These two famous verses from the Sermon on the Mount belong to a homily on resource management. In all likelihood, Jesus would have endorsed the cliché, “Time is money.” Each man has been allotted twenty-four hours in a day, and with these precious few hours, he may choose to amass and hoard wealth, and if he is fortunate, retire in good health and spend it for a brief time. Or he may choose radical obedience to God’s redemptive agenda and place himself, his time and money at God’s disposal.
Jesus’ exhortation to lay up treasure in heaven challenges the rich to put their wealth in perspective. It also challenges the common wage earner, who has become ensnared in the pursuit of riches, to reorder his priorities. And for the poor, laying up treasure in heaven remains a boon, because God has rated it a wise investment.
Jesus’ homily draws inspiration both from the biblical text and the important strides forward which Jewish faith and piety had made in the late Second Temple period. From Scripture Jesus tapped Psalm 39:
Man walks about like a shadow, the hustle and bustle is in vain; he amasses wealth, but does not know who will eventually collect it…. With reproofs for iniquity, you discipline man, and you consume like a moth what he holds dear. (Ps. 39:6, 11)
One is also reminded of what the Preacher said:
As a man exits his mother’s womb, naked he will be again when he departs, just as when he came, and through his toil he will gain no benefit which he can take with him. (Eccl. 5:15)
Elsewhere, the Psalmist boldly proclaimed: “The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains.” This verse impressed the rabbis, the spiritual heirs of the Pharisees. Following the Psalmist’s lead, they taught that any person who derives benefit from the earth without first giving thanks to God is a thief. The implication of this comment is simply that man plays the role of a custodian. God owns everything in the world, and to us he has delegated its management, including the distribution of its resources.
When Rome ruled the Mediterranean world, her subjects enjoyed the art of telling fables. Jesus (cf. Luke 12:16-20) and the rabbis after him were no exceptions. The rabbis had heard and repeated to their audiences the famous fable about the famished fox, which slipped through a narrow hole into a vineyard. After dining sumptuously, the fox attempted to exit by the same way he had entered, but discovered he could not until he had once again become lean from hunger.
Rabbi Meir made the same point with a more authentically Jewish approach:
When a person enters the world both hands are clenched tight, as if to say, “The whole world belongs to me.” But when he departs from the world, both hands remain open, as if to say, “I have inherited nothing from the world.”
In light of the fact that a person enters and departs the world stripped of material gain and that while walking the earth he merely fulfills the role of a steward and not the owner of his riches, wisdom dictates that he manage his wealth in a way that pleases God.
A final factor in the equation is Proverbs 19:17: “He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done.” This verse contains the final ingredient for inspiring the concept of laying up treasure in heaven. Like Isaiah 57:15, 58:6-10 and Psalm 34:18, this proverb establishes a close identification of God with the poor. To be merciful and beneficent to the poor is to lend to God. Will God repay the kindness? By all means! God will reward those who act charitably toward the poor. In essence, this constitutes laying up treasure in heaven.
Looking backward in time, we can see that Jesus’ teaching on laying up treasure in heaven stands in harmony alongside traditional Jewish thinking on the same subject. Moreover, Jesus did not coin the expression “laying up treasure in heaven.” More than a century before the Christian era, Ben Sirach penned these words:
Lose your silver for the sake of a brother or a friend, and do not let it rust under a stone and be lost. Lay up your treasure according to the commandments of the Most High, and it will profit you more than gold. Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from all affliction. (Sirach 29:10-12)
Jesus’ homily, which has been preserved in Matthew 6:19-24, contributes a small but priceless piece to a larger canvas—stewardship in the faith and piety of late Second Temple-period Judaism.
In our day, the 20th-century disciple of Jesus feels the challenge of his call to lay up treasure in heaven more than ever. In the face of an emerging global society drunken with consumerism and materialism, Jesus’ words shatter the silence: “You cannot serve God and mammon!”