Monday, February 25, 2008

Banking on the Economy of Heaven

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. (Matthew 6:19-20)

Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life*. (1 Timothy 6:17-19)

*Textual note on “eternal life” in 1 Timothy 6:19: Alternate renderings include “life that is truly life” (NIV), “that which is life indeed” (NASB and AMP), “life that is truly life” (The Message), “that which is truly life” (ESV). The difference is more a matter of variations in the early manuscripts than of differences in translation.
Many Christians think that “laying up treasure” in heaven is about providing for the next life—kiss it goodbye because you are not going to see it anymore in this one. But I don’t think that is at all what Jesus or Paul were talking about. Rather, I think it is about basing the provision we need for this life on the economy of heaven.

Note first, that we are to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven. It is about the meeting of our needs. Second, in the Greek text of Matthew 6:19, the words “lay up” and “treasures” are forms of the same word, so that it literally reads, “treasure up treasures” (this follows the Hebrew way of saying things). Third, these words refer to a storehouse, so that it literally means “store up storehouses.” In 1 Timothy 6:19, the word for “storing up” is the same root word translated as “treasure” (as other versions show). Quinn and Wacker, in their translation and commentary on 1 Timothy 6:19, offer this interesting rendition: “Making their deposits in an excellent fund for the future” (Jerome D. Quinn and William C. Wacker, The First and Second Letters to Timothy: A New Translation with Notes and Commentary, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).

Both passages speak of storing up storehouses for ourselves, but what is a storehouse and what is its purpose? It is a place where resources and materials are kept until they are needed. Having a storehouse is a prudent plan for the future. However, the future in view is not about when we depart this life and enter the next. We do not need to store up anything for that life, where everything has already been taken care of. It is in this life that we still experience need.

This was not a new concept, not even in New Testament days; it had long been a part of Jewish understanding. Compare the words of Jesus and Paul with these verses from ancient Hebrew writings of the Old Testament era.
Lay up your treasure according to the commandments of the Most High, and it will profit you more than gold. Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from every disaster. (Sirach 29:11-12 NRSV)

Give alms from your possession, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it. Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor, and the face of God will not be turned away from you. If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity. (Tobit 4:7-10 NRSV)
It was common in those days for people to store up their supply in jars and bury them in the ground until needed. The problem, as Jesus pointed out, was that such materials could become corrupted or stolen. Ancient Jewish wisdom, therefore, reminded people to hedge themselves against disaster and necessity by a very counterintuitive means: Giving to the poor. Those who give alms are, in the economy of God, filling up storehouses for themselves. God does not forget, but rewards those who do, taking care of them in their time of need.

The Scriptures speak similarly: “He who has pity on the poor lends to the LORD, and He will pay back what he has given” (Proverbs 19:17). When we give to the poor, we are actually lending to the Lord. That is, an obligation of debt is created, and God graciously allows Himself to be so obligated, as this Scripture clearly shows. When we give to the poor, we are opening up an account with God and making deposits. God honors that and commits Himself to pay it back, and when He pays it back, He always does so with interest.
Blessed is he who considers poor;
The LORD will preserve him in time of trouble
And he will be blessed on the earth;
You will not deliver him to the will of his enemies.
The LORD will strengthen him on his bed of illness;
You will sustain him on his sickbed.
(Psalm 41:1-3)
Now, remember what Jesus said to the rich young man? “Sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21). But the young man went away sad because he had many possessions. He was banking on the economy of earth, trusting in his wealth and riches to care for him in the day of disaster and necessity. But if he followed Jesus’ words, he would have stored up storehouses for himself in heaven, and his goods would have done double duty; they would have provided for the poor, and for himself as well. No wonder Jesus said in another place that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). Banking on the economy of heaven brings great returns and benefits.

Do not let the economies of earth intimidate or fill you with fear. Invest yourself heavily in the economy of heaven. Give freely to the poor, and God will certainly repay, especially in the time of need.

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