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In Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels we read similar words:
“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.” (Matthew 6:19-21)
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:33-34)
These passages tell us to focus on storing up “treasure” in heaven rather than on earth. I want to offer a word of caution about that. Karl Marx correctly wrote that religion focused on heaven or afterlife bliss rather than survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation of our world now tends to leave oppressed people passive.
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” (Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Collected Works, vol. 3)
James H. Cone pushes back on Marx’s blanket condemnation of all religions in his landmark book God of the Oppressed. This is a rather long quotation, but one worth considering: Cone is not addressing Marx’s critique from the perspective of someone trying to preserve the status quo. He addresses the critique as someone in an oppressed community who’s working for societal change and the dismantling of the status quo.
“The vision of the future and of Jesus as the Coming Lord is the central theme of black religion. This theme is expressed with the idea of heaven, a concept that has been grossly misunderstood in the black religion. For any people the idea of heaven, in the songs and sermons of black people, is proof of Marx’s contention that religion is the opiate of the people. Unfortunately, many uninformed young blacks, hearing this Marxian analysis in college, have accepted this criticism as true without probing deeper into the thought forms of black people. To be sure, white missionaries and preachers used Jesus Christ and heaven to make black slaves obedient and docile. But in reality, the opposite happened more often than not. For any black slaves, Jesus became the decisive Other in their lives who provided for them a knowledge of themselves, not derived from the value system of slave masters. How could black slaves know that they were human beings when they were treated like cattle? How could they know that they were somebody when everything in their environment said that they were nobody? How could they know that they had a value that could not be defined by dollars and cents, when the symbol of the auction block was an ever present reality? Only because they knew that Christ was present with them and that his presence included the divine promise to come again and to take them to the ‘New Jerusalem.’ Heaven, therefore, in black religion was inseparably connected with Jesus’ promise to liberate the oppressed from slavery. It was black people’s vision of a new identity for themselves which was in sharp contradiction to their present status as slaves. This vision of Jesus as the Coming One who will take them back to heaven held black people together mentally as they struggled physically to make real the future in their present.” (pp. 119-120)
“The past and present history of Jesus are incomplete without affirmation of the ‘not yet’ that ‘will be.’ The power of Christ’s future coming and the vision that it bestows upon the people is the key to why the oppressed can ‘keep on keepin’ on’ even when their fight seems fruitless. The vision of Christ’s future that breaks into their slave existence radically changes their perspective on life; and to others who stand outside the community where the vision is celebrated, black people’s talk about “long white robes” and “golden slippers” in heaven seems to be proof that black religion is an opium [sic] of the people. But in reality it is a radical judgment which black people are making upon the society that enslaved them. Black religion, therefore, becomes a revolutionary alternative to white religion. Jesus Christ becomes the One who stands at the center of their view of reality, enabling slaves to look beyond the present to the future, the time when black suffering will be ended. The future reality of Jesus means that what is contradicts what ought to be. When Jesus is understood as the Coming One who will establish divine justice among people, then we will be able to understand why black slaves’ religion emphasized the other world. They truly believed the story of Jesus’ past existence with the poor as told in the Bible. (pp. 120-121)
As someone who does not speak from Cone’s social location, I want to acknowledge Cone’s critique of Marx. When religion leaves us waiting for a future time when justice comes rather than working for distributive justice in our world today, then Marx is correct: religion is an opiate. Cone is also right that a religion that identifies God as the God of the oppressed doesn’t have to pacify people.
Yet Cone drifts awfully close to using religion as an opiate himself in the following paragraph:
“People get tired of fighting for justice and the political power of oppressors often creates fear in the hearts of the oppressed. What could a small band of slaves do against the armed might of a nation? Indeed what can the oppressed blacks today do in order to break the power of the Pentagon? Of course, we may “play” revolutionary and delude ourselves that we can do battle against the atomic bomb. Usually, when the reality of the political situation dawns upon the oppressed, those who have no vision from another world tend to give up in despair. But those who have heard about the coming of the Lord Jesus and have a vision of crossing on the other side of Jordan, are not terribly disturbed about what happens in Washington, D. C., at least not to the extent that their true humanity is dependent on the political perspective of government officials.” (p. 121, emphasis added)
With this tension between Marx and Cone in mind, I ask the question: what did the Jesus Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels mean when he asked us to place our focus on heaven rather than earth, especially when such a focus has historically proved detrimental to the victims of oppression, injustice, and violence?
