Heavenly Treasures

Heavenly Treasures

 This first Sunday of Lent, I am wondering what, if anything, have you decided to give up? According to a recent Christianity Today poll, as of Wednesday of last week Twitter placed the following items in the Lent Top 10!

Starting with number 10 is soda

Then Swearing comes in at #9;

Fast food at #8;

Coffee at #7;

Sweets at #6;

Meat at #5;

Chocolate at #4;

Alcohol at #3;

Twitter itself at #2;

and Social networking in general is #1.

The study also reports that 3 in 10 who hold to evangelical beliefs say they observe Lent. Of these 42% typically fast from a favorite food or beverages. And this is compared with 61% of Catholics who are likely to observe Lent with 2 out of 3 abstaining from a favorite food or beverage.[1] As I was thinking about Lenten practices, it occurred to me that those who celebrate Lent may at times treat it almost like a second shot at New Year’s resolutions that perhaps have already been broken. It can be viewed as a time for self-improvement or self-reflection rather than for a time in which we turn our gaze away from ourselves in order to reflect upon Christ. How far we’ve come from Lent’s original intent. Historically the purpose of Lent, the period falling between Ash Wednesday and Easter, has been to remember especially the final events in Jesus Christ’s life—his temptation by the Devil in the wilderness, his crucifixion, and, of course, his glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday. And the three primary practices that have been associated with Lent are, not coincidentally, the three that Jesus addresses in this morning’s passage: 1) Almsgiving; 2) Prayer; and 3) Fasting.

This portion of Matthew’s Gospel provides some of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount begun in chapter 5. In addressing almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, Jesus first provides a guiding principle that he then applies in a formulaic manner to these three practices. The overriding principle stated in verse 1 is this: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Now to be righteous is to demonstrate good character; it’s to act or behave with high moral standards. But as we often see in Jesus’ teaching, righteousness has as much to do with internal motive as it does with external behavior. Earlier in his sermon Jesus provided two examples of this—murder and adultery. Defined narrowly, murder is the unlawful premeditated killing of another person. And the one who commits such an act is subject to judgment. Jesus doesn’t deny this understanding but he does expand upon it in stating, “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”[2] God judges not only our actions but also our hearts. Similarly, defined narrowly adultery is voluntary sexual intercourse between a person who is married and another person who isn’t their spouse. Once again, Jesus doesn’t dispute this but adds, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”[3] Jesus knows well that both righteous and unrighteous behavior begin in our hearts and so he calls us to examine our hearts; to seek to be pure not only in our external actions but also in our internal motivation. For it’s the pure in heart who will see God.[4] And purity of heart calls us to do what we do not for the sake of being seen by or impressing others but for the sake of pleasing our Father in heaven.

Again the three behaviors Jesus addresses in our passage—almsgiving, prayer, and fasting—all should characterize the life of a believer. They are three important and implicit examples of righteousness. Therefore these practices should be part and parcel of every believer’s life. But just as morally bad behaviors like murder and adultery have roots deep in our hearts, at the level of motives, so it is with these morally good behaviors. For even good behaviors can be tainted if done for the wrong motive. If we do something good for the wrong reason, then it is no longer good. It ceases to be commendable. Even good practices can be done for wrong ends. And in all three practices Jesus points out that the good and bad end are always the same: if we do what we do to please God, then we’re on the right track; if we do what we do to impress others, then we’re surely on the wrong track. And again it’s important to notice that for all of these behaviors the expectation is that we will indeed partake in or perform them. Righteous acts should be found in the life of believers. But for each the guiding principle of what determines a righteous act will be the same: Again—are we doing what we’re doing in order to please God, to be commended by God, or are we doing what we’re doing to impress or be commended by others?

So the first practice Jesus addresses is that of giving to the needy. I think we can all agree that giving to others, especially those who are most in need, is a good thing to do. Yet even with such a good act there is a right way to give as well as a wrong way. “So,” Jesus declares in verse 2, “when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” If we give to the poor but make a show of it, we are hypocrites in the sense that we are play-acting. We are pretending to be righteous; we are pretending to be generous when, in fact, we are giving in order to be noticed and praised by others. So hypocritical righteousness seeks to receive praise from others rather than seeking to care for one who is in need. To give to the needy in order to receive praise from others is the wrong way to give. Again, the problem isn’t with the act of giving for we should give to the poor; the problem is with the motive for giving.[5] The wrong reason for giving is to receive honor from others. Therefore the praise, the adulation, received from others ends up being its own reward. This way of giving isn’t a genuine expression of our love for those we seem to be pretend but is self-congratulatory.

Instead when we give, we should do so in the right spirit and for the right reason. So Jesus provides a contrast to wrong giving by stating what right giving looks like starting in verse 3, “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Clearly it’s impossible for the left hand not to know what the right is doing but the point here is clear. Our giving should be done privately. We shouldn’t brag about it when we give to the poor. No, we should give to those in need because it’s the right thing to do. We should give to those in need because in doing so we are reminded that all that we have has been given to us—is on loan to us—from our loving and heavenly Father. And because he desires us to share what we have with those in need, when we do so out of obedience and a desire to please him, then we are giving with a right motive. For true righteousness seeks to please God, not impress others.

