Where Is Your Treasure?
Robert S. Turner
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 7, 2016
Have you ever heard the proverb, “You will catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”? It's supposed to mean that having a sweet disposition will give you greater success in dealing with people than a sour one. The analogy breaks down when you consider that a big pile of horse manure will attract far more flies than either honey or vinegar, but the basic point remains.
Behavioral science backs it up. Behaviorists have learned that positive reinforcement is better than either negative reinforcement or punishment in molding good behavior. Giving a child praise and encouragement for the things she does right is far more effective in the long run than criticizing the things she gets wrong. And making her afraid of the consequences of failure is likely to cause the very outcome you were trying to prevent.
So why is it that so much of our political discourse in this country is based on fear? Why does so much of it depend on denigrating one’s opponents and trying to convince voters that making the wrong choice will lead to the dissolution of the American way of life, the triumph of terrorism, the Apocalypse, or worse?
I guess the reason for this is that it works in the short term. If you put out a bowl of vinegar, the acetic acid will attract flies that think they’re smelling rotting fruit. If you terrify the electorate with tales of communist infiltration of the government or the threat of dominoes toppling in southeast Asia or Iraq’s purchase of yellow cake uranium from Niger or the danger that walks among us in the form of Mexican rapists or women wearing the hijab, you can scare up enough votes (pun intended) to get into office. Or get approval for an invasion. Or build a border wall.
Unfortunately, once the flies figure out they’ve been duped, they don’t stick around the bowl of vinegar any longer. Once the people figure out that they’ve been lied to, and somehow somebody somewhere awakens the better angels of their nature, you lose their support and find out that, while fear-mongering may work in a campaign, it proves a poor model for governing.
In our reading from the gospel of Luke, Jesus employs this honey-versus-vinegar principle. He is getting ready to tell his disciples to sell their possessions and be diligent in service in the absence of any remuneration or sense of reward. This could be framed as an onerous commandment; something they have to do or else. He could have used the vinegar bowl of fear, warning them that hellfire awaits the disobedient. But instead he breaks out the honey pot. “Do not be afraid, little flock,” he says, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (v. 32). Fear has no place in the equation when you realize you are part of God’s “little flock” in whom God is wellpleased. The instructions that follow cease to be burdens and become opportunities to enter into God’s joy.
Apart from this positive reinforcement, these instructions could indeed become soulkilling commands that one would obey only out of fear of punishment. “Sell your possessions, and give alms,” Jesus tells them (v. 33). Last week he warned them, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). What could be more difficult for people like us to hear from Jesus, we for whom capitalism has been like mother’s milk and our entire upbringing has taught us that acquisitiveness is a virtue, not a sin? What command would be more effective in driving us away from the path of discipleship than this instruction, if laid down as a law rather than as a means of grace?
It’s hard enough for us to hear Jesus tell us to sell our possessions and give to the poor when he presents it as positive reinforcement. For centuries, Christians who have found themselves at the top of the economic food chain have bent over backwards to qualify or minimize or flat-out ignore this command. Wealth is a sign of God’s favor. Giving money to the poor will only perpetuate their dependency. That sort of starry-eyed idealism may have worked in ancient times, but it’s entirely impractical today. What Jesus really meant is that we should not be too attached to our possessions, not that we should actually sell them or give them away. That would be silly.
When we use one of these arguments or some variation thereof, it’s a good indication that we have heard the command as vinegar. We have missed the honey of verse 32, where Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” All our objections to the command to sell our possessions come, after all, from a place of fear. How will we get by if we give everything away? What will we do if God doesn’t come through with this promised kingdom? Where will we end up if we take Jesus at his word? We have not yet unlearned the conviction that our lives do consist in the abundance of our possessions.
What Jesus is trying to teach us with this command is trust. In the verses preceding today’s reading, he offers his famous teaching about the ravens and the lilies of the field —how God takes care of them, and how God values us much more highly still. He concludes by saying, “Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (Luke 12:29–31).
Here he adds this counsel: “Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (vv. 33–34). The reason the disciples can take the extraordinary step of selling their possessions and giving to the poor is because God is trustworthy. They need not fear falling into poverty because by sacrificing their possessions they will be answering the invitation to enter into God’s joy. They will be making an investment in the reign of God. As Jesus puts it, they will be laying up an unfailing treasure in heaven.
At this point, most sermons on this passage—most of those I have heard, anyway—talk about the contrast between earthly and heavenly riches. About how ineffable spiritual blessings compensate us for our sacrifice of material things. Instead of working to amass a pile of money and possessions, we are to engage in spiritual pursuits, such as evangelism or doing good deeds or serving on the nominating committee. Every person we lead to Christ, every act of service or witness increases our investment portfolio in heaven. Our selfless and obedient actions down here keep adding jewels to the crown we will get to wear up there when we die.
