I’m sure you’ve all heard “two kinds of people” jokes—they aren’t up there with knock-knock jokes or light-bulb jokes as a genre, but there are a lot of them around. There are two kinds of waiters in the world—those who can remember what you order, and those who bring you what you order. There are three kinds of people in the world—those who can count, and those who can’t. There are two kinds of people in the world—those who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t. And so on, and so on.
It’s exaggeration for effect, of course, as so much humor is; but when it comes to money, it’s no joke, there basically are two kinds of preachers in the world. On the one hand, there are those who talk about money all the time, usually because they want your money to become their money; of such preachers are media exposés made. And on the other hand, there are those who try to avoid talking about money out of fear of being mistaken for members of the first group.
And through the crack in between falls the gospel. And no, that’s not an overstatement, for effect or anything else. It’s not merely that Jesus talked a lot about money, either, true though that is; that means that if we aren’t willing to talk about money, we wind up shying away from a lot of Jesus’ teaching, which is a bad thing, but that’s not even the biggest concern. There’s something a lot deeper going on here, but we tend to miss it—and unfortunately, those of us in the pulpit all too often make matters worse when we do start talking about stewardship and giving. To understand why Jesus talks so much about money, we need to really dig into what he had to say about it, and so that’s what we’re going to be doing for the next several weeks; because no matter how hard we try, one way or another we will end up talking about money, and if we don’t let Jesus set us straight, we’re going to keep right on starting in all the wrong places.
Perhaps the most popular wrong place is to start from the budget: “We need this much money, so you need to give more.” It’s understandable; I’ve never met a church that couldn’t use more money, and I’ve known a lot that could have done wonderful things with a bigger budget. I’m proud of this congregation and all the ministry we do, and we’re running off of investments to keep most of that going; God has provided for us in some wonderful ways, which I take as a sign that we’re being faithful to do what he wants us to do, but it would be nice to be able to make our budget out of congregational giving, so that we didn’t need to sell stock to keep the operation going. That would give us a lot more flexibility to be creative in reaching out and ministering to our community. But you know, “we want more money” isn’t the main biblical reason God calls us to give.
Beyond that, of course, we can just hammer on giving as a requirement, our duty to God; which at least has the advantage of pointing out that giving is about God, not about the church budget. Unfortunately, it also pitches us headfirst out of gospel and into legalism—and quite frankly, all the way back to paganism, which is all about buying the favor of one’s preferred god or goddess so as to be able to claim favors. What’s more, it turns the whole thing into an exercise in religious manipulation and guilt-tripping, which is pure anti-gospel in its own right.
A far better approach is to talk about giving as part of our grateful response to the work of Christ: it isn’t something we do because we must, it’s something we do because we love Jesus and want to please him. In connection with this, we can also talk about the importance of giving generously for our spiritual growth, and about how that involves more than just money. It’s all true—Jesus calls us to be good stewards of all the gifts he’s given us, our time and abilities as well as our material wealth—and it’s all quite important, and we’ll be spending some time on that later on in this series; but it isn’t the place to begin, because it isn’t the fundamental issue.
The fundamental issue when considering our giving—what we give, how much, and so on—is an issue of worship. That might sound strange, because when we think of worship, we tend to think of formal services and singing and all the things we do here on Sunday mornings; but these are acts of worship, corporate expressions of worship, they aren’t the whole of worship. Indeed, they’re only worship at all if they’re expressive of the deeper reality of our hearts. Worship at its core is about who or what we value most, the people and things that determine our priorities; as Minneapolis pastor Rick Gamache put it, “Worship is my response to what matters most to me.” The original form of the English word is actually “worthship”—it means to ascribe worth to something, to treat something or someone as being of great importance to you. What you worship is what you prioritize, and vice versa; the priorities we set and the choices we make show us and those around us what we truly worship, and they also shape the worship of our hearts.
This is the critical point in this passage. Jesus offers us a practical reason to use our wealth and our abilities to serve him rather than ourselves—in so doing, we’ll earn a reward which is eternal and indestructible rather than one which is temporary and all too easily destroyed—and we’ll talk more about this later on; but he doesn’t stop there. Why is it possible to use earthly things to win heavenly rewards? Because God needs our stuff to carry out his plans? No, because it’s not about our stuff at all: it’s about our hearts. Because while we don’t always put our money where our mouth is, we do consistently put our money where our heart is; and because the more we put our money there, the more it will anchor our heart there. If we put our treasure in this world, we ensure that our heart will be in this world with it; no matter how many times we come on Sunday and sing about how much we love Jesus, our true worship will be of our career, our income, our investments, our possessions, our pleasures, whatever it is we treasure.
There’s a word for that, in Scripture: idolatry. Don’t store up treasure on earth, because in so doing we create idols, false gods on which we set our heart even though they cannot endure and will not save. Where you put your treasure is where your heart will be, so give your treasure to God. It’s not just about the old saw about hearses not pulling U-Hauls, which I understand Dr. Smith used to repeat—this isn’t just a matter of choosing the right investment plan. Rather, it’s about this question: are we truly worshiping Jesus Christ, or is something else guiding and determining our decisions? Because if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, but you don’t give him your money because you have a standard of living you want to maintain, then in reality, your bank balance is Lord. Your money is your treasure, and it’s an idol.
Maybe that’s a new thought to you, since the idea of money as an idol isn’t a common one in the American church. At least, that’s true on the conservative side, where we’re all good capitalists who pretty much regard money as a good thing—and to be clear, Jesus isn’t saying there’s anything wrong with having money. What’s wrong is when money has us, when getting and having and spending and saving is what drives our lives; which is all too common a problem, both for people and for churches, in our consumeristic, materialistic, individualistic culture. We cannot truly worship Jesus, we cannot honestly claim to be his disciples, if our decision-making is mostly based on money.
The fact is, Jesus’ call to let go of money, to let go of building up treasure on earth, is unsettling, as any call to lay down our idols is unsettling; money may not be all that trustworthy, really, but it’s what we’ve been taught to trust, and it works a lot of the time. Jesus came to set us free from idols so that we could love and worship the one true God with a whole and undivided heart, but like any sort of real freedom, it doesn’t come easy. To choose to put our treasures in heaven rather than on earth is to live by faith in a deeper and more radical way than most of us are used to doing, because it means that if God doesn’t come through for us, we’re ruined. But that’s what Jesus asks of us, and as unnerving as it can be, that’s good news, because God truly is faithful; those who put their trust in him will find hardship on the way, but they will never be put to shame, and in the end, their victory is secure, for Christ has already won it. In this is treasure greater than anything we can find in this world; it only remains for us to choose it.