The next practice Jesus addresses is prayer. Again, notice that the expectation is that believers will pray—believers will talk with God about any and all things. As a pastor I once sat under used to say: To be a Christia and not pray is to act no differently than an atheist! But there’s a right way of praying and a wrong way of praying. Again Jesus begins with the negative in verse 5: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” Again we find here that even if we do something good—in this case praying—for the wrong reason—to be seen by others, this is hypocrisy. It isn’t a genuine expression of our love for God but becomes a matter of playing the role of a righteous person due to our desire to receive praise from others. As we’ve noted before, it was more common during this time for people to pray out loud than to pray silently as we often do.[6] But to pray out in the open—in the synagogues and in the street corners—was to pray for the wrong reason. Like trumpeting one’s almsgiving, this is a form of trumpeting one’s spirituality by making a public spectacle of our prayers. Consequently God who is the one to whom we should be praying isn’t even a part of such a praying display.

So again, in verse 6 Jesus provides a right example of prayer that contrasts with this wrong example even as he did for almsgiving. “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Now when Jesus adds this time around that we ought to pray to our Father who is unseen, we’re perhaps better able to appreciate why doing things for our heavenly Father can be difficult. Doing things for the praise of others, and receiving such praise, no doubt can provide immediate gratification. But to do things for our heavenly Father who is unseen can be a challenge, can’t it? For if God is unseen, how can we be sure he’s really there? How can we be sure he’s really listening? To pray, then, requires faith. It requires believing that what Scripture and Jesus say is true. And what they say is that if our motive for praying is to impress others then that isn’t genuine prayer for we have ceased talking with God and are merely pretending to say words to God for the sake of being noticed by others. Yet we must never forget the other part of what the Scriptures and Jesus teach— that God is our Father; he is a Person. He is God who made us. He is God who knows us more intimately and deeply and profoundly than we know ourselves. He is a God who is everywhere and from whom we can’t ever escape. He is God who wants us to come to him with everything that is on our hearts. And he wants us to do so privately. He wants us to do so sincerely. He wants us to do so thoughtfully, not like the “babbling” pagans mentioned in verse 7 who “think they will be heard because of their many words.” We are not to be like them for, as Jesus reminds us, our Father knows what we need even before we ask him (v. 8). But he still wants us to ask because, more than anything else, he made us that we might know him. He made us that we might love him. He made us that we might know his love for us. And prayer—our conversing with him throughout each day—is an indispensable means he has provided that we might known him.

Last Jesus turns to the matter of fasting in verse 16. And by now we should be discerning a pattern in his teaching: “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” Again, the expectation is that followers of God will fast. But there’s a right way to do so and a wrong—or hypocritical way—to do so. The wrong way yet again is to put fasting on as though it were a mask of our great righteousness so that others will notice and be impressed by how very spiritual we are. Such fasting makes clear to others that we are fasting by the “disfiguring” of our “faces.”

But the right way of fasting—no surprise—seeks approval not from others but from God, starting in verse 17: “17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Once again we must trust that the things we do secretly for our unseen Father in heaven will be seen—will be noticed and rewarded by him. Now secrets can be a source of intimacy. By definition a secret is something not known or not meant to be known or seen by others. So when we share a secret with someone, it can help form a bond with them. And God wants our highest bond—our highest loyalty—to be to him. For he is pleased when we do what we do in order to please him. If we consider an analogy with a human parent, weren’t our own parents pleased with every crayon drawing and glitter card and clay pot that we proudly made and brought home for them? Their pleasure most definitely wasn’t—at least in my case!—due to there being any degree of genuine artistic ability in these objects. No, a parent’s pleasure derives from knowing that their child made what they made in order to please them—and pleased they always were. So, too, does our loving and unseen Father in heaven derive similar pleasure when we give alms—or pray—or fast in order to please him.

Now if verse 1 provided a guiding principle for us—don’t practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them; verses 19–21 bring this principle full circle. Beginning with verse 19 Jesus again exhorts a negative, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” Practicing our righteousness—whether by giving to the poor or praying or fasting—for the sake of receiving praise from others is but earthly treasure. It doesn’t last. It can be destroyed. It can be lost. Instead, verse 20, Jesus bids “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Again, if we do what we do—even good things like almsgiving, praying, and fasting—to be praised by others, this is a false righteousness that is over the minute it’s noticed by others; but if our motive is to please God, then God who is life eternal and who gives us his eternal life will be eternally pleased with us. So Jesus concludes in verse 21, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If our treasure is the praise of others, then we will end up being poor for such treasure won’t last; but if our treasure is pleasing our Father in heaven, we’ll be richest of all people for his love for us—and pleasure in us—will never let us go.

