Sunday, March 18, 2018

On the Mount (22)

Towards the end of the children of Israel’s multi-century sojourn in Egypt, they were enslaved by a king with no appreciation for the history his people shared with the Hebrew minority living among them, and no understanding of how Israel’s presence in his land had been of unprecedented benefit to his nation. So Pharaoh used force to put God’s people to work, and they built him his legendary treasure cities, places where the king could store up his excess goods against the remote possibility of bad times.

The irony is that it was Joseph, a son of Israel, who had first taught the Pharaohs the principle of laying up excess wealth as insurance against those all-too-frequent “evil days”.

One Bad Harvest Away

But that’s the Old Testament idea of treasure: in a world in which the very next bad harvest could determine whether your family lived or died, a man with accumulated resources on which to draw was secure against most of the seemingly arbitrary predations of fate. That was a rare and precious advantage, one available only to the great.

King Solomon of Israel did exactly the same thing: indeed, treasure cities were a luxury to which all prudent monarchs aspired, and they were the very first thing their enemies attacked.

Moths, Rust and Thievery

The Lord Jesus draws on all of this back-story thousands of years later when he tells the Israelites gathered for the Sermon on the Mount:
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.”
The word for “treasure” here can also be translated as “treasury”. We should probably not think of it like some expensive new acquisition, but rather as the place where you hide your stash; the seat of your wealth and your security — your own personal Fort Knox. Like Smaug’s cave, if you prefer your analogies in Tolkien-ese. It’s that thing you are banking on to get you through, just like Pharaoh anticipated that the treasure cities of Pithom and Raamses would get the job done for him.

Naturally speaking, that’s where our hearts are, and no wonder.

Bandits and the Dow Jones

What’s your “treasure city”? I have a friend who plays the stock market and owns a bunch of real estate. She’s banking on the many smart moves she’s made over the years to get her through the sorts of economic upheavals that have wiped out the life savings of others. And she may be right. Or not. We cannot possibly know for sure.

In the first century when the Lord addressed his followers, earthly treasures were at risk from tax frauds like the wily Zacchaeus, rogue soldiers looking to extort a little spare coin on the side and gangs of roving bandits like those that come into the story of the good Samaritan. Today, it may be the CRA, the IRS or a suddenly-plummeting Dow Jones. The world may have moved on twenty centuries, but your treasure can still be vaporized in mere heartbeats.

Banking on the ‘Heritage’

But we’re not all as obviously mercenary as Scrooge McDuck. Give us some credit. Some of us have read our Bibles, and appreciate that the real legacy we leave behind us is not in dollars and cents but in the children we raise. Our “heritage from the Lord”, we enthuse. With a “quiver full of arrows”, we do not anticipate being put to shame when we speak with our enemies in the gate, so to speak. Or so says the psalmist.

Except that can let us down too, can’t it. Think about poor Gideon. He accumulated seventy sons through his many wives. That doesn’t usually happen unintentionally. Maybe he imagined those boys would insure his name in Israel. Yet all but two of them were murdered in a single day. What are the odds of that?

So much for his legacy.

Dangers We Don’t See

Nobody can foresee and plan against a catastrophe like that. In fact, no treasure, no wisdom, no force of arms can protect us from the perils that may threaten our welfare in any given generation. Such events are unique. They cannot be anticipated.

We can say with the psalmist, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” Those earthly sources of security simply cannot be relied on. We rest either in God, or in our own fantasies, self-deceptions and odds-calculations.

Oddly enough, it’s not Gideon’s genetics but his spiritual legacy that has endured, preserved for us in the pages of holy writ and passed down through generations. The things he did for God made him memorable. The things he did in his own strength as a mere man failed to transmit themselves even to a third generation.

So, yeah, treasure in heaven then. That seems to be the best possible investment.

Conventional Wisdom Inverted

How would you build that up, you ask? Seek God’s kingdom, expressed in the exaltation of his Son. Put your money, time, intellect and energy into those things that further it, and pull them out of those things that do not. Share with those in need. Look for opportunities to serve those who bear the name of Christ, and serve them in his name, even if it is in the smallest of ways.

Notice the inversion of the conventional wisdom in the Lord’s teaching. World Vision and their ilk appeal to our altruism for pragmatic reasons: they want us to reach in our pockets. The Lord appeals to our pragmatism for the highest of altruistic reasons, reminding us that in giving we benefit ourselves as well as others.

And of course it turns out the Lord is right: when we make the accumulation of heavenly treasure our object, we cannot help but start thinking about what it will be like on that great coming day when we cash in.

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