Verses 19-21 of Matthew 6 seemed clear to me when I was a kid. I grew up in church and I understood that I was “going to heaven when I die,” and so I assumed this meant I could basically earn “treasure” by doing the right thing. I imagined if I obeyed the rules, witnessed to my friends, and shared my things with others, any sacrifice would feel more tolerable because I was going to have a giant pile of gold in the end. I don’t know what I expected to do with the treasure, but being really rich for all eternity seemed cool.
Even as my perspective of what it meant to “store up for yourselves treasure in heaven” evolved to a less material understanding, I still understood the call in this passage to have primarily future consequence. I retained the basic idea that I needed to do what God wanted and not just pursue my own desires, all for the sake of extra reward in heaven. I know common perspectives on various passages of the Bible vary in different cultures and denominational contexts, but speaking from the perspective of an evangelical in the United States, I think this view is fairly common in my context. There is this prevalent idea that heaven is a place we go when we die (because we “accepted Christ”), and doing good things means extra reward.
However, in understanding “heaven” a little differently I think the message in this passage shifts. As I have come to see heaven as less of an otherworldly place we escape to when we die, I see the “treasure” differently as well. Understanding heaven as the place where God is fully present, and the place that is breaking into earth, I see the “treasure” as something attainable now in a sense. Jesus, God incarnate, came to earth to set in motion God’s plan to unite heaven and earth and I think he indicates in this story that we get to participate in that plan. I see “store up for yourselves treasure in heaven” as a call to join my life’s purpose to God’s plan for redemption.
This is important because I think it illuminates the rest of these verses. If our acts of worship, whether they be giving to the poor, praying, fasting, or whatever, are for our own personal gain, we’re missing the point. If I build a giant church, write Christian books, and achieve evangelical superstar status, all in the name of investing in heaven, but have not pursued the work that God is doing, I haven’t really done anything special at all. In fact, these verses hint that the nature of God’s work usually looks a lot different than all of that. Giving, praying, and fasting in secret are all elevated here. The call to follow God’s work in the world looks a lot more like faithful, humble discipleship than it does prominence and acclaim.
As I think about this passage now and going forward, I hope we will ask God to give us the grace not only to avoid the temptations to hoard material wealth, but also the grace to see the work God is doing right now. When we think of storing up treasures in heaven, I hope we will see that as the faithful work of giving, praying, fasting, and loving our neighbor without the accumulation of wealth or recognition. God’s grace to us in redemption and in the gift of participating in his plan of redemption is, I believe, our ultimate source of joy and satisfaction.
Who needs a pile of gold when you can join the Creator’s plan to redeem all of creation?