Last week we talked about the lost art of seeing heaven. Looking at Matthew 6:1 we focussed on why we find it easier to practice our righteousness ‘in front of others to be seen by them’, than it is to look for ‘reward from [our] father in heaven’.
This week we’re going to take a look at another passage in this same chapter of Matthew and talk further about heaven—but also about money.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (6:19-24)
We need to start by re-emphasizing a point that we made last week: heaven is not where we go when we die; heaven is God’s dimension of the world that we live in. We must avoid the temptation of thinking of earth as here and heaven as there in any kind of physical sense. If we don’t grasp this, we will fail to fully appreciate so much of what the New Testament teaches—not least this passage we’re looking at today.
Tom Wright, the New Testament scholar, offers a helpful explanation in his For Everyone commentary series on the book of Matthew:
As with other references to heaven and earth, we shouldn’t imagine [Jesus] means ‘don’t worry about this life - get ready for the next one’. ‘Heaven’ here is where God is right now, and where, if you learn to love and serve God right now, you will have treasure in the present, not just in the future. Of course Jesus (like almost all Jews of his day) believed that after death God would have a wonderful future in store for his faithful people; but they didn’t normally refer to that future as ‘heaven’. He wanted his followers to establish heavenly treasure right now, treasure which they could enjoy in the present as well as the future, treasure that wasn’t subject to the problems that face all earthly hoards. How can one do this? Learn to live in the presence of the loving father. Learn to do everything for him and him alone. Get your priorities right.
The next section in the passage we’re focussing on today helps to shed some light on what it means to get our priorities right. This is one of the trickier sections of Jesus’ teaching to understand. What on earth does Jesus mean by healthy and unhealthy eyes? The key to figuring out what Jesus meant is to actually do a bit of research into how the Jews in Jesus’ day would have heard this saying. And the Jews would have heard loud and clear what Jesus meant.
Let’s start by including the the translation David Stern offers in his ‘Complete Jewish Bible’:
So if you have a ‘good eye’ your whole body will be full of light; but if you have an ‘evil eye’ your whole body will be full of darkness.
Instead of healthy and unhealthy eyes as translated in the NIV, Sterne refers to a good and evil eye. And that matters. The phases ‘good eye’ and ‘evil eye’ had very clear and specific meanings to the Jews in Jesus’ day. To have a good eye meant that you were generous; to have an evil eye meant that you were stingy.
So, let’s re-read the whole section, but update the NIV version to include the meaning:
The eye is the lamp of the body. If you are generous, your whole body will be full of light. But if you are stingy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
Having a good, healthy eye is about seeing the needs of those around and being generous in our giving towards meeting those needs. Having an evil, unhealthy eye means that we are blind to the needs around us and are greedy and self-centred.
Lois Tverberg expands on this in her book ‘Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus’:
Why is a person’s “eye” toward others so critical to Jesus? Because our relationship with money reveals our relationship with God. To have a “bad eye” is to cling to the little that you have, resenting those with more and refusing to help those with less. Your attitude shows how convinced you are that God is stingy, that he is either unwilling or unable to care for you. And it reveals how disconnected you are from the struggles of others. No wonder Jesus says that life becomes dark indeed when you’ve cut yourself off from both God and those around you.
On the other hand, if you’re radically convinced of God’s caring presence in your life, you’re also confident that God will provide for your needs — not just materially, but emotionally and spiritually as well. You may not be wealthy by the world’s standard, but you have a rock-solid understanding that what you have is enough, that ultimately your own situation is secure. The fruit is a generous attitude, a “good eye” toward others. How can your life not brighten when you think this way?
Shedding this light on having a good and evil eye immediately makes this section fit perfectly with the prior and subsequent sections where Jesus talks about treasure in heaven, and then not being able to serve God and money. All three sections in this short passage are about our attitudes towards money, material possessions, God, and others.
In essence, Jesus is challenging all of us who would listen to live lives that are God and other-focussed, lives that look for the reward - the treasure - from heaven rather than than from earth. He is calling us to be generous and other-centred rather than stingy and self-centred. And he warns us that the choice we face is either/or, not both/and. We can’t be generous and stingy, we can’t be other-centred and self-centred, and we can’t serve God and money. We must choose.
Let’s choose to rediscover the art of storing up treasure in heaven.
I was reading through a few sections of Matthew’s Gospel this morning when this statement from Jesus jumped out to me:
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. (6:1)
It stood out to me because not many people—myself included—obey this! The truth is nearly all of us want to receive immediate and tangible recognition for when we do good things.
This is natural. Anyone with kids knows that your child isn’t very old before they’re constantly saying, ‘look at me’, for every new thing they start to do.
We crave appreciation. We long to be seen and to be noticed. The thought of doing something amazing and it not being noticed affects us to the point that we might never even attempt some feats if it were not going to be seen.
But Jesus isn’t saying that it’s wrong to crave this attention per se; he’s saying that we need to change the audience we look for that recognition from. Instead of seeking the attention and applause of those around us, we are to seek the eyes and ears of our ’father in heaven’.
