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Matthew 6 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Do Not Value Possessions Enough to Seek Them

So prominent in Jesus' parables and wisdom sayings is his emphasis on utter faith in God and relinquishment of possessions that Geza Vermes (1993:148) considers this a central element in Jesus' teaching. Paul S. Minear declared that it was no wonder those with vested interests hated Jesus: "So insidious was [his] attack upon earthly treasures that he became, according to Kierkegaard, a `far more terrible robber' than those who assault travelers along a highway. Jesus assaulted the whole human race at the point where that race is most sensitive: its desire for security and superiority" (Minear 1954:133).

We like to point out Jesus' rhetorical overstatement in this passage while ignoring why he used it to secure our attention. Most Christians disagree with what the prosperity preachers say over the radio and television, but the main difference between us and them in practice is often that they provide a theological justification for their materialism, where we do not.

Seek Treasure in Heaven (6:19-21)

Jesus teaches that if we really trust God, we will act as if treasure in heaven is what matters (compare 1 Tim 6:8-10). Although Jesus illustrates his point here with images about treasure in heaven shared by many of his contemporaries (such as Sirach 29:10-11; 4 Ezra 7:77; 2 Baruch 14:12), only the most radical sages of antiquity shared Jesus' view that earthly possessions were essentially worthless. Yet for Jesus the treasure is not merely in heaven (Mt 19:21); it represents the kingdom of heaven (13:44). Idolaters who value Mammon too highly to abandon it for what Jesus values will have no place in his kingdom (19:21-30; compare Lk 14:33).

Some other countercultural sages in antiquity also advocated lack of attachment to material possessions (Epict. Disc. 1.18.15-16). Unlike some philosophers, however, Jesus is not against possessions because he supposes them to be evil (compare Lucr. Nat. 5.1105-42; Sen. Dial. 5.33.1); the issue is not that possessions themselves are bad but that a higher priority demands our resources. If we value what our Lord values rather than what our society values, he demands that we meet the basic needs of people lacking adequate resources before we seek to accumulate possessions beyond our basic needs (19:21; compare Lk 3:11; 12:33-34).

Someone will object that we have to stop sacrificing at some point because we will never finish meeting all this world's needs (Mt 26:11). But could not the abundance of this world's needs represent a call to keep sacrificing? Do we use the behavior of many of our fellow Christians to justify reinterpreting Jesus' explicit call to value what he cares about more highly than possessions? Many professing Christians before Luther were wrong about justification by faith; is it possible that most Western Christians today wrongly miss Jesus' explicit teaching about sacrifice?

One researcher suggests that professed followers of Christ take in 68 percent of the world's income, yet only 3 percent of that goes to the church and a tiny percentage to world missions. Perhaps if more Westerners lived even briefly among the desperately hungry or developed friendships with people from lands where laborers for the gospel are few, our priorities would change. Meanwhile Jesus, who already sees the needs of all people, summons us to value what matters to him-if not yet out of love for them, then out of love for our Lord who loves them.

Can we claim not to love wealth more than our brothers and sisters in Christ when we see them hurting and do not sacrifice what should matter to us less than their need? While many of us pursue status symbols that television suggests are "necessities," evangelical ministries to the poor claim that forty thousand people die of starvation and malnutrition daily. That means roughly twenty-seven a minute, twenty of whom are children under five years old. (This represents a loss of life roughly equivalent to the first atom bomb being dropped again-every three days.) Wherever possible, people should earn their own wages and not become dependent on charity. But children under five cannot "pull themselves up by their bootstraps," nor can our brothers and sisters in drought- and famine-stricken areas. Those who say, "For the sake of everyone it is better to let the weak die off," are social Darwinists, not Christians; Christians are called to serve the weak.

The world's need is overwhelming, but if as individuals we calculate what resources we do not need and contribute them to ministries like World Vision and Food for the Hungry, we can at least do our part to make a difference in the world, trusting that God will raise up others to join us. One wonders, too, what a witness it would be among the world's poor who are not Christians if they saw that wealthier Christians cared more about the poor than about their own affluence.

Materialism Blinds People to God's Truth (6:22-23)

If we justify valuing material possessions because "everyone does it" or "other people do it more," our self-justification will blind us to the truth of our disobedience and affect our whole relationship with God. Jesus' illustration about the "single" (NIV good) eye and the evil eye would immediately make sense to his hearers: a "good" eye was literally a healthy eye, but figuratively also an eye that looked on others generously (Sirach 32:8). In the Greek text of the Gospels, Jesus literally calls the eye a "single" eye, which is a wordplay: the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible also uses this word for "single" to translate the Hebrew term for "perfect"-thus "single-minded" devotion to God, with one's heart set on God alone. An "evil eye," conversely, was a stingy, jealous or greedy eye; yet it also signifies here a bad eye (Mt 6:23), one that cannot see properly. Jesus uses the "single" eye as a transition to his next point, for the "single" eye is literally undivided, having the whole picture: thus one is not divided between two masters, as the text goes on to explain (v. 24).

Many leaders in past revival movements have warned that Christians ought not to pray for revival if they want to hold on to their money, because we cannot have both. For John Wesley, defying material prosperity was part of holiness, separation to God away from the things the world valued (Jennings 1990:157-79). He warned that riches would increase believers' conformity to the world and attacked those who preached in favor of the accumulation of wealth (Jennings 1990:36, 98-102). He felt that Acts 2 was for today-including the part about sharing possessions (2:44-45; Jennings 1990:111-16). He chose to live as simply as possible so as to give all else to the poor, and called on his followers to do the same (Jennings 1990:119-23; Sider 1990:152). In contrast to most contemporary Western Christians, Wesley felt that "stewardship means giving to the poor. . . . We give to God not by giving to the church, but by giving to the poor" (Jennings 1990:105). If one did not give all one could, Wesley taught, one was in disobedience to Jesus' teaching and would end up in hell (Jennings 1990:133).