James Robinson offered a possible answer in his book The Gospel of Jesus.
“Some people get confused by the fact that in the Gospel of Matthew the ‘kingdom of God’ is usually referred to as the “kingdom of heaven,” leading them to think that the kingdom is in heaven—something one can experience only in the afterlife or at the end of time. But Jesus was talking about God reigning in the here and now. The use of the idiom “kingdom of heaven” is due to the fact that Matthew is the Gospel most closely related to Judaism and so still reflects its sensitivities. Jews have been so committed to not taking God’s name in vain, which, after all, is one of the Ten Commandments, that they have thought it best not to “take” God’s name at all. That is, they do not pronounce Yahweh out loud at all. Sometimes they carry this so far that they not only avoid pronouncing Yahweh; they even avoid pronouncing “God” and instead simply refer to the “name,” by which everyone in the Jewish community knows what they mean—God. (The Gospel of Jesus; Kindle Locations 2722-2730).
The kingdom of heaven is not a kingdom in heaven, but a new social arrangement that Jesus announced had come from heaven to earth. It was the reign of God and it was emerging from the community of the oppressed in Jesus’ day on earth. It was a social vision where people took care of people, where people practiced mutual aid and resource sharing, and where wealth inequality was met with wealth redistribution (see Acts 4:33-35). Jesus’ “kingdom of heaven” was a Jewish way of referring to the kingdom or reign of God, which had arrived here on earth in the present life, now.
This reign of God called people to trust in a God who would send other people to take care of them in the future to the degree that they would loosen their grip on hoarded wealth that insulated them from future risk so they could be the one God sent to help those who are in need today. As Robinson points out: “This hardly means that as surely as a human parent gives bread and fish in the here and now, the heavenly Father will give ‘pie in the sky by-and-by.’ It clearly means that God will answer the petition ‘Our day’s bread give us today’ in the here and now, daily. (Ibid. Kindle Locations 2789-2791) Together, we could face the insecurity of the future, because no matter what the future brought, we could make it because we had each other.
What Jesus may be saying in the passages in Matthew and Luke is this: don’t store up material treasure on Earth, which always involves some level of risk. Invest your resources in the kingdom of heaven that has arrived here on earth, which is made manifest in people taking care of people. “Lay up treasure” in the lives of people, especially the vulnerable, the poor, those on the underside and edges of our societies. Invest in a compassionate, safe, just world for people. Put your treasure in them, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
People are often not comfortable with their religion becoming this down-to-earth. They are much more comfortable with religion being about investing in a post-mortem retirement program for themselves. But I don’t think that approach to interpreting Jesus’ saying is consistent with what we have witnessed about Jesus in other parts of Matthew and Luke. His teachings are not about you gaining heavenly bliss later; they’re about bringing the liberation of heaven into people’s lives here, now, today.
What does it mean to lay up treasure in heaven? The kingdom of heaven for Jesus was the reign of God that had arrived here on earth. It called people to stop solving the challenges of survival for themselves at the expense of others around them. It called them to take responsibility for making sure one another had what they needed.
The wisdom in these passages is not a matter of location (heaven versus earth). Nor is it a matter of timing (post mortem versus now). It is a matter of seeking plenty “for yourself” on earth now, versus seeking “the kingdom of heaven” with others on earth now. Storing up treasure in heaven means people taking care of people here.
At home, I am storing some of my daughter’s favorite belongings in our attic while she’s away at college. When she comes home, she won’t go up to the attic to enjoy her belongings. She will take those belongings out of the attic and bring them down to enjoy them in her home.
When we take care of other people, even if we use the language of “storing treasure in heaven,” we must not forget that our home is here. When we choose to take care of people, we’re transforming our home here. We’ll be able to take out and enjoy the treasures we have stored in each other in a transformed world that is a safe, just, and compassionate home for us all, on earth “as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6.10).