Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Laying Up Treasures in Heaven

Lay up treasures in heaven, Matt 6.20. Sounds good, but what does it really mean? This statement comes from the mouth of Jesus during the famous Sermon on the Mount, Matt 5-7. It is part of a teaching that cuts to the heart at every turn, giving us a picture of Kingdom living that, outside of Spirit empowered grace, is impossible to achieve. And that is perhaps the point. Only Jesus can truly fulfil this kind of life. It drives us to know and embrace Him as our true treasure.

I love the word treasure. My favourite story growing up was ‘Treasure Island’ by Robert Louise Stevenson. I was enthralled with the old film starring John Newton and even more captivated by the book itself. It’s all about pirate treasure that is hidden and the adventure of recovering the treasure. We see what lengths men will go to, to get their hands on such a hoard. Jesus tells us that where our treasure is, that is where our heart is also. Our hearts become connected to what we treasure. That’s how we are hard wired. Our treasure, what we value, will capture our hearts and we will become servant to that thing.

Jesus shows us this later in the same chapter of Matthew when He says, “You cannot serve God and Mammon (the Aramaic word for riches). What we treasure, we serve. But we have a choice. We can ‘lay up treasures on earth’ or we can ‘lay up treasures in heaven’. Whichever is our focus tells us something about our hearts. What does our heart truly value? Has Jesus become our chief joy and treasure? If He is, what lengths are we prepared to go to, to demonstrate that?

Before answering that question let me make two observations about the contrast between treasures on earth and treasures in heaven. The first is this. When you lay up treasures in heaven they are more secure. Thieves have no chance to take them. They are kept safe. The recession of 2009 has taught people that even banks are no longer secure. They too can go bankrupt. How ironic! Banks bankrupt. Some thieves today wear suits and get outrageous annual bonuses for their incompetence in crippling an organisation, while innocent people are fleeced. That’s the world.

The second thing Jesus points out is that treasure in heaven doesn’t corrupt over time. Moth and rust do not touch it. It is undefiled and does not fade away. Treasure on earth however is subject to decay. That is part of the reality of our fallen world. So Jesus is advising us to invest in our future. Selfless, grace empowered, spirit led, extravagant giving is always noticed by heaven. An account is kept there. Unlike laying up treasures on earth, it’s not the amount that is the issue. The value does not lie in the amount we give but in way we give. It is more about the heart and what that thing means to you.

In Luke 21.1-4 we have the account of the giving of the poor widow. She placed two copper coins in to the treasury. Jesus was standing and watching as people gave. In His estimation the poor widow gave more than any of them. Notice why. “They gave out of their abundance, but she out of her lack”. There is nothing wrong with giving out of abundance. We are to have extra to give to him who is in need. Paul teaches this in Eph 4.28. But sometimes we give out of what we lack. Then it’s a sacrifice. This woman put in ‘all her living’. And Jesus saw it and commended her. She was laying up treasures in heaven.

What is also interesting is that she was giving into a religious system that was corrupt. Jesus denounced the moneychangers for turning the house of God into a den of thieves, John 2.13-17; Matt 21.12-13. In Matt 24.1-2 He prophesied the destruction of the temple admired by the disciples. It happened within forty years under Titus of Rome. Yet Jesus didn’t run up to her and say, “Don’t give into this treasury. It has too many problems, there is too much corruption in the leadership; your money will be wasted”. He says nothing of the sort. His silence helps me understand something. Even when men misuse money I have given in an offering, God counts it as a legitimate sacrifice, if, in my heart, I am giving to Him and trusting Him.

I know people who withdraw their giving when things in church life don’t go as they want. Giving now has become a way of controlling outcomes. This is a dangerous road to go down. It leads to manipulation and control. Our giving must be free of such attachment. Think of an Old Testament saint bringing one of his best animals to the Lord only to see it killed and burnt. No possibility of attachment there! Eli’s son’s misused the offerings of the Lord, yet God did not instruct His people not to give. He would honour their giving. They had a reward in heaven.

God instructed Eli to discipline his sons and when Eli didn’t, God stepped in, 1Sam 2.12-36. It was severe. Future generations of this man’s line died in their youth. The Ark of God was captured. But in the midst of all this, God raised up a young boy to be His spokesman – Samuel. And through Samuel judgement was proclaimed on the house of Eli. God is not mocked. “Vengeance is mine says the Lord”, Rom 12.17-19. But don’t try and do God’s job. Our posture is to be one of doing good to all, Rom 12.20-21. If you are a leader, then like Eli you have a responsibility. But if you are a worshipper, then you too have a responsibility. Give freely from your heart with no ongoing attachment to what you give.

