March 9, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
[Jesus said]: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Today, the Church has entered the Season of Lent. In the introduction to the season, you were told: “From ancient times the season of Lent has been kept as a time of special devotion, self-denial, and humble repentance born of a faithful heart that dwells confidently on His Word and draws from it life and hope.” Part of the season includes moving the heart and mind away from the desires and wants of this world. Denial of self, of what you are as sinful human beings, is the order of the day.
Jesus’ words establish that order: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. . . .” There are many treasures on earth: wealth, fame, honor, property, rank, and so on. They are what human hearts and minds desire. Lifetimes are devoted to obtaining them. Time and talents are spent to acquire these treasures. Few, if any, limits are placed on this endeavor. At times, society may look down upon the practices of lying, cheating, and stealing. But no one really objects to the theme: “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast.” It isn’t just a motto for “Survivor”; it is a summary of the way to “lay up for yourselves treasures on earth.”
Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel Reading provides a scathing commentary on the never-ending focus on the treasures of earth. He even criticizes the religious skin that such focus takes: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” The quest for earthly treasures can be baptized in an attempt to make it seem virtuous. But such actions Jesus labels as hypocrisy: “When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. . . . And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and the street corners, that they may be seen by others. . . . And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.”
Giving to the poor. Praying. Fasting. These all are good activities. But why are they done? Are they activities taken up in obedience to the Lord’s commands? Are they disciplines meant to focus the heart and mind on what it means to be the Lord’s people? If so, then do them. But Jesus mentions another purpose, a sinister purpose: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them. . . .” The problem is not the action. The issue is the motivation behind the action. Even what seems to be most virtuous can be done in order to obtain a treasure here on earth: praise from the world, recognition of being a super-Christian, showing superiority over the spirituality of others, and so on. These are earthly treasures, temporal rewards. And Jesus says: “then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”
In each of the examples that Jesus provides, He discloses the earthly rewards that the hypocrites receive: “[T]hey may be praised by others. . . . [T]hey may be seen by others.” These people will receive fame and renown. As Jesus says: “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” Their reward is given here on earth. But the treasures here on earth are “where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.” These treasures will not last. They will pass when this heaven and earth pass away. What seems to be of great value and benefit now will be worthless in the world to come.
Instead of receiving what is ultimately without value, you are called to be recipients of an everlasting treasure: “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” But what is that treasure? What lasts forever? What cannot be destroyed? What cannot be stolen away from you? That is what the Lord discloses to you. First and foremost, it is the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation that Christ provides. The Apostle Paul describes it this way: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” The righteousness of God: that is given to you to be your eternal possession. It is yours not because of what you have done, but because of what Christ was made to be for you. Jesus had no sin in Him, but He became the greatest of sinners by taking upon Himself all your guilt. In exchange, He presents to you His righteousness to be yours. He forgives your sins, saves you from everlasting death, and establishes a new life for you.
Your hearts and minds are drawn away from the insatiable desire for earthly treasures. This is the work of the Holy Spirit in you, as the Psalmist described: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from Your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” You are recipients of divine righteousness delivered to you by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel promises of Christ. That righteousness brings with it new desires, a new will. Your hearts and minds are moved away from seeking to “lay up for yourselves treasures on earth” to desiring “treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
Having a rightly-directed heart and mind is crucial to being faithful disciples of Jesus. Without it, there is no truly pleasing the Lord. But note the statement that the Lord gives through the Prophet Joel: “’Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” The Psalmist’s words echo that statement: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” The spirit broken by God’s Law will cling to the righteousness of Christ that God’s Gospel delivers. It will receive the deliverance provided and act because of it. That action will include praise, as the Psalmist says: “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of may salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of Your righteousness.” The actions will also include the virtuous activities of giving to the poor, fasting, and praying. But these will not be done to seek out the earthly treasures of fame, renown, or greater status; instead, they will be done since it is they are the righteous acts you are meant to do.
The Season of Lent will help to set your hearts and minds on what is of everlasting value. The Collect of the Day discloses that purpose in what we request from the Lord: “Create in us new and contrite hearts that lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness we may receive from you full pardon and forgiveness.” In a moment, you will have the opportunity to receive ashes as a sign of penitence and a symbol of mortality. They will show that what is of this earth is temporal and does not last. Moth and rust will destroy; thieves will steal. Even the greatness of human life on earth will come to an end: “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” But the full, divine pardon and forgiveness that the Lord offers to you is an everlasting treasure. With sins absolved and hearts renewed, you may obtain the promises that He has laid up for those who are repentant.
Seeking the treasures of earth is a vain quest that will ultimately leave you poor and empty-handed. Instead, have your hearts and minds set on Jesus and the things above. Take up the invitation that the Lord extends to you: “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Receive what Jesus has earned for you through His holy sufferings and death: salvation delivered to you through faithfully hearing His Word of promise. The Holy Spirit makes Christ’s righteousness to be yours forever. He will establish in you the faithful heart that dwells confidently on His Word and draws from it life and hope. He will lead you to perform the righteous actions to be done not for your glory, but to glorify your Father in heaven. Practicing that righteousness on earth according to His instructions, ”Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” And so, you shall have your reward and treasures in heaven, where nothing will be destroyed or ruined, including you who will rise from the dust to life everlasting.
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.