There is nothing wrong—in fact, there is much that is right and admirable—about bearing witness to our faith, visiting the sick, or any other of the ways we might choose to serve God. And I do believe that God takes note of our service and faithfulness. But I don’t think Jesus is talking about a piggy bank in the clouds when he mentions an “unfailing treasure in heaven.”
I believe that what Jesus was trying to do as he went about Galilee and Judea was to create new, sustainable communities that could resist the corrosive effects of living under Roman occupation. The people who came to him for healing and who hung on his every word were, for the most part, the poorest of the poor. These were people who had been victimized by corrupt landlords, taxed to within an inch of their lives, robbed of land holdings that had been in their families for generations, and had their dignity and humanity assailed from every side. They were dispossessed, discouraged, and ready to follow anyone who offered them hope, in the form of either honey or vinegar. Some were itching for a fight. Others just wanted to be able to feed their families and live in security and dignity.
Jesus had grown up among these people. He was one of them. He knew their complaints and shared their privations. But he was also a keen observer and prophetic interpreter of current events. He saw how his people had been despoiled, and he identified as the culprits not just the Roman occupiers or the crooked landlords and tax collectors, but the entire network of religious, political, and social power that worked to enrich the few at the expense and through the oppression of the many. He understood their tactics of divide-and-conquer, of sowing fear and distrust in order to pit the powerless against one another and keep them from recognizing their common enemy. It’s an old story, and it has worked pretty effectively from the time of Jesus, through the Middle Ages with its feudal system, through the era of Jim Crow, all the way down to the divisive rhetoric of the current presidential campaign.
Jesus was, in a sense, a community organizer. He knew that what the people needed was a sense of empowerment that would come only with a degree of economic wellbeing, and that they could only achieve that if they overcame the mutual suspicion the system peddled to keep them isolated and therefore easier to manipulate. Jesus countered this by developing a new kind of community in which the traditional boundaries were erased, love was the watchword, and resources were shared.
This last characteristic, the sharing of resources, was vital to the success of Jesus’s project because, as he observes in verse 34, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” People in that culture did not consider the heart as the seat of the emotions, as we do, but rather of the will. Jesus knew that, like flies drawn to honey, people were more likely to invest their time, energy, and treasure in those things they found compelling. The converse is also true: if you invest in a project, you are more likely to care about its success or failure.
I believe that when Jesus instructed his disciples to sell their possessions, making for themselves purses that would not wear out and building up a treasure in heaven, he was really telling them to invest in each other. The new community was to be based on trust and mutual support; that’s why he was so stringent in his demands of those who proposed to follow him. Every member of the community had to pull his weight; there could be no hold-outs, no Ananaises and Sapphiras hedging their bets and undermining the community’s cohesion. Sell what you own as an individual and invest the proceeds in the common good, and do it in the assurance that it is God’s good pleasure to provide for all your needs.
This picture of Jesus’s new communities stands in stark contrast to the parable he told in last week’s gospel lesson. The rich man in that story was in business for himself and himself only. His harvest was abundant, and all he could think of was to build bigger barns to store his surplus. Listen to the self-centered nature of his soliloquy: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? … I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, …relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:17–19). Me, me, me.
But then the man dies, and God calls him a fool, asking rhetorically, “The things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20). He had invested only in himself, and he died with nothing to show for it but a bunch of big barns and probably very few friends. His purse wore out. Jesus offers this moral to the story: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
The good news today is that God is inviting us also to store up treasures in heaven, by which I mean God is calling us to invest in the reign of God. How do we do that? By investing in one another. By joining in a covenant community based on trust and mutual sharing and motivated by the promise of God’s joy. By meeting one another’s needs. By offering forgiveness and grace. By opening our doors and arms and hearts in welcome to all who come our way, regardless of who they are, what they have done, or where they have come from. By taking the risk of reaching out across divides of race, gender, sexuality, economics, and politics, seeking to bridge those divides through humble listening. By doing what Isaiah counseled his people to do in our first reading: “Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isa 1:17).
Is God calling us to sell our possessions and give the proceeds to the community? To have a common life and a common purse like Jesus’s first disciples? Who knows? Maybe. The risk we take when we set out on the road with Jesus is that we may be called on to do uncomfortable, frightening things for the reign of God. But even if our community’s calling does not entail such a radical step, God still calls us to stretch ourselves, to take a risk by investing in one another. By giving God and one another our best, not our crumbs and leftovers. By tearing down our barns of selfishness, not to build bigger ones but to share the grain inside freely. Extravagantly.
It may smell like vinegar, this call to radical discipleship and self-giving love, but it tastes as sweet as honey when we surrender to it. So, to paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson in those credit card commercials, “Where is your treasure?”