Hearts, Treasures, ‘Afterlife’ and Lent (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 from the Lectionary Gospel Reading)


And now, we’re in the season of Lent. Today’s passage is Matthew 6:1-6 and 16-21, which was read on Ash Wednesday. I won’t be doing the passage read on Sunday because my first post was on that very passage. It will help if you read those passages to understand everything I’m referencing because that’s easier than wasting space quoting full chunks of the passage in this post. We get one of the most memorable quotes from Jesus in this passage: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And that’s what I want to focus on.

In Judaism this language of where the heart is was about what a person centered their life in. This is how Marcus Borg understands ‘faith’ in his Jesus: A New Vision. He sees faith as a matter of the heart, rather than intellectual belief. “Faith must mean something more than what the mind believes, namely a radical trust in God, a centering in God by the self at its deepest level.” He also notes that this “centering in God is the opposite of anxiety as well as the antidote to anxiety.” Shortly after this passage Jesus speaks of an anxiety tied to earthly possessions, saying “do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’”

This anxiety seems to be central to the hearts of the trumpet-blowing alms-givers and the hypocrites who pray for the streets to hear, and disfigure their faces so that others can know they’re fasting. They cling to temporary constructs of status and reputation so that they can receive a reward that’s just as temporary. This is what Jesus is referring to when he warns his listeners not to store up treasures on earth “where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.” Instead he advises to store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do no break in and steal.”

Sometimes we can read this verse about storing up treasures in heaven instead of earth and reduce it to this idea of doing a good deed and imagining a point being marked up for you in this heavenly realm somewhere else, waiting there for you to receive after you die. This idea runs the same way we understand working a specific amount of hours, knowing we’re going to see it on our future paycheck. We work overtime and think of the extra money that will be racked up later. However when we view the way of life that Jesus is presenting here this way then all we’re doing is waiting for this cosmic paycheck that we’ll receive when we die for all the work we did. This is not what Jesus was talking about.

The Jewish understanding of any type of afterlife that existed in Jesus’ time was of what the rabbis called Olam Ha-Ba (The World to Come). And it doesn’t necessarily mean a literal different world waiting somewhere else and arriving, but it’s referring to what this world will be like in the next age after this one. Actually in the Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament) any idea of there being more life after death didn’t develop until around the time of the exile, when God banished the Israelites from the Promised Land and handed them over to enemy nations. As a nation that spent most of the their existence being defeated, enslaved, exploited, and massacred throughout the centuries the prophets developed this idea of a day when God would restore it all. John Dominic Crossan refers to this idea as God’s “great clean-up of the world.” It’s a day when God raises everyone from the dead to judge all the nations and remove all forms of injustice and violence; in order to bring his reign of peace and prosperity.

There is no concept of leaving to some other realm somewhere else after you die in the Bible but what we read again and again is this expectation of God restoring, renewing and reconciling everything, and bringing his dwelling place among us; not to say that his dwelling place is somewhere else for now, but that the clouds of mystery that surround God will be removed, allowing us to fully experience that dwelling. This is what we mean by heaven. This is Olam Ha-Ba.

So how does one store up treasures in this World to Come? We do it by living as if we are already experiencing the World to Come. As Jesus said in the Lord’s Prayer “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” God is calling people to throw away the scorecards and to take up for yourselves the kind of life that God is bringing in this World to Come. If the purpose of God’s “great clean-up of the world” is to eradicate injustice and bring peace, then as God’s people this should be our purpose as well. We help create the kind of world that God would want to dwell by doing our part in bringing peace to the world.

This season of Lent is a season of reflection and self-denial, leading up to commemorating the ultimate self-denial of Jesus on the Cross on Good Friday. This kind of path takes courage and humility. It requires us to loosen our grips of temporary value and this is what we do when we give up things during this season. It’s important that we do not see the things we give up as necessarily wrong or evil, but in giving them up it reminds us of how we should hold these things. A tight grip on temporary valuables will get us nowhere. If we hold temporary valuables loosely however we are freed to throw ourselves into this path of Jesus: the path of living the World to Come and enacting the present reality of the kingdom of God. And I want to be able to center my heart on that.