  You cannot see treasures in heaven, you cannot see the joys of those who have laid up their treasures there.  You cannot see the misery of those who loved money in this world and were not rich towards God. You cannot even really see the eventual loss of your own earthly treasures, though we should be able to see that better than we do.  Without faith, without confidence in the truth of what God has revealed to us, our eyes are bad and our whole body is full of darkness.  Only the Christian disciple, and only when his faith is at work, knows that the day is soon coming when he will regret every decision he ever made that was motivated by a love of money, or a love of this world and its pleasures and will be grateful beyond words for everything he did that was motivated by the love of God and Christ.

I know of a man, a Christian man, who was a very successful attorney.  He made a good deal of money.  But he came to the conviction that he should go to seminary.  He had enough money saved to pay for his seminary education and also to put his children through college and so he quit his law practice and moved to St. Louis to begin seminary studies.  He is now the janitor at one of our large PCA churches in St. Louis.  It is a job he has kept even though he has completed his seminary training because it permits him to serve as the director of a missionary agency providing eastern European countries with theological education.  The church he serves as a janitor provides him with office space for this new mission agency, run, as you might expect, on a shoestring.  It is a long way from a prestigious life as a high-priced attorney to the janitor’s closet at a church.  But you cannot read the Sermon on the Mount, you cannot hear our Savior say what he says here, without thinking that such is a journey many of the Lord’s disciples will make in one way or another.

I am not saying that you must go to India and work among the poor or give up your life of comfort to do some gospel work in order to store up your treasures in heaven.  But I am most definitely saying that you must absolutely understand why another Christian man did that, you must agree with his decision, you must carefully consider your own ways to be sure that the same motivations and the same absolute loyalty to the Lord is having the same kind of effect on you.  In a world given over to the love of money, we Christians are to be infidels.  The day is coming soon enough when worldly things will and must be left behind.  What treasures will you have stored up for yourselves in heaven when that day comes and how will it be clear to the Lord Christ that you had but one master in the world, and it was he?  What have you done that was akin to what the early missionaries to India did or to what this Christian lawyer did?  How is clear that you live by the same convictions they lived by and love without qualification the same master?

Remember, it is a not only a warning that the Lord gives us here.  It is a great encouragement as well.  Jesus is saying: “If it’s a safe investment you’re after, nothing could be safer than this; it’s the only gilt-edged security whose gilt will never tarnish.”  [Stott, 156]  But, it is even more than that.  The man or woman who lives for God, for God entirely, in this world, will find that already, here and now, already in this world where money and its pleasures are so accessible, so attractive, so beguiling, the Christian, the faith disciple of Christ will find that he has greater pure pleasure and enjoys deeper satisfaction from forsaking the love of money and laying up his treasures in heaven than anyone has ever got from power, pleasure, or money here and now.

            “Live while you live,” the Epicure would say,
            “And seize the pleasures of the present day.”
            “Live while you live,” the sacred preacher cries,
            “And give to God each moment as it flies.”
            “Lord, in my view let both united be;
            “I live in pleasure when I live to Thee.”
                        [Philip Doddridge]