As we read through our passage from Matthew this morning, it might have seemed like a jumble of unrelated stuff. After all, Jesus is talking about fasting, and then he’s talking about money, and then you have whatever verses 22-23 are about, and then he’s back to money again; and what do all those things have to do with each other? In fact, though, this whole passage is about one thing, which relates to each of these areas.
If we look at the Sermon on the Mount as I’ve laid it out, we can see that it’s carefully structured as one large ring composition—working in parallel sections from the outside in. With such a structure, the climax comes in the middle, and so it is here with the Lord’s Prayer; that marks the turn, and then you begin working back through the same themes as the first half, only in reverse order. This passage stands in parallel to the first six verses of this chapter—which also, on the surface, dealt with two different things: giving to the needy, and prayer. In both, however, if you look at what Jesus is saying, you find one central question and one primary concern: do you want your reward from other people on this earth, or do you want it from your Father in heaven?
Jesus spends the greater part of these two passages asking that question about our religious activities. Partly, that’s because of the Pharisees; not only were they his loudest opponents, they were past masters at spiritualizing everything, and completely blind to the issue he’s raising with their religious behavior. More than that, it’s because it’s so easy to spiritualize things, and assume that if what we’re doing looks religious or spiritual, we must be pleasing God—we don’t need to examine our hearts or question our motives. Fact is, though, just because we look like a Christian doesn’t mean we are.
Jesus doesn’t stop there, however. It’s interesting, if you compare these two passages, you can see some additional inverse parallelism going on. The inner sections, 5-6 and 16-18, deal with fasting and prayer, which traditionally go together; in the outer sections, Jesus talks about money. In verses 2-4, as noted, his concern is with giving money to the needy; in 19-21 and 24, his focus is broader. The issue is the same—are you using your money to earn an earthly reward, or a reward in heaven?—but he appears to have more material rewards in mind; and more than that, Jesus expands on the warning he gives in verse 1. It’s not just that if we get our reward in this world, we miss out in the long run; there’s a greater spiritual cost attached.
The rewards you seek become your treasures. If you win them, they become your treasures in the present, the things to which you look for meaning and satisfaction in your life now; if you don’t win them, they become your treasures in the future, or perhaps in the past, leaving you dissatisfied with the present because of something that didn’t happen, and may never. Either way, you set your heart on them, and so that’s where your heart is to be found.
Now, remember, in the Beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart”; and if you were here when we looked at that verse, remember two things we saw then. First, when the Bible talks about the heart, it doesn’t mean our emotions, it means the core of our being—the center of our intellect, the wellspring of our emotions, the root of our will. Where your treasure is, that’s the center of your life. Everything else falls into place around that, and that’s what drives your decisions. Second, a pure heart is a heart which is all good, because it’s completely devoted to God; it has no additives and is completely unadulterated. It is single, all one thing—there are no conflicting loyalties, no contradictory desires. That’s why Psalm 86 says, “Teach me your way, O Lord . . . give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.”
Why does this matter? Well, verse 22 literally says, “If your eye is single, your whole body will be full of light.” No one translates it that way because people would take it badly, but if we think of it in terms of focus—which is a metaphor we take from eyesight—it makes sense. Light enters the body through the eye, and God is the source of all light. If we have a single focus on God, our eyes are open to his light, and it fills us. If we focus away from God, we turn our eyes into the darkness, and our lives go dark. The heart focuses the eye on what it desires; through the eye, the heart is filled. Where your heart is, your eye follows; and where you look, your heart follows.
If, then, you fix your attention on the things of this world, it is the things of this world that you treasure; if your heart is set on this world and the things of this world, then your focus will be on the things you have and the things you desire, and your concerns will be all for them—which means it will be this world that owns you, not God. And ownership is precisely what’s in view in verse 24, for this is the language of slavery, not employment: either the world owns you, or God does. You can’t divide your loyalties between this world and God, because they pull in opposite directions, and both demand exclusive allegiance; to obey one is to defy and reject the other.
If your goal is to have treasures on earth—whatever they might be: money, expensive things, success, a good reputation, marriage, family—then the desire to get and keep those treasures will run your life; they will be your idols, the gods you really worship. You will obey the Lord and believe in him only as far as who he is and what he tells you to do fit with what your idols demand of you—which is to say, you won’t really believe in him or obey him at all. You might say you love him, but you won’t love him as he truly is, only as you want to believe he is; in truth, you will despise him.
This is true even if your idols are religious. If your treasure is having a big church with lots of programs, if it’s the church building or having lots of money in the church’s bank account, then you’re not actually loving or serving God—you’re trying to serve two masters. The fact that you might be doing this in the name of God doesn’t change that any; it’s no better to make an idol of the church than to make one of anything else.
Does this mean it’s bad to have money and a good career, to be married with kids, or to have a big church with a beautiful building and lots of money in the bank? Of course not. The problem isn’t with having any of these things, it’s when they become our treasures. It’s not what we own, it’s what owns us. God gives us many good things, and he wants us to enjoy them and to use them well—but he wants us to hold them lightly. He doesn’t want us to treasure them, he wants us to treasure him, alone. The question for us isn’t, “What do you have?” or, “What do you want?”; it is, simply, “Where is your heart?”