Here it is:
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
So, like many older people I’ve got some savings in the bank, which I won’t spend because they are to be kept to pay for any care which my wife and I may need before we get the last bus. There is no doubt that is this respect the state is finding it increasingly difficult to provide, even in this blessed land of Scotland where free personal care is promised to those who need it. It seems obvious to me therefore that those who are able to do so, should put as much of their own money as possible into making provision for themselves. I realise also that I wouldn’t have as much saved as I do, were it not for a legacy from my late uncle.
There it is, in the bank, earning hardly any interest, kept safe for a rainy day. I am in no way obsessed with it, but as a naturally anxious person, with a strong desire to look after my wife, it comforts me. Yes, I know this is a comfort that many people cannot enjoy, and I am committed politically to a more equal society, but I feel justified in holding on to this loot.
Now here comes Jesus talking about how God will give me his kingdom, whatever that is, and I’ll have treasure in heaven! I do wish he’d been more careful about promises which seem to have no factual basis! What about the genuinely poor Christian pensioners who have to choose between heating and food? Does treasure in heaven do them much good, as they starve and shiver?
But when I start protesting that my heart bleeds for these victims of our system, Jesus tells me that actually my heart is where my treasure is: heart and treasure, go together. He suggests that my “heartfelt” concern for the poor is hogwash, and that my commitment to God’s kingdom of justice, is vitiated by my commitment to comfort in old age. Of course I want to say that it all depends on my attitude to our savings. I am not a mean spirited person, but rather generous to people in need from the Big Issue seller outside the supermarket, to a slew of local and international charities. The things I love are not material, but social, like The Green Party, cultural, like poetry, natural, like mountains and spiritual, like the church. Jesus doesn’t argue with all that, but simply repeats that where my treasure is, there my heart will be also.
I protest that politics, art, and mountains, not to mention my church community, are my treasures. Jesus just asks, “And your savings, they’re not treasure and your heart is not with them?” Then I say he’s being unreasonable for I can truly say that I would much prefer to pay more tax so that the state could provide properly for all elderly people including us. “Ah yes, “ he says, ‘but we cannot wait until the state becomes just. We can build communities of heaven within the world as it is. That’s what I asked my disciples to do, and they did it. I don’t like telling you to read the Bible, but try Acts chapter 2, for a description of a church where nobody went without, because everybody shared. Whose fault is it that you cannot trust your church to do the same?”
I realise that Jesus was always more concerned with the possession of wealth, than with the attitudes people said they had towards it. This is so different from any other view of wealth, that I can be confident few of my fellow believers will condemn me for my old-age savings. Still, it niggles, as perhaps Jesus meant it to do:
Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also.
Don’t let it niggle you. This is definitely one of the worst things Jesus spoke – or is alleged to have spoken. I grow more and more confused each day trying to figure out what came genuinely out of his mouth or was put into his mouth by the evangelists and the early church. It sounds so spiritual and idealistic, especially as it will help the poor of the earth, but I think it’s a perfect example of why Marx called religion the opium of the people. Promises of heaven easily lead to the exploitation of people. Just look at Trump’s America, where the evangelicals and their promises of heaven keep even the poor voting to the party and president that least care for their health and their wellbeing. In the most impoverished parts of the United States people wait in line all night or even days to receive free care from medical groups that travel and set up tents in the poorest areas. Guess what political party is usually the governing party in those areas. And even more sadly, guess who those people waiting all night or days to receive some medical attention vote for. Yes, Donald Trump and the Republicans. Why? Because they are enthralled with the religious cover that Trump and the Republicans have draped over themselves. Yes, religion is the opium of the people in vast areas of the United States. So I don’t let some words of Jesus niggle at my conscience. Psalm 73 is a good example of opium that keeps people from questioning too much.
In fact I think it one of the most shrewd and beautiful of Jesus’ sayings. Remember that when Jesus refers to “heaven” it is the “Rule of Heaven” that is of God, who desires justice and peace, especially for the poor. To find one’s treasure there is certainly not an avoidance of conflict. The idealised picture of the early church in Acts 2 and 4, is of an assembly whose treasure is in (kingdom of) heaven, so that nobody is left in poverty.
Great response. But I don’t think you can spiritualise the saying so easily. In most instances Jesus spoke of the basileia ton ouranon – kingdom or rule of the heavens. Plural heavens, not singular heaven. Does the plural make it easier for your interpretation? Also, about half of the references to the basileia ton ouranon include forms of the verb eiserhomai, to enter. I still think that Marx was right.
Well, yes, I think Marx was right in his analysis of “religion” but as you know I follow Bonhoeffer in denying that true faith in Christ is a religion. I also think that Jesus was against any religious or spiritualised view of heaven or heavens. For him they meant the rule of his father God, whether in the divine sphere or on earth. As in the expansion of “your kingdom come” into “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” For him earth and heaven were not yet one, although in the world to come, they would be. His language about heaven(s) is always concrete and material, never religious or spiritualised. My great teacher, Professor William Barclay taught me that there was no significant difference between singular and plural in the phrase “kingdom of heaven/ heavens although obviously the latter on its own retains its primary reference to the skies.
I’m not sure either, why you think of heaven as “spiritual”; even at its worst, the mainstream church depicted it as thoroughly material, with gold and gems and fountains and trumpets. The poor were not asked to forgo riches, just to wait. I agree this theology is an abuse, but it is thoroughly materialistic. Many current forms of alt right religion teach the poor that faith will bring material rewards in this life.
But Jesus words also mean, “if your treasure is in justice and peace, your heart will be there also.” Is that not true of you, my friend?
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An even better response! You leave me speechless.
Thanks as always for making me think
Good read! What I take from this, and especially your last paragraph, is that challenging us to evaluate our existing attitudes is the key. When I talk about the zen koans where the teacher chides the student for relying on thought, we can’t conclude that the answer is to have no thoughts, as that is impossible. But we can pay attention to the way we relate to the thoughts we have, and how much we rely on them and fail to examine the role they play.
Yes, I often find Zen difficult because I don’t know the great Buddhist truths that the Zen master is wanting his students not to re-ify. Even good thoughts are not to be possessed or to be possessed by. Even Christ’s thoughts, in my case. Thanks.
Perhaps quixotically, it’s that, given impermanence, it’s a mistake to reify anything, including the idea of ‘Buddhist truths’.
If you want a longer version of that, I think it may emerge from this post: https://shundo.org/2018/10/20/the-emptiness-of-emptiness/
Sure, but if I take a teaching from my tradition, say, Love your neighbour as yourself, I can turn it into a divine command by which I shall be judged, of a philosophy of altruism that fills many books, or I can know it as impermanent words of an impermanent person, and just act upon them, because I want to. The teachings are empty, but empty and marvellous