Read the passage here.
Our passage today continues our study of the sermon on the mount which is part of our study of the gospel of Matthew. Now if you recall, we briefly discussed the first few verses of today’s passage last time. Our passage last time was about hypocrisy – practicing your righteousness in front of others instead of for or to God. In particular, we talked about the notion of rewards and how the religious leaders (in particular) were seeking earthly rewards (power, position, status) instead of kingdom rewards. And we looked at the first few verses of today’s passage as it relates to this idea of rewards.
So looking at our these verses today, let’s take a look at the structure. And by that, I simply mean that there seem to be two main sections in today’s passage. The first is verses 19-24 – which talk about “treasures in heaven.” The second section is verses 25 – 34 which the NIV titles “Do not worry.” So what we’re going to do is take a look at the two sections and then consider how they’re related to one another – or talk about how they’re addressing a related issue.
If we take a look at the first part of our passage, we see that it contains three related, but distinct, images:
- Treasures on earth vs. treasures in heaven (this recalls us back to the conversation about rewards).
- Then we get the example of healthy eyes vs. unhealthy eyes.
- And finally, we get a discussion about the attempting to serve two masters – Jesus telling us that this is impossible.
So, in other words, what we are seeing seems to be another set of antitheses (or contrasts), similar in function to the whole “You have heard that it has been said…” conversation that we looked at previously. Which isn’t to say that the passages are the same, merely that they share a similarity. That is, what Jesus seems to be doing in the sermon on the mount is describing the life of the kingdom and one of the ways he does this is by setting the kingdom life against the ways of the world (even including the religious leaders in this).
So I just want to note a few brief considerations about these verses. Firstly, regarding treasures on earth vs. treasures in heaven. Typically, I think we tend to understand this as present treasures vs. future treasures (I only think this – I don’t actually know how most people read these verses). However, what I would suggest is that this is based on a particular understanding of Jesus’ use of the term, “heaven.” In short, our twenty-first century, western understanding of heaven is still largely influenced by Dante Alighieri, specifically, the Divine Comedy and John Milton and Paradise Lost. Of course, this is a generalization, but our imagery can often be traced back to these sources.
In short, in western imagination, we tend to understand the use of the term heaven as denoting a place and time – and in particular, we think of it as the far-off future where we will eventually dwell. But in the biblical imagination, or at least in Matthew, heaven has more connection to the idea of a realm or a rule. Remember that, unlike Mark and Luke who tend to use the term “kingdom of God,” Matthew tends to prefer the phrase, “Kingdom of heaven.”
In other words, heaven or the kingdom of heaven is not about where we will wind up, but about where God reigns. So when Jesus exhorts us to store up treasures in heaven as opposed to treasures on earth, he’s probably not making a statement about future vs. present, he’s making a statement about how our hearts are oriented. Are we heaven-oriented or earthly-oriented?
Secondly, Jesus gives us this illustration of healthy vs. unhealthy eyes. I think this is one of the more difficult illustrations and possibly because we in the twenty-first century have a different framework for understanding how eyes work than did people in the ancient near east. I don’t want to get too distracted by this, but John Nolland (NIGTC) notes that ancient peoples had a more dynamic understanding of the function of eyes. They believed that light came from, or was produced by, the eyes which interacted with the light from the world. Now this is the only reference that I found about this sort of understanding about how eyes operate (though I didn’t look). And commentaries seem to have difficulty agreeing on how this image functions in the text.
But overall, I think we can understand the sense that congruence matters. Whether eyes function as a source or a receptacle of light, what is inside must match what is outside. If we fill ourselves with darkness, we cannot expect to be full of light. If we are full of darkness, we cannot expect light to shine out.
The third image Jesus gives has to do with competing masters. Again, this I think is a pretty straightforward image that doesn’t need a lot of explaining. The mention of money, or Mammon, I think serves as an example that is concrete and challenging to his listeners – it’s a universal worry and temptation. But I don’t think it’s meant to be comprehensive or exclusive – that is, Jesus isn’t only concerned about the love of money.
So overall, taking these three images together, Jesus paints a picture of the importance of congruence (as we’ve already said) – if a thing matters, then our lives should demonstrate that the thing matters. If we seek first the kingdom, then it should be the kingdom that we should be seeking.