The problem we have with this is that most of us can’t see the father. Neither can we see heaven. If our friend says, ‘well done’, it’s something we can feel immediately. Getting that reward from the father instead doesn’t seem real.
This betrays a major problem all too many of us struggle with: we have lost the ability—if we ever had it—to see the other, heavenly dimension—God’s dimension —to the world we live in. We see only what we can see with our physical eyes; we hear only what we can hear with our physical ears.
It is because we have lost the ability to see heaven that we seek the applause of those around us.
Heaven you see is not somewhere we go when we die; heaven is another dimension to this world that we live in. There are so many distractions in our physical, material world that we all too many of us have become blinded to this other dimension.
Heaven is real. It’s just as real as the physical realm we so easily sense. But our seeking of applause and recognition from those around us highlights the fact that we don’t ’see’ heaven. We might believe in it intellectually, but we don’t experience it in any true sense. Our behaviour betrays us.
The challenge for us all is to regain this lost art of seeing heaven; of seeing the other dimension that’s right there, just hiding behind a thin veil waiting to be discovered. We need eyes to see and ear to hear.
All too many of us have an intellectual faith in God rather than an experiential one. We believe the doctrines of the Christian faith, but we don’t know God. We believe we’ll go to heaven when we die, but we can’t see heaven’s dimension hear and now.
How do we change this? How can we learn to see both the physical and heavenly realities that both surround us? How can we develop a connection with the father so deep that it feels more natural to seek his applause than that of those around us?
When we look at the life of Jesus—the one guy who better than anyone brought heaven and earth together in his everyday life—we see someone who was a real man of prayer. He didn’t just say prayers or prayerful sounding words. He talked with the father. Early in the morning, during the day, late at night. His whole life emerged out of a life of prayer.
For Jesus, prayer wasn’t about endlessly making requests for his needs to be met; it was about hearing from the father. We too need to seek a life of prayer that is communion with God rather than reading out a list of things we want God to do for us.
Prayer should be about connecting to God, getting his perspective, hearing what he’s saying, seeing what he sees. It’s about slowing down and seeing God’s dimension to the world around us. It’s about seeing heaven. And it’s about asking that what we see in heaven would come to pass in or physical world.
So why don’t we take this opportunity today to seek the father afresh in prayer? Why don’t we ask that he would give us eyes to see and ears to hear the realities of heaven that are currently hidden from us?
As Jesus himself said just a short while after the statement quoted earlier:
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (7:7)
Ok, I admit it. I sometimes mock some of the modern day contemporary worship music used in churches as being ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ songs. There’s a whole genre of lovey dovey, romantic feeling Christian songs that I find a bit too much.
It is romanticising of our faith that I want to talk a little bit about today. And it stems from close to twenty years of observing Christians.
Over the years I have come across countless passionate (in the feelings sense of the word) Christians. They felt like they were ‘in love’ with God and wanted their whole lives to be about Jesus. And now? Many of them have completely left it behind. Their feelings never led to a true commitment and loyalty.
I used ‘in love’ very deliberately before. I think there are real parallels to people following Jesus and to people falling in love and getting married.
Anyone who has been in a relationship that has lasted more than a couple of years will know that the intense ‘in love’ feelings don’t remain the same forever. It doesn’t mean there’s no more romance—perish the thought!—it simply means that the dynamic of the relationship evolves and adapts. It has to if it is to last.
Passion must be joined by devotion; romance has to be supported by commitment.
Love is both a feeling and a choice. There are times when our feelings will make the choice feel easy. And there are times when our choice will sustain us through occasions when feelings aren’t so strong. A long-term relationship will only last with both these pieces in play.
The same goes for a relationship with God.
I worry that some parts of the church promote a teenage dating approach to raising disciples of Jesus. We champion feelings; we encourage emotion; we foster passion. We focus on crafting experiences and ‘moments’ for people.
And that’s great. Really great. But it’s not enough. Feelings, emotion, and passion are enough only if a teenage fling is all you want. But if it’s a life-long relationship that you’re after, further ingredients are required.
I’ve seen far too many friends drift away from God over the years because they only ever had a teenage fling with God and never added the ingredients to build a life-long marriage commitment. They were captivated by the experience of church—for some it was the music, for others the supernatural, and others still the preacher—but all too many had no roots beyond those experiential elements.
There was nothing to sustain them when the feelings dipped, when the music no longer tickled their fancy, when the pastor turned out not to be perfect. In short, they had experienced the feelings of being ‘in love’ with God, but had never made the—very hard—choice to be loyal to God.
The challenge for those of us who are committed to making disciples is this: what kind of disciples are we making? Are we making disciples who are seduced only by the excitement of church? Or are we making disciples who are devoted to the costly cause of Christ?
Does how we do church foster the kind of Christ-followers who come quickly today but leave just as fast tomorrow? Or do we foster the kind of disciples who come slowly, truly weigh up the cost, and make a life-long commitment to Christ?
The numbers game that is played all over the church world sadly pushes us to embrace the quick over the sustainable. Because we’ve been told that a successful church is one where the numbers are rising rapidly, we end up taking shortcuts. It’s more about getting people in seats than mobilising disciples of Jesus for mission.
