Byron C. Bangert
July 13, 2003
Job: 31:16-28; Matthew: 6:19-24
The old gentlemen knew that he was on his death-bed. All his life he had scrimped and scratched and saved, so that he had accumulated quite a handsome sum. Calling his wife to his bedside, he told her to get the money and put it in a jar. "Don't take out any more than you'll be needing to get by," he instructed her, "and put the rest up in the attic by the open window so's I can take it with me when my spirit passes by."
Right after supper his dutiful wife did just as he had said. Later that night the old man died. The next morning his wife went up to the attic to close the window, but when she got there she found the jar on the ledge with the money still in it. "O Lordy," the old woman cried, "I just knew I should've put it in the basement."
"You can't take it with you!" Don't we all know that. Whatever treasures we may be able to lay up for ourselves on earth, sooner or later we will have to leave behind. Such an obvious matter hardly requires elaboration. Enough said about that.
But Jesus did not stop at saying, "You can't take it with you." He said, "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth." Why? Because they are perishable. Moths will eat holes in them. Rust will consume them. In any case, they are not secure. Thieves break in and steal.
Some years ago I spent a couple weeks helping to settle an estate. Many of the items were decades old, some dating to a previous century. And while many of them remained in a very attractive and useful condition, many did not. It was sad to see what the mildew and the dry rot and the moths and the rust had consumed. It was a poignant reminder of the impermanence to which all earthly goods are consigned. It was a lesson in not putting too much store by earthly treasures.
But it was not quite so simple a lesson as that. There are ways of keeping out the moths. There are ways to prevent the mildew and the dry rot and the rust. There are safety deposit boxes to keep ones valuables from the hands of thieves. There are ways to insure oneself against almost any material loss. The F.D.I.C. stands behind all the money most of us will ever put in a bank. So we can't take it with us. Can't we at least pass it on to our children, our posterity? So what's wrong with laying up treasures on earth, especially if one takes good care of them?
The rejoinder of the text is still the same: All earthly treasures are perishable. Some may last longer than others, but none endures. Many a family heirloom has been neglected, forgotten, lost, destroyed, because its meaning or beauty or value was lost on succeeding generations. Many a family fortune has been squandered and dissolved by heirs who did not earn it or feel obliged to keep it. Many a will has ultimately been thwarted by changing circumstance that foreclosed on the author's intention. In the perspective of history, families ebb and flow, nations rise and fall, time changes everything. There is no way to vouch-safe the future. Uncertainty is the rule. This nuclear age has only compounded the uncertainty by so widening the scope and so shortening the time for the potential destruction of all earthly things.
Now we might take all this in stride, and be reconciled to the perishability of all earthly things--if we were not so personally involved. For this is a matter not only of the intellect, but of the heart. It involves more than an acknowledgment of how things are, more than an opinion or a viewpoint, more than a statement of fact. It is really a question of devotion and trust.
It is said that an itinerant evangelist named Ruth happened to be in Niagara Falls when the great French tight-rope walker, Charles Blondin walked across the gorge on a wire rope. Blondin announced that on the next day he would push a man across on the same wire, in a wheelbarrow. The evangelist was on the street the next day, freely expressing his belief that the ropewalker would take his man successfully across. Just then Blondin came along and met the evangelist. "I am certainly glad to meet you," said Ruth. "I have been boasting for you all day, believing that you know your business. I say you'll take your man across safely."
"It is indeed a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Ruth," Replied Blondin. "I've been looking all day for a man like you--I want you to get into the wheelbarrow." (cited by L. B. Williams in "Word & Witness," August 17, 1980, p. 4).
What we really believe is revealed by what we are prepared to do. What we really value is recorded in where we put our money, how we spend our time, whatever we really count on.. And what is our treasure may be seen by what we love.
"Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." It is important to note, I think, that Jesus did not say, "Where your heart is, there will your treasure be." We do not so much make treasures out of the things we love. Rather, we become devoted to the things that are our treasures. If you want to know what someone values, consider what that person loves. If you want to know what is that person's treasure, look at that person's devotion. We have all heard the crude saying, "Put your money where your mouth is." Jesus is pointing to the simple, important fact that we put our love and devotion where our treasure is. We do not give our hearts aimlessly; we do not yield ourselves to nothing. We give our hearts to whatever gives us meaning and assurance. We offer our devotion to that on which we feel we can depend, to that in which we feel we can trust.
What is treasure? Treasure is security. Treasure is value, because it is security. Security is something we humans all seek and need. We all have some treasure. The question is not whether, but where. For where our treasure is, that is where our hearts will be. That is what we will be devoted to. "Where our treasure is," as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "there is our trust, our security, our consolation, and our God." (THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP,p.194).
Now security may bear a defensive, limiting aspect, or it may strike a confident, expansive pose. Security as defensiveness, security as protection, security as guard against future uncertainties, is surely the more familiar to us. The great Lutheran preacher Paul Scherer once proclaimed "that the fundamental urge of human life is the urge to get through this world, so manifestly a dangerous place as safely as may be. That's why we want homes, work and health. It's why many people want God really. We are looking for some kind of security." (THE PLACE WHERE THOU STANDEST, p. 39).
Theololgian H. Richard Niebuhr eloquently pointed out how much we human beings devote ourselves to the tasks of self-preservation--looking out for No. 1--trying to minimize the danger, contain the enemy, limit the risks. Life becomes one extended exercise in "damage control." Niebuhr reminds us of all our efforts to maintain social status, to gather wealth or prestige or even righteousness in order that we may be remembered, so to protect ourselves against the rejection or indifference of others (cf. THE RESPONSIBLE SELF, p.100). We may think here of the great lengths we will go to avoid the hostility of others. We may think here of our fear of failure. We may think here also of our fear, not of death, but of dying. Is it too much to ask that it be painless and quick? Is it too much to ask that we not have to bear rejection or suffer failure? We seek protection against every contingency.
There is a Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown is all dressed up for the winter snows. His heavy overcoat is trimmed with a fur collar. A muffler covers his face below the nose. On his head is a big, Russian-style fur cap that comes down to his eyes. Linus says, "Well, you look warm, Charlie Brown..."
"Oh, I am . . . yes, sir. I believe in being prepared for cold weather. There's only one thing wrong."
"What's that?," asks Linus.
"I can't move," says Charlie Brown.
Take this as a parable of what happens when we try too hard to protect ourselves against every threat and every danger. Take this as a parable of what happens when the defensive struggle for security gets carried to its illogical conclusion. Take this as a parable of what is happening in our nation's futile struggle to achieve national security by rooting out evil and terror. We--not Iraq--have the most powerful array of weapons of mass destruction in the history of humankind. But do we dare use them? We "can't move." And any man or woman on the street knows that they have not made us more secure. But somehow the connection has yet to be made between this indisputable fact of our experience and the futility of making any more.
For 4 1/2 decades after W.W. II the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were engaged in a fierce and costly arms race. It had precious little to do with military necessity. Scores of retired admirals and generals no longer concerned about their own job security, people like Hyman Rickover, told us that after their retirements. The arms race had more to do with the economic interest of the defense industry. But perhaps it had most of all to do with the faith assumptions that govern in the political life of these nations. If the money goes to arms, it is precisely because that is where the leaders of the nation suppose that true security is to be found. The lessons of the past seem to have been forgotten for today.
We are no less mistaken if we think that the answer lies in a turn from a defensive, protective security, to a confident, expansive one. An extreme example: Adolf Hitler expounded his doctrine of a master race and built up his military not to defend Germany, but to conquer Europe. He nonetheless failed. There are, however, many more attractive and generally accepted objects of confidence that have also failed the test of experience and time. Take for instance science. How much we have depended upon science to solve our problems and extend our powers! Science has enabled us to accomplish great things, but it has increased the possibilities for evil no less than for good, and it has introduced new problems of its own. We see tremendous gains made in agricultural productivity, yet the past decades has also seen hunger and starvation on an unprecedented global scale. Computerization has revolutionized the communications industry, but where has there been any consequent improvement in human or international relations?
