Philippe Silberzahn, writing about the work of Arnold J. Toynbee, a historian who studied the rise and fall of civilisations:
A civilization flourishes when it motivates insiders and attracts outsiders with its creative dynamism and culture. The civilization breaks down when its leadership loses this creative capacity and gives way to, or transforms itself into, a dominant minority. When this happens, the driver of the civilization becomes control, not attraction. And it’s precisely this switch from attraction to control that is the source of the breakdown. Interestingly, Toynbee says that the consequences may not be immediately apparent. A civilization can keep up momentum because the controls it puts in place generate some short-term efficiency. But eventually it will run its course and collapse, because no amount of control can replace the loss of collective creativity.
I read the above in an article talking about the demise of Microsoft, but my head immediately jumped to thinking about churches. This is so relevant. How easy it is to shift from attraction to control! And it is something to be avoided at all costs.
Let’s rewrite the paragraph and replace civilisation with church:
A church flourishes when it motivates insiders and attracts outsiders with its creative dynamism and culture. The church breaks down when its leadership loses this creative capacity and gives way to, or transforms itself into, a dominant minority. When this happens, the driver of the church becomes control, not attraction. And it’s precisely this switch from attraction to control that is the source of the breakdown. Interestingly, Toynbee says that the consequences may not be immediately apparent. A church can keep up momentum because the controls it puts in place generate some short-term efficiency. But eventually it will run its course and collapse, because no amount of control can replace the loss of collective creativity.
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)