The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 3/26/2000
Text: Matthew 6:19-24
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Have you been caught up in the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" frenzy? For one-million dollars, what insect got into the works of the world's first computer causing it to short out and in the process started use of the phrase "computer bug?" A) Moth, B) Roach, C) Fly, D) Japanese Beetle. Dee-doo-dee-doo, dee-doo-dee-doo. A 25-year-old California man sat in the "hot seat" on Thursday night and agonized over the answer as millions of Americans looked on, and those who knew the answer in their living rooms screamed it to their TV sets. Dee-doo-dee-doo, dee-doo-dee-doo. The suspense mounts. "Gee, Regis, I think I know this one. The answer is A) Moth."

"Is that your final answer?"

"Final answer."

Dramatic pause. "You're right! You've just won a million dollars." The confetti comes down, and the crowd goes wild.

"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" has become an incredible television success. Huge ratings, lots of ad income for the ABC network, and probably the reason that the parent Disney Company's stock price has been boosted by 30 percent. There are now local versions of the show in 70 countries around the world.

Of course, the creative geniuses at the other networks hardly missed a beat in getting copycat products on the air. NBC dusted off the format that was at the heart of the quiz show scandals of the 50's, Twenty-One. The Fox network, not known for its reluctance to push the boundaries of taste introduced "Greed," no one apparently concerned that Greed has long been identified by the church as one of the seven deadly sins. And then there was that inspiring and uplifting television event, "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" It was trash TV at its trashiest, and it deserved the horrified outcry that it spawned. But it was a ratings winner.

Why are these things such a success? Is it A) they are fun? B) they are the best shows on TV? C) they are educational? or D) people are mesmerized by money? We know the answer to this one and we do not even need to use a lifeline.

Now, here we are in Lent, that time of the church year in which we are encouraged to look at our lives, to see if there are elements in them that ought not to be, and, by the power of God, make some changes. We continue to study Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount and come across "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth..." Uh, Jesus, is that your final answer? Hmm. For a society that is as fascinated by "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" as we are, those are hard words to hear.

Listen to him again: ""Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal." What is Jesus saying here?

To understand him, it might be helpful to look at his references to moth and rust and thieves. Concerning moths, remember, they are not only "computer bugs," they eat things they ought not. In Jesus' neighborhood, an individual's position in society was very much reflected by the clothes that were worn. Elaborate dress indicated that a person was of high rank, while plain garb showed someone to be of lesser rank. You have heard the old adage, "Clothes make the man?" Well, in first century Judea, that was very much the case. Of course, if the moths got to all that finery, you could forget it. Suddenly, the rank and position in life reflected by clothing were out the window. There is nothing permanent about the treasure of clothing.

What about "rust?" What does rust do? It "eats" away at metal just as moths eat away at clothes. Jesus' reference could have just as easily been to worms or rats or mice or other assorted little vermin that eat away at the corn and grain stored in great barns, little critters which would eventually pollute and destroy the entire store. Obviously, there was nothing permanent about that kind of treasure either.

Then there is the matter of the treasure that thieves would go after. In a day in which life savings might be deposited under the bed in an old sack, and houses were hardly constructed with security in mind, those savings could prove to be a most inviting target. One could hardly call something "forever their own" which could be forever GONE between the time of leaving home in the morning and returning at night. Again, there is nothing permanent about that.

The message of Jesus is clear: do not put too much store by things that you cannot say positively are yours anyway. If clothes are a big deal to you, fine...but be aware that they are not going to last. If accumulated possessions, the fruits of your labors, are important, okay...but make sure that you know that all sorts of things can happen to deprive you of them. If having a lot of money means much to you, all right...but remember, there is nothing to guarantee that you will keep it. As a matter of fact, about the only guarantee you can get with ANY of those things is that there will come a day when they will NOT be yours. As the old Spanish proverb has it, "There are no pockets in a shroud."

A rich man in town died one day, and two men were talking about it. "How much did he leave?" asked the one.

The reply came back, "All of it."

Good common sense wisdom: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth..." But Jesus did not stop there. He continued, "store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal." What is he saying? You can't take it with you but you can send it on ahead? How are we to understand Him?

Obviously, even though he has just been talking about material things, he is NOT talking about them now. The people who listened to him there on that hillside knew that. Their rabbis taught that HEAVENLY treasure came from two sources: deeds of kindness and a good character.