From here, in the second part of our passage today, Jesus tells his listeners (and us) not to worry. The connection with the previous verses is indicated by the use of “therefore,” but I’m not sure it’s obvious how it’s related. The more obvious relationship would seem to be with the immediately preceding example of serving God vs. serving Mammon (or seeking money). But I tend to think that the relationship is actually with the entire preceding section.
What Jesus tells us in this passage is that we shouldn’t worry about the basic necessities of life: Food and drink, and clothing. The reason that Jesus gives is that God cares for the smallest of things, why wouldn’t He also care for you (by implication, a much more precious thing). This is all pretty straightforward (right?).
For me, I think the crux of the matter comes in verses 31-32:
31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.Matthew 6:31-32
And it seems to me that Jesus is introducing another antithesis here. The antithesis (or contrast) is between pagans who do not know God, YHWH, and people who trust in God.
And what is it that the pagans do? Pagans is a broad term, but generally speaking, people of that society would have had a number of gods that they worshipped. And each of these gods would have had particular areas of influence like weather, crops, war, or whatever. And sacrifices would be offered to the various gods in order to ensure that you would get whatever it is that you wanted or whatever it was that you needed.
In contrast, Jesus is presenting YHWH as one who merely gives. God gives, not because we’ve convinced Him to do so, but because this is His creation and He provides for everything and everyone in His care.
So the contrast Jesus is presenting, using pagans as an example, is between those who know that God is king, and those who do not. If God is not king, then we are constantly chasing after other gods, lesser gods. We are constantly worrying about what we have to do or who we have to placate in order to get the things we need. If God is not king, then there is no one in control and we are, indeed, worrying about ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ or “What do I have?”, “Who loves me?”, or “What will become of me?”
And we can live in that world. In some respect we do live in that world. It’s the world all around us telling us all of the things we have to think about and worry about in order to make a life for ourselves. It’s the world that says that if we don’t chase after these things, then we won’t have these things, and if we don’t have these things, what even is life?
But the ministry of Jesus is to announce that the kingdom has come. In Jesus, we find that the king has arrived. And everything we thought made up life – all of the things that we thought were important or necessities – fall away in the light of the king. In Jesus, we discover that we are not left to our own devices, we are not left to fend for ourselves, but there is one who is in control, one who is Lord over all, and most importantly, one who loves us.
So, I think both of these passages – the one talking about divided priorities and the one encouraging us not to worry – function in the same, or at least a similar and related, way. And they function in a way that is similar to what we’ve seen so far in the sermon on the mount. That is, of what kingdom do you want to be a part?
One of the challenges of living in our world today is that life is so fragmented. We have so many things going on, so many demands on our time and energy, so many priorities that conflict or, at the very least don’t seem to have much to do with one another, that we are constantly pulled in a hundred different directions at once.
We have work responsibilities, family responsibilities, responsibilities to whatever clubs we may belong to, social responsibilities, responsibilities for our retirement …
We want to make sure we have enough money, we want to make sure we have enough health, we want to be loved, we want safety and security, we want reputation, we want respect, and we want purpose
And we’re all part of a variety of different world, cultures, or circles that tell us how we’re supposed to achieve any or all of these things. We’re part of work communities, professional communities, family and cultural communities… We may be part of an online community or multiple communities, we may be part of a recreational communities, we may be part of a political community. And all of those communities have sub-communities with their own particular sub-culture. Each of these things tell us what matters and what should matter.
And, hopefully, we’re part of the kingdom community.
And each day, in every moment, we wrestle with how to navigate all of these different responsibilities, priorities, communities, and values.
Jesus is telling us to seek after just one thing. Jesus is telling us to seek after the one kingdom. Because, despite what we constantly hear from the world around us, there is only one king.
And as we discover, as we attend to the Word, as we immerse ourselves in the biblical story, and as we seek first the King and His Kingdom, all other things fall in place under the King. All things that are true, noble, pure, lovely, and admirable – everything that is excellent or praiseworthy – flow from His reign.
Which isn’t to say that we should expect life to be easy. It isn’t to say that we won’t face challenges or that we will get everything that we think we want.
But I venture to say that if we seek first the King and His Kingdom, because of His unfailing love and mercy, He is exactly what we will get.