In three of the gospels we have accounts of the anointing of Jesus at Bethany, Matt 26.6-13; Mark 14.3-9 and John 12.2-9. Mary takes a very costly oil of Spikenard and anoints Jesus. She pours it over His head and feet. “Nard,” which defines the kind of ointment, was a plant found in the Himalayan Mountains. It was hard to get and very expensive. According to the text, it was worth 300 denarii. The daily wage of the average working man was only one denarii. What she poured on the Lord Jesus was worth an entire year’s wages! This speaks volumes of the value she placed on Jesus. He was worth it.

When we compare all three accounts, we find that all the disciples were indignant over this act of Mary and saw it as wasteful, but Judas, the betrayer, treasurer for the group, and thief, was their spokesman. Mark 14.5 says “They criticised her sharply”. Once Judas had voiced his disapproval they all chimed in. The story shows us the value she placed on Jesus and the value Jesus placed on her actions – for wherever the gospel is preached she is to be mentioned for what she did, Mark 14.9. Her action created a perpetual memorial that has forever tied her to the gospel. She was literally laying up treasures in Heaven and a memorial on earth.

But the disciples had a different view. What a waste! They were incredulous; an entire year’s wages blown in a moment, on Jesus. What a waste! But so as not to appear too bad they talk of it being sold and the money given to the poor. It sounds good doesn’t it? It sounds right? All things in moderation – right? Not when it comes to Jesus. He’s worth giving everything for. He is worth our recklessness. He is worth our extravagance in giving.

Mary was the only one who understood the moment. None of the other disciples got it. Jesus had talked of His death in Jerusalem but they really didn’t get it – but she did. Her act was a prophetic statement. Within a few days Jesus would be beaten and crucified, but now, by one disciple, He would be valued and anointed for burial. Devotion to a hobby or a sport is seen as merely enthusiasm, but devotion to the Jesus is viewed as fanaticism. Why? This kind of devotion shows up the lack of commitment of others toward God and spiritual priorities.

Jesus defence of Mary and rebuke of His disciples is telling. The opportunities for ministering to the poor would be ever present. But loving Jesus in this way was a once in a lifetime opportunity – and Mary saw it and took it. Laying up treasures in heaven isn’t that easy to most of us. It requires a different value system. For each deposit says something about where our heart is. It says something about what we deem valuable. And the more extravagant we are, the more we will draw attention to what we do. We risk the criticism and censure of others.

Notice also that it wasn’t the self righteous Pharisees on this occasion; it was the twelve - those who should have known better. Imagine how intimidated Mary would have felt; Jesus’ top team having a go at her. But Jesus stepped in and her act of devotion was vindicated, appreciated and memorialised with the preaching of the gospel.

This account is not dissimilar to the record of Mary and Martha in Luke 10.38-42. There too Mary made a choice to sit at the feet of Jesus and was rebuked by her sister for not helping to serve –which, like giving to the poor, is a good activity. But Martha missed the point. She missed the moment. And then, as now with the disciples, Jesus came to her rescue. In both accounts she didn’t need to say a word. Jesus defended her. Jesus placed value on what she did. In doing so He is telling us that Mary knows how to lay up treasures in Heaven. We should follow her example.

Mary’s act of devotion and giving left an impact on all present. Some reacted with criticism while Jesus responded with appreciation. All of them placed value on the spikenard. The disagreement was not in its value but in how to use it. Pouring it on Jesus? What a waste! At least that’s how the disciples saw it. Imagine if you were Jesus hearing those words. How would you feel? A little devalued? Guilty? Embarrassed? Jesus is secure. In effect he’s saying, “I’m worth it, leave her alone”. It is a telling rebuke.

Laying up treasures in heaven is easy for those whose hearts are captured by Jesus, our ultimate treasure. What we do with our time, our finances and other resources says something about our hearts affection. Paul puts it this way, “Set your affections of things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God”, Col 3.1. When He becomes our chief treasure it’s easier to let go of this world’s treasure. By comparison, it’s as nothing.

Take the parable of the man who found treasure hidden in a field, Matt 13.44. He sold everything to buy the field because he had an eye on the treasure. Everything he had was sold so he could pursue that goal. Notice Jesus’ words, “For joy he went and sold all he had....” This man did it joyfully. Mary too did it joyfully. They didn’t think in terms of loss or cost or sacrifice. They were preoccupied with the real treasure, Jesus.

So here is my final challenge in our series of building traction into your life. Take some time to reflect on your giving. Does it demonstrate genuine trust in God? Is it only ever out of your abundance? When was the last time you made a real sacrifice where giving meant you needed to take a step of faith? Have you ever placed ‘all your living’ in an offering? If not, try giving away an entire week’s wages. Ask God for permission to do this; to take you to another level of faith.

If you’ve never given a tenth regularly, start now for three months and see what happens. God can only go beyond the step we are prepared to take. But we must take a step. And when He comes through, tell your story. It will encourage others.

Finally, ask God to help you do something like Mary, an extravagant act of giving that truly values Jesus and His Kingdom.