Noting that the church has adequate funds to evangelize the world if we would choose to do so, nineteenth-century evangelist Charles G. Finney warned that God requires us to surrender to him the ownership of everything, so that we never again consider it as our own; we must do with it only what he would do (Finney 1869:353-54). Finney further exhorted that "young converts should be taught that they have renounced the ownership of all their possessions, and of themselves, or if they have not done this they are not Christians" (ibid., p. 127).

Years ago I eagerly read Ron Sider's Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (rev. 1990) after I heard Gordon Fee state that every American Christian should read it. While I cannot evaluate Sider's macroeconomic proposals (for important proposals in this area see also National Conference of Catholic Bishops 1986), I appreciate his emphasis on the Bible's commitment to serving the poor. Yet some critics wrongly criticized Sider's motives as Marxist (he is not a Marxist). Some consider Wesley and Finney, who preached more strongly than Sider, legalists. When Jesus, John the Baptist or James (Lk 3:10-11; 14:33; Jas 2:14-16) preaches far more strongly than Sider, Wesley or Finney, we call it hyperbole. I fear that many of us hear what we want because we have vested interests to guard-interests many Christians value more than they value the agendas of God's kingdom. Our eyes are not "single."

We Must Love Either God or Money (6:24)

One must serve someone, but a person whose service is divided will love one master and hate the other. Masters only rarely owned a slave jointly (for example, m. `Eduyyot 1:13; Gittin 4:5), but when they did, the slave naturally preferred one master to the other. Jesus warns us that we must choose: if we work for possessions, we will end up hating God; if we work for God, we will end up hating possessions. (Hate may mean by comparison of one's love for something else-10:37 par. Lk 14:26.)

"Mammon," translated Money in the NIV, was a common Aramaic term for money or property (Flusser 1988:153), but its contrast with God as an object of service here suggests that it has been deified as well as personified (compare Sirach 34:7). Early Christians extended the principle of not serving two masters to avoiding theaters (where other humans were routinely slaughtered for public entertainment, perhaps akin to some movies today; Tert. Spect. 26) and to gaining the world and thereby forfeiting one's soul (2 Clement 6). But Jesus here applies the principle to one of the greatest temptations: the idolatry of materialism (compare possibly Col 3:5).

Unfortunately, covetousness (materialism) has achieved nearly cultic status as a traditional American value (with some other Western cultures not far behind), under such euphemisms as "the good life" and "getting ahead." As Craig Blomberg (1992:124) laments, "Many perceptive observers have sensed that the greatest danger to Western Christianity is not, as is sometimes alleged, prevailing ideologies such as Marxism, Islam, the New Age movement or humanism but rather the all-pervasive materialism of our affluent culture." Reminding us that the New Testament summons churches in one part of the world to look out for the needs of the church elsewhere (2 Cor 8:13-15), Blomberg further reminds us that because "over 50 percent of all believers now live in the Two-Thirds World . . . a huge challenge to First-World Christianity emerges. Without a doubt, most individual and church budgets need drastic realignment" (1992:126-27). Unlike the rich man in Luke 16:19-31, however, few suburban First World Christians could go to hell for allowing a man to starve at our doorstep: those who are starving rarely are able to get near our doorstep.

North American Christians can pour nearly a billion dollars a year into new church construction. Church buildings are helpful tools in our culture, but the Bible does not require them-and the Bible does expressly command serving the poor. How many churches pour equivalent resources into church-sponsored homeless shelters and other means of service (and witness) to the needy of our communities? The streets of our most affluent Western cities host hundreds of thousands of homeless people, many of them children. Many young people sell their bodies on those streets to get a place to sleep at night, and mere sermons against prostitution are not going to do anything about it.

Church buildings are important in our present culture, but the early church did live without them for its first three centuries, and in a time of persecution we would be obliged to do the same. The early church therefore had funds for other purposes: second-century pagans continually noted Christians' charity toward both Christian and non-Christian poor. Church buildings are valuable, but when they take precedence over caring for the poor or evangelism, our priorities appear to focus more on our comfort than on the world's need-as if we desire padded pews more than new brothers and sisters filling the kingdom. Have we altogether forgotten the spiritual passion of the early church and nineteenth-century evangelicalism?

Jesus in this passage uses graphic imagery about idolatry not to force us into legalism but to prevent us from rationalizing away his point. First World Protestants are quick to judge Christians in other parts of the world who venerate their ancestors or worship the saints. When symbols of respect become objects of worship, our concerns are surely justified. But in condemning such practices we may be sporting a "plank" in our own eye (7:3), for those concerned with wealth become as sterile in their Christianity as those who forget their faith or fall away under persecution (13:19-22).

Most of us respond to Jesus' devaluation of possessions in one of two ways: (1) we retort that there is nothing wrong with making money, or (2) we claim we do not love wealth, we just accumulate it. The first response is tangential: the issue is never how much money we make (as long as it is made honestly, the more the better), but what we do with what we make. The second response is simply dishonest, like the man immersed in television six hours every evening who says that it does not really interest or affect him. If we are seeking and accumulating wealth for ourselves, then we do love it.

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