How Jesus challenges materialism


In the book we call Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said the following 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.”

Our society loves money. In years to come, perhaps historians will look back on this era and say ‘those were the guys who loved money’. But the fact is, most societies there have ever been have had some level of love for money. People want it, people work themselves to the bone for it, and people even kill for it. Money is a big deal. In today’s world we are drip-fed mini-sermons about money all the time. Every advert we see and hear pushes forward a worldview that says we need certain things, and to get them we’ll need money.

Ironically, this is a very religious thing. Every day, we hear messages which tell us to place trust, value and security in material things, and that the way to get these things is through money. Our culture is repeatedly telling us that the things we long for, the things which at the deepest level we crave, will be fulfilled, or at least partly fulfilled, by the products on offer. If only, if only we all had these shoes or this wristwatch, we would be carefree, attractive, and popular, just like the people in the contrived TV scenarios and the airbrushed photos. Of course, on one level we all know this is happening, and we know it’s baloney. But…advertising still works.

In JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Gollum refers to the ring at the centre of the story as ‘the precious’. Whoever has the ring seeks to control it, but in reality they increasingly comes under its mysterious power. At the centre of our souls, there is a precious. Something is all-important to each of us, to the point that we would sacrifice other things for it. It might be a relationship, a cause, a religion or a car. We all treasure something. For many, the thing most highly treasured is money. But of course, nobody ever thinks that excessive materialism affects them. It’s always someone else’s problem.

Many people don’t realise that Jesus spoke a lot about money. The presumption is that he said a lot of things about being nice, appreciating flowers, and trying your hardest not to be ‘judgmental’. However, about a quarter of what Jesus said was in some way about the very practical subject of money. But he doesn’t say what you would expect.

This passage is from what is known as The Sermon on the Mount, in the book we have come to call Matthew’s Gospel. The group gathered for this sermon was largely made up of poor, working class people.

So, Jesus is warning poor people about the pitfalls of money and materialism. It seems from the outset like he has the wrong audience Jesus begins by saying don’t store up treasures on earth. Now, it makes sense that a spiritual leader might say that, doesn’t it? “Don’t get yourself loads of possessions” – the sentiment seems noble, worthy, and wise.

But we might well ask…why? Jesus doesn’t offer the predictable moralistic line; ‘it’s a sin to have stacks of money and lots of stuff’. He says moth and rust destroy and thieves steal. In other words if you put everything you have into money and possessions, it’s actually a bad investment.

Here Jesus is not being a kindly religious guru, he is being a financial advisor. He’s saying don’t listen to the adverts, don’t listen to the banking forecast, long term, if you really want to be savvy, the best investment is not to be found in getting more stuff for yourself.

Perhaps our view of money is seen in our attitudes to both the poor and the rich. Many of us resent the rich and disdain them. Perhaps we even feel morally superior, believing that much of their wealth is ill-gotten. If you find yourself disliking people for being rich, it suggests that money has an important place in your life.

Similarly, if you envy the rich, the same thing could be said. Conversely, some people feel superior to the poor because they have more money than the poor. You don’t have to be particularly well off to feel concern for poor; you may even give money to good causes, but there is a surely undeniable temptation to feel better about ourselves when we feel we are ‘higher’ socio-economically. In each of these instances, money is the barometer, the thing by which one views the world and other people.

Many people are uncomfortable with the idea that they might over-emphasise the importance of money, be it in envy, resentment or condescension. What is the alternative? Practically, Jesus suggests that we store up ‘treasure’ in heaven, where the elements can’t get at it. It sounds a bit strange, but he’s basically saying that God observes where your money goes, and when you invest it in God’s priorities, it’s much better for everyone. That’s an investment that will pay off. So Jesus doesn’t appeal to morality, he applies to pure financial rationality. If you can invest in a business which is rather dodgy or one that is guaranteed to work, which is the better investment? It’s important to see that Jesus doesn’t say give all your money to church or to a charity. If you worship, if you invest your life, in something temporary and likely to fail, you will get yourself into trouble eventually.

You’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t pussyfoot around, he is deliberately blunt. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. If money is your treasure, if it is the thing which is most important to you, your ‘heart’ will be there, you will in a sense ‘worship’ it and organise yourself around it. Put in another way; mirroring Gollum, it is your ‘precious’.

Some people use money to pursue happiness. Others use money as security – we feel safe when we have a certain amount of it in the bank. Money won’t turn you into God, implies Jesus, it won’t give you the control and significance you crave. In practice, money will either make you arrogant about your worth and standing, or promise to provide security in ways that it can’t.

The idea that the eye is a lamp to the body is an old Jewish idiom. If someone had a ‘good eye‘ it meant that they were generous. A ‘bad eye’ meant they were rather more stingy. What you are like with money says a lot about you. How you use it demonstrates your priorities, passions, values. And so Jesus says, if the brightest thing in you, the thing which illuminates you, is darkness, is stinginess, then that’s some pretty strong darkness you have going on, and you might want to consider changing things.

The master-servant dynamic of v24 would be very familiar to a 1st century audience. A master would own a slave; tell him what to do, define what his life looked like. You couldn’t have two masters. In the same way, Jesus told those who purported to follow him, you can’t make money the main thing and make God the main thing. Choose. Jesus’ words are, undoubtedly, extremely strong. One might instinctively ask the question; what did Jesus himself ‘treasure’? Was there any integrity to his apparently noble rhetoric?

Throughout the Gospels, we see that Jesus claimed to be God in the form of a man. His followers, compelled by a number of things they saw in him, believed this to be true. If Jesus truly was God, then he came from the most ‘wealthy’ position imaginable. He had the ultimate in status, security, and worth. By becoming a man, he lowers himself. At the end of the Gospel accounts, we see that Jesus is crucified. He chooses to enter a context where he will lose ‘everything’. The key idea in the bible is that we are God’s ‘precious’. When Jesus allows himself to be executed, as the purchase price for our release from materialism and other vices, it is because he treasures us. He treasures humanity above wealth, power and comfort. Is this not the kind of courageous goodness we wish was true of ourselves?

Every treasure we might have, in essence, asks us to ‘sacrifice’ ourselves – our time, our energy, and so on. We trust money, like good little slaves. Jesus is the only treasure which sacrifices for us.

We all treasure something; we look at it and say ‘If I have this, it’s all worth it. If I have that thing I will have significance and security.” You will do anything for it. You will die for it. You will pay any cost for it. Anything to maintain it, sustain it, reclaim it.

In the Bible, Jesus doesn’t only give us good financial advice, he came and died for us. Because you and I are God’s treasure, his ‘precious’. Every other treasure in the world will insist that you ‘die for’ it. But Jesus died to purchase you.

What are your honest attitudes to people who are a) richer than you and b) poorer than you? Why do you think this is?

Jesus has very strong views on money and materialism. Why is this? Why is he so keen to warn people about what they do privately with their own money?

Jesus suggests that we look to God as a ‘master’ instead of looking to find security and happiness in money and possessions. Is this realistic or practical? Why?

The suggestion that we are God’s treasure or ‘precious’ is outrageous. What do you make of this idea?

I have a question or comment…

Photo credit: Flickr .Martin. (Creative Commons)

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