Of course, the early church operated on that principle. One of the most important tasks those first Christians felt they had was in the care of those who could not care for themselves. Story has it that, during the days of terrible persecution, the Roman authorities broke into a church to loot whatever treasures they might find there; they demanded of the deacon in charge that he hand over everything of value. The deacon simply pointed to the widows and orphans being fed, the sick being nursed back to health and the poor whose needs were being supplied and said, "There, Sir. There are the treasures of the church."(1)

The other aspect of heavenly treasure concerned good character. One rabbi was asked if he would spend time in a heathen city if he were paid handsomely for his services. But the man replied that he would only do so if he could stay in a home of the Law. His rationale was "In the hour of a man's departure neither silver nor gold nor precious stones accompany him, but only his knowledge of the Law and his good works."(2)

Good deeds...good character. Those are the stuff heavenly treasure is made of. There is the old story of the rich and famous man who died and went to heaven. As he was being guided to his celestial home, he passed through one magnificent neighborhood after another and thought to himself how fitting it would be for a man of his position and reputation to live in one of the many fine mansions he saw there. But the angel who was leading him did not stop at any of the magnificent mansions he saw; he stopped instead in front of a poorly constructed little shack. "But wait," the man protested, "surely this cannot be MY home."

The angel replied, "I am sorry, Sir, this is the best we could do with the materials you sent up."

Heavenly treasure..."where moth and rust do NOT consume and where thieves do not break through and steal."

Something else should be noted here: Jesus was not simply some country philosopher; he had more reason to note the problems of earthly possessions than simply their lack of permanence - he knew that they could be a source of eternal difficulty. He knew that "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." The danger is idolatry.

The rich young ruler was a case in point.(3) That young man had all this world could possibly offer, but even with all that, he knew that something was lacking in his life. He came to Jesus to find out what it was. Jesus told him the problem was his possessions: "Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." But the young man could not do it. You see, he did not possess the possessions; they possessed HIM. And whatever possesses you is your God. If you are possessed by any other than the God of heaven, you are possessed by an idol.

Be clear about this: neither in the story of the rich young ruler nor in the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus saying anything against possessing property. Some would read these words and interpret them to mean that no one should have anything of their own; Christians should be communists. No. Jesus' concern is about priorities. Whom do you love? Whom do you trust? When the priorities become skewed, the questions about love and trust begin to be answered with things like money, or power, or reputation. They become our "lifelines" and our "final answer"...they become the idols. Jesus says do not let that happen.

Then he goes on to talk about something that might be confusing because it does not seem to follow on this thought about earthly and heavenly treasure. He says, "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!" What do good and bad eyes have to do with treasure?

Actually, we have a translation problem here. This is one of those rare instances where a good modern translation, in its effort to make a passage more understandable, tends to lead us astray. But in defense of the translators, the Greek words behind this English can be very confusing without a bit of background. We who grew up hearing this passage from the old King James version remember it differently: "The light of the body is the eye. If therefore thine eye be SINGLE, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be EVIL, thy whole body shall be full of darkness." The "single" eye as compared to an "evil" eye? What is going on here?

The King James translators were quite correct in their literal rendering, but what needs to be understood is a certain Hebrew idiom that lies even behind the Greek. When SINGLE eye and EVIL eye are taken together, the contrast is not between ways of seeing; it is between degrees of generosity. Someone with a so-called "evil eye" was someone who was a cheapskate. We have the same kind of thing in English when we compare someone who is "open-handed" as opposed to someone who is "tight-fisted." Nothing to do with this five-fingered instrument attached to a wrist; we are talking about whether someone is generous or not. Jesus simply used the idiom of the day to point out how someone's generosity or lack of it could affect their entire life.

Money, money, money. It fascinates us. Regis asks, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and most of us would say ME. Then we hear Jesus say, "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."

You are familiar with the name Robert Fulghum, the author who became famous following publication of his book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Several years ago, in an interview with the Christian humor magazine called "The Door," Fulghum reported that since his success, people were always saying, "Well, you must have a big house and a big car." And he responds, "No, I have the same house, same car, same friends, same wife..." Fulghum says he is on guard against all kinds of greed, and is committed to serving God, not money.

Of course, fame is a challenge, he admits, "and the challenge is to be a good steward with this kind of authority and power -- especially with the economics." So one year he did a book tour, and used it to raise $670,000 for a number of good causes. "I don't think I should be given extra credit for doing that," he says. "I think you should think ill of me if I didn't do that."

Death does not scare Robert Fulghum. In fact, he has already picked out his grave, and he likes to visit it. It reminds him to live life in a way that is rich toward God, and when he sees it he says to himself, "Don't get lost here. Know where you're going."(4) Good for you, Robert.

Regis asks, "Who wants to be a millionaire?"

Jesus responds, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

And that, my friend, is the final answer.


1. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM edition (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press

2. ibid.

3. See Mark 10:17-22

4. "The Door," May/June, 1995

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