Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal. Matt 6:19
This morning I would like us to consider the passage we have just heard from the Gospel of St Matthew. It seems to me that it is a passage which is full of opposites and full of choices. Indeed we are used to having to make choices in our lives. Where will we live? What job will we apply for? What subjects will we study at school or university? Who will we marry? What will we call our children? All of these can have a substantial and lasting effect on our lives. But we make smaller choices each day of our lives. What will we wear? What will be cook for tea tonight? What TV programme will we watch? Our lives are filled with choices. Some we take without thinking. Others overwhelm us with anxiety and uncertainty for days and weeks.
We should not expect that our spiritual lives require any less constant sense of decision and choice. Indeed many of the ordinary choices we make are entirely spiritual. The TV programmes we choose to watch will affect us for good or for bad. Even the foods we choose to eat, especially during a season of fasting, will either incline us to spiritual things, or make us sluggish and lethargic. But it is not only what we choose, but how we choose which is important for every faithful Christian, and it seems to me that this passage from the Gospel illustrates and describes the choices we are required to make.
St Matthew records for us some of the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, and he places this teaching in the form of opposing ideas. There is the idea of treasure in heaven, or treasure on earth. There is the idea of being filled inwardly with light or darkness. There is the idea of serving either God or riches. And finally, in an extended section of the passage, there is the idea of being either filled with faith and confidence in God, or weighed down by anxieties about the necessities of daily life.
I do not think that St Matthew intends us to see this simply as a list of good things and bad things. Of course these different ways of thinking and being are described in opposing pairs so that we see that one is good and one is bad. But in this passage I think that we are being encouraged and invited to make choices about the direction and basis of our whole lives. These bad things which are being described are not so much individual sins, but attitudes of heart which affect everything we do. For instance, we see that the choice is between laying up treasure in heaven or laying up treasure on earth. We are all of us doing one or the other, or a mixture of both. We cannot decide not to be focused on either heavenly or earthly riches, it is part of who and what we are as human beings made in the image of God. Everything we do have both a value to us, and an eternal value before God. We cannot help valuing some things more than others, and the way we live our lives illustrates to us where our heart is set.
If we are concerned with the things we have and own more than with seeking after God then we are laying up treasure on earth. If we are more concerned about a career and personal advancement in the world than in seeking after God, then we are laying up treasure on earth. If we are more concerned with being popular and like by all, rather than seeking after God, then we are laying up treasure on earth. If these are the things which we value most and which drive us and inspire us then our hearts are set on earthly things.
I have often reminded myself when disappointed in something, or upset by someone, or having suffered the loss or damage of some personal possession, that it has no eternal value. And this is true of all those things we can easily be absorbed by. They will all pass away, and sooner than we think. And what will be left? When I stand at the great judgement seat of Christ He will not ask me what car I drive, nor how big a house I own. He will not be interested in the jobs I have had, or the qualifications I have gained. He will not ask me how many friends I have on Facebook, or how many followers I have on Twitter. All of these things will disappear in the presence of Christ and will be seen to have no lasting value at all.
What will remain? Surely those spiritual qualities which are described as the fruits of the Spirit, and surely all those generous, humble and self-less deeds which were not done with any thought of personal gain. What then should the wise and faithful Christian do? Surely, as our Lord instructs us, we should seek to lay up spiritual treasure through concentrating on spiritual things, and even when engaged in the entirely necessary business of living the human life, of working and being part of families and friendships, we should not forget to seek the spiritual value in all of these circumstances rather than the earthly. Most things do not matter in the light of the eternal. It does not matter that the last cake is eaten by someone else. It does not matter that someone cuts us up on the motorway. It does not matter usually that we have to wait a few minutes to find a parking space when shopping. But it does not matter in the light of eternity that we are passed over for a promotion. It does not matter that the person we lent a favourite book to has not returned it. I am sure that you can think of many other examples in your own lives where things do not matter in the light of eternity. What matters is always our spiritual response to situations, and with this in mind even our earthly impoverishment in a variety of ways can and will be turned to spiritual and eternal enrichment.
We can see that the same principles apply in the other attitudes which our Lord describes. We see that there is an external influence on our hearts through our senses, and especially through our eyes. And these influences touch the very heart of us inescapably. But we have a choice as to whether these influences will be light or darkness. We CAN choose what TV programmes or films we watch. We can choose what conversations to listen to with eagerness and attention. We can choose what we read and study. Nor is this only a matter of dealing with sexual imagery which is so prevalent and insidious, but it has to do with all manner of sensory input. A person may so fill their heart with the latest news that they become dominated by it, either absorbed with the tittle-tattle and gossip of the celebrity circuit, or overcome with despair at the political and social state of the world around us. Many monastics do not read the news or watch it on TV for this very purpose. The details of man’s inhumanity to man become spiritually deadening and obstruct a commitment to prayer for the world. The monastic Fathers were aware that in reality everything is always the same in the fallen state of man, and it is not necessary to know every detail to be able to pray intelligently and urgently. So we must also choose what we allow into our hearts, and especially at this time of Lent. Less TV perhaps, and better TV. More spiritual reading and with more attention, especially the lives of the saints. And perhaps the music of Christian worship in our ears, whether classical Western or Eastern. We can choose, and the choice we make affects our life. One way leads to darkness and the other to light and life.
And briefly, there is the choice between serving God and riches, and the choice between being filled with faith or filled with fear and anxiety. These are also life choices, Christian choices. To be anxious is not to sin, but to have committed ourselves to a life of being anxious ourselves about everything rather than trusting God is to have turned from faith in God to faith in ourselves, and is not Christian and cannot be life-giving. Neither can the desire to be wealthy be spiritually healthy. This also is a turning from faith in God to a faith in the pile of money we can see in the bank. But just as we cannot have faith in ourselves, so we cannot have faith in money. It will fail us, as we must fail ourselves.
How then do we deal with the stresses of daily life, the trials and tribulations we all face. If we cannot trust in our own strength and ability, or in the abundance of wealth, what can we do? Our Lord sums up this whole passage on choices by making it all clear for us.
Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.
Our Lord knows what we need, more than we do ourselves. And He will not fail us if we seek above all things His authority in our lives and over our lives, and the holiness and spiritual purity which is what it is to be truly human. When we seek after God before all other things they gain their proper place, whether they are situations we find ourselves in, whether they are the various human and natural aspects of our lives, whether they are the influences we allow into our lives. They all gain their proper value in the light of the Kingdom of God.
To seek the Kingdom of God is to seek an infinite and unfailing source of eternal riches. Every other choice must be made in the light of seeking God in our lives and only then will we be able to find that the mundane and ordinary becomes something which bears an eternal value which will be preserved into the life to come.
May we all seek this Kingdom, this rule and presence of God in our lives so that all we do has true value and worth. May we cast all our cares upon Him and trust Him even as we seek Him. To the glory of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.