Now I began this morning by asking what, if anything, have you decided to give up for Lent? And though this year I haven’t set aside any particular practice myself, I know that in years past when I have, for example, decided to fast one day a week or give up some favorite treat during the Lenten season, there have been times when my motive has been more about losing weight—and perhaps by extension to impress others for we are a society that is obsessed with thinness—than it has been to please God. So how can we redeem our acts? How can we align our practices so that God, not us; God, not others is the focus?

I’m afraid I don’t have any easy answers to this for though because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for us, when God looks upon us he sees Christ’s beautiful and true righteousness—since Christ has taken upon himself our ugly motives and death-inducing sin—nonetheless storing up heavenly treasures rather than earthly ones isn’t easy. It isn’t easy because we are dual citizens and our earthly citizenship can seem to be so much more real than our heavenly citizenship. For we can see the earthly but the heavenly, which is unseen, we can only discern by faith in Christ and his Word. Too, it isn’t easy to store up heavenly treasures because, as Martin Luther once observed, even our most noble motives can be tainted by sin. And yet—for however many years God gives us, we are citizens of earth, called to live our earthly lives often in tension with earthly values. We are called to be in the world but not of the world.[7] And because we are also citizens of heaven, destined to live there for all eternity, we are called to do what we can to cultivate those heavenly treasures. And cultivating heavenly treasures—cultivating the holiness which is ours in Christ—is hard work.

So how can we cultivate such heavenly treasures?

I think first, by praying—by inviting God into all of our thoughts—all of our intentions—all of our plans. Again as we share things, secrets and otherwise, with those we trust; With those we love; so we ought to do the same with our loving and heavenly Father who is ever-pleased to hear from us, his children. As Paul puts it, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”[8] To do something for God’s glory is to do it for the sake of pleasing him. So anything we do, if we do it for God’s sake, can be done for his glory and can therefore become part of our eternal, never-ending treasures for our God is an eternal, never-ending God. And let us do so as an expression of our loving him with all of our hearts, souls, mind, and strength;

Second, we can cultivate heavenly treasures by inviting other believers, our brothers and sisters in Christ, into our thoughts—and intentions—and plans. For we’ve been given these lives to live corporately, as a family, not individually. The input and wisdom of those who care for us, who have our best intentions at heart, is another means we’ve been provided to help us cultivate heavenly treasures. And it’s a means we have of loving each other as we love ourselves;

Third, and I hope it goes without saying, we can cultivate heavenly treasures by weighing what we seek to do against the Scriptures God has disclosed to us. So, for example, to the best of our knowledge are we doing what we do from a motive of love—and joy—and peace—and patience—and kindness—and goodness—and faithfulness—and gentleness—and self-control?[9] Or is what we are considering explicitly forbidden? God has given us his Word as a lamp unto our feet, as a guide unto our path,[10] so let us not neglect such wisdom, light, and guidance;

And last, we can cultivate heavenly treasure by putting the question to ourselves that Jesus put before those performing even the righteous acts of giving to the needy—and praying—and fasting: Are we doing what we do to be seen of others? To be praised by others? To be noticed by others? Or are we doing what we do in order to please God? In a similar veign, I’ve always appreciated the following quotation about character: “The true test of a person’s character is what they do when no one is watching.”[11] That’s one way of testing—of checking our motive—would we do this act even if no one was watching? And for those of us who know and seek to follow Christ Jesus and his teachings, we can add with confidence that an unseen Someone—namely our good and merciful Father in heaven—is always watching, and watching out for us, for we are never alone in this world. Our heavenly Father, the Unseen See-er, loves to reward his children whom he loves.

These questions of motive are important since they get to the heart of our identity in Christ. For, as we’ve noted before,[12] what greater joy can we have than that of hearing our loving and heavenly Father say at the end of our earthly days, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Come and enter into the joy of your Master!”?[13]

Therefore dear brothers and sisters, let us remember to give to those in need.

And let us pray without ceasing to our unseen Father in heaven.

And let us fast.

And let us do all we do to please him knowing that he, our Father who sees what is done in secret, delights in lavishing rewards upon us, his children.

Let us pray.


[1] https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2018/february/what-to-give-up-for-lent-2018-top-ideas-twitter-100.html

[2] Matthew 5:22a.

[3] Matthew 5:28.

[4] Matthew 5:8.

[5] A beautiful instance of a needy person giving all they had can be found in Luke 21:1–4:As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” A parallel account is found in Mark 12:41–44: 41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

[6] For example, Hannah was thought to be drunk for praying silently (I Samuel 1:12–14: 12 As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk 14 and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.”). Also praying out loud is one of the reasons we are privileged to have a record of Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17.

[7] John 17:14–16: 14 I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. 15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.; John 15:18–19: 18 “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.

[8] I Corinthians 10:31.

[9] These are, of course, the fruit of the Spirit Paul lists in Galatians 5:22–23.

[10] Psalm 119:105: Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.

[11] In a Google search, this quotation is attributed to John Wooden, Former basketball player and head coach at UCLA.

[12] Sermon preached on November 19, 2017, on Matthew 25:14–30, Investing in the Kingdom.

[13] Matthew 25:21.

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