Perhaps then, the answer lies in education. Surely the human intelligence, when taught to reason, informed by facts, acquainted with ideas, exposed to the arts, will be able to secure a happy, peaceable world for us and our posterity. But education, when modestly successful, proves to be a two-edged sword, heightening our human powers but invariably unable to secure them only for the good.
Well, then, it must be religion that we need to assure us of future prosperity. Let us elect political leaders who are religious. Let us put religion back in the schools. Let us renew our support for church, synagogue, and mosque as bulwarks of morality and social order. Yet, a moment's honest reflection reminds us that no religion in our experience has ever managed to escape the corruptions of pride and self-righteousness. The secular politician is often more able, more honest, less the scoundrel, than the ostensibly pious one. Religion offered as a prescription for our social ills can be downright sickening.
Reinhold Niebuhr once noted "the indubitable fact of human history that there is no human vitality which is not subject to decay and no human virtue which is not subject to corruption." (BEYOND TRAGEDY, p. 131). So, "lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth"--not treasure of wealth, not treasures of power, not treasures of science and education, not treasures of righteousness, none of these--for these are all subject to decay and corruption. These are all perishable. There is no ultimate security in any of them. None of these can finally and unreservedly be counted upon. None of these will endure. The apostle Paul was saying the same thing when he told the Corinthians, "As for prophecies, they will pass away: as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away," (I Cor. 13:8). All earthly treasures pass away.
What then shall we do? Jesus says, "Lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal." It is hard for us not to hear theses words as a call to accumulate "brownie points" with God, but there is surely another meaning here. The question is, what is true security? What has permanence of value? What endures? Is there anything that can be counted on irrespective of the uncertainties of the future? Is there any value or meaning in life that is not contingent upon the future course of events, that does not hinge completely upon the vagaries of history? If all our human projects are invariably subject to decay and corruption, if they will sooner or later be gotten by the moths or the rust or the thieves, is everything a lost cause? Or is there some lasting imperishable quality or value, some truth or goodness or beauty, in every endeavor that will not be washed away by the sands of time?
Philosopher Charles Hartshorne made the question especially vivid. Recalling the story of Robinson Crusoe shipwrecked on an island, he asked, "Is Robinson Crusoe's sole inspiration to be the hope that he may be rescued or his story become known? Suppose the island should sink into the sea, as sometimes happens. Is there no hidden meaning of life that such an outcome could not obliterate?" ("Science, Insecurity, and the Abiding Treasure," THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION, July 1958, 172).
The question is whether this moment, this hour, this present experience, this being alive has any significance that is more ultimate than its relation to future human history, even the future of this planet. Or does all meaning and value in the present depend upon the future outcome of our endeavors? To put it more simply, if tomorrow does not work out right, will today have been in vain? If what I do today is never felt, never experienced, never known by another, does it matter at all? Or am I related to something more ultimate than my companions, more ultimate than posterity, more ultimate than the future?
Christian faith has sought to answer this question in various ways. Whatever form the answer has taken, it has always been an affirmation that we stand before God, our lives are lived before God--unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid. More than this, the affirmation that our lives are in God--in whom we live and move and have our being. I like the way an Old Testament verse puts it: "The eternal God is our dwelling place," (Deutr. 33:27). This dwelling place embraces all that has happened to us, every moment, every event, and henceforth ever will have contained them. All our joys and sorrows are indelibly written there. All our deeds are held there in remembrance. The world of each moment is appreciated in all its fullness there. All our occasions are cherished there forevermore (Cf. Hartshorne, ibid.,13).
This is our ultimate and ultimately only security. Our hearts are restless till they find this rest. Every moment's goodness and truth and beauty are an imperishable contribution to this ultimate and abiding treasure, "Where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal." Nothing and no one can take this treasure away. All that is of any value becomes the possession of that One from whom it can never be cast out. Amen.
Copyright 2003 by Byron C. Bangert