We need to change this.
To be clear, I am not saying that we shouldn’t have great music in churches. Nor am I saying that we shouldn’t promote an emotional and experiential dimension to a relationship with God. Not at all. To all these things I say: yes, yes, yes! But with one caveat: those things are not enough.
So my hope with this article is to encourage people to embrace the full reality of what a disciple of Jesus is. I want people to have all the ingredients in place to build a sustainable, life-long walk with God.
And I want to offer a warning to those of us who lead churches: let’s make sure the environment we create in our churches fosters true, life-long discipleship and not short-term teenage flings with God. The future of humanity depends of Christ-followers who will give up their lives for the cause of Christ.
Paul, the apostle, writing in his letter to the Philippians:
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me. (1:21-26)
At Mosaic, the community of faith I help lead here in Sheffield, we are in the middle of a series of talks and conversations around the themes of passion and discipleship. We’re exploring what our unique passions, talents, strengths, and skills are and seeing how we can put them in service of our shared mission to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’, as instructed by Jesus of Nazareth.
This last Sunday I gave a short talk and led a discussion looking at what discipleship really is. In preparing for that time I found myself drawn to the passage I’ve quoted above. It struck me that, in those few short verses, we in many ways see the essence of discipleship. We see in Paul, a fully-fledged disciple of Jesus, someone who’s life now completely embodied the two sides of discipleship: being a disciple, and being a disciple maker.
It is readily apparent that Paul’s relationship with Christ was so real and strong and intimate that he genuinely and truly desired to go and be with Jesus. He loved his master. He had devoted his life to knowing and serving the person of Jesus. And his relationship was so strong that, if he could, he would love to leave and be with Christ.
How many of us can say the same? Is our relationship with Jesus that real, that living? Do we want to go and be with Christ, or are we caught up in the things of this world and really not that bothered?
I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t enjoy the things of this world. Not at all. I’m simply saying that, in Paul, we see someone who was so captivated by the person of Jesus that he would truly have loved to go and be with him there and then.
So the question isn’t whether we should or shouldn’t enjoy the things of this world (I think we should); it is whether we are enjoying those things more than Christ and whether those things have distracted us from having a deep and meaningful connection with him.
Having said that Paul so clearly wanted to go and be with has master, we then see though that his desire to remain on earth was even greater. But not so that he could enjoy the things of the world (again, not that that’s wrong and doesn’t have its place). The reason Paul wanted to remain was because of his love and devotion to the people he felt called - by Jesus - to serve and disciple.
Paul’s commitment to the cause of Christ was so embedded into who he was that he’d rather stay and influence others with the hope of Christ than go and spend eternity with Christ (even though he’d, of course, eventually get to do that).
This really highlights the essence of discipleship. We should seek to be so intimately connected to Christ that we really would love to be with him and yet, at the same time, be so motivated by the cause of Christ that we see that as our primary reason for being on earth.
I should add that I am by no means at the same point that Paul is. I’d be lying if I said I could echo Paul’s ‘to live is Christ, to die is gain’, sentiment. But in reflecting afresh on discipleship, I’m motivated once more to pursue that place that Paul reached.
Any book with the word ‘apologetics’ in the title is not one I’m usually drawn to. If you were to ask me why, I’m not sure I could give you a completely satisfactory answer. I guess I associate it with an excessively defensive approach to the Christian faith coupled with an over-emphasis on faith as being something that is primarily or solely built on an intellectual foundation.
Of course, I recognise the need to defend the Christian faith from false interpretations and I also recognise that there is - and should always be - a healthy intellectual foundation to our faith. But there is so much more to faith than these two aspects and because of my view of apologetics being too deeply attached to just these aspects, I’ve never found apologetics to be a particularly inspiring subject.
It took a blog post by Scot McKnight to draw my attention to a new book by Alistair McGrath and lead me to want to read it.
I downloaded a copy to my iPad last week and have been making my way through it. I still have some way to go, but I’ve found it a really enjoyable and insightful read so far. And it has undoubtedly given me a greater appreciation for the role of apologetics and has deepened my understanding of what - at its best - it is truly about.
If I was to summarise my understanding of apologetics now, I would probably say that it is about clearing out the clutter and barriers that can be hinderances to people finding faith and encountering God. These may be intellectual barriers, but they are not necessarily so. I find this broader take on apologetics much more appealing and I can appreciate the need to be equipped to be able to do this well.
It was helpful too to see how McGrath doesn’t try and suggest that there is a simple array of truths that we should impress upon everyone. Everyone is unique and has there own questions and obstacles that can hold them back from discovering God. As followers of Christ we need to listen and learn and respond accordingly. And, of course, this is abundantly clear from the Book of Acts in the New Testament. The way Peter addressed the Jews was very different from how Paul addressed the Greeks.
All in all, I think there is much that would benefit many in this book. It’s not rocket science, but I’m finding it a helpful and thought-provoking read. And for those in particular who are wondering how best to respond to some of the challenges of the so called ‘new atheism’, there are some helpful thoughts on that front too.