Knowing Christ through Matthew — Part 3: Treasure in heaven

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This is the third in a 12-part series of In Focuses dedicated to exploring some central themes and texts in the Gospel of Matthew.

Matthew series In a moving passage from the Hymns on Virginity, St. Ephrem writes of Jesus’ desire to repay the love given to him by his mother, Mary. “[T]he crucified repaid debts” when he entrusted the virgin to the care of the Apostle John. As she cared for Jesus, so now he cares for her.

“The Son of your womb did not wrong your love, / but to the son of his bosom [i.e., the Beloved Disciple, John] he entrusted you. Upon your bosom you caressed him when he was small, and upon his bosom he also caressed him, so that when he was crucified he repaid all you had advanced to him, the debt of his upbringing. For, the Crucified repaid debts; even yours was repaid by him” (Hymns on Virginity, No. 25).

5 Questions to Consider
  • What does Jesus’ teaching about storing up “treasure in heaven” reveal about our own role and responsibility in the life of faith?
  • Can it ever be the case that God is truly in our debt? Can someone actually earn a heavenly reward?
  • What are the Old Testament roots of the teaching found in the Sermon on the Mount?
  • What is Jesus’ relationship to Moses and the Law?
  • What is “righteousness” for the follower of Christ?

Though he speaks here uniquely of the Virgin Mary, it is astonishing to think that God could be in debt to any of us and that we might expect payment from him in return. In the psalms, God rebukes Israel for imagining that he stands in need of anything: “Were I hungry, I would not tell you, for mine is the world and all that fills it” (Ps 50:12). And yet, in the Incarnation, God does indeed will to entrust himself to our care. With the theologian Origen, we can only wonder “how the wisdom of God can have entered into a woman’s womb and been born as a little child and uttered noises like those of crying children” (De Principiis II.VI.2). The one who needs nothing wills to become needy and so enter into our debt.

An ‘economy of salvation’

The Holy Trinity is depicted in this oil painitng by 16th century artist Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen. Public domain

This emphasis on debt and repayment in Ephrem is biblical. As we will hear, the process by which God draws humanity into relation with himself — what theology calls “the economy of salvation” — is justly spoken about in economic terms. St. Matthew’s Gospel sits squarely in this broader biblical tradition. As Nathan Eubank observes, “Matthew repeatedly describes the coming judgment as a settling of accounts.” In the case of Ephrem, debt and repayment were peculiar features of what takes place in the Incarnation — God humbles himself to be cared for by Mary, Joseph and others. In Matthew, the monetary image speaks more universally. It captures the whole of the relationship between God and man. One who performs righteous deeds stores up for himself “treasure in heaven” (Mt 6:20).

We must admit, though, that even saying as much jars our sensibilities. God’s love is wholly gratuitous, and it precedes our every effort: “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). To speak of the economy of salvation as a “settling of accounts” or a repaying of “debts” based on what we do threatens to rob God of the freedom with which he loves us. It harkens back to exactly the sort of works-righteousness that St. Paul appears to reject with such vehemence. And yet, Matthew’s Gospel confronts us with exactly this notion.

It is equally true, however, that Matthew speaks of the divine initiative that is itself the real source of salvation. The words spoken to Joseph in a dream make this clear from the outset of the Gospel. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. … She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:20-21).

We will see in the end that the economy of debt and repayment — of lending to the Lord and receiving our payment in full — is itself gratuitous. It is the result of God willing to dignify us by making us agents in our salvation. In this way, Jesus’ teaching simply carries forward and brings to perfection what God began with the gift of the Law to Israel — those “statutes and decrees, for the person who carries them out will find life through them” (Lv 18:5). Indeed, it is precisely as the fulfillment of Moses that Matthew means to portray Jesus. A closer look at the Sermon on the Mount and its roots in the Old Testament will help us to appreciate the teaching about “treasure in heaven” as both a revelation of God’s gratuitous love and of the pressing need not to bury one’s talents but to put them at the service of the master.

A prophet like Moses

In the early chapters of his Gospel, Matthew asks us to recognize in Jesus a prophet like Moses. His sojourn in Egypt as a child parallels the events of Moses and the wilderness generation. So, too, does Jesus’ temptation in the desert. The connection becomes most apparent in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ first major discourse that carries us from Matthew 5-7. (That there are five discourses of Jesus in Matthew may itself be another allusion to Moses, to whom the tradition credits authorship of the five books of the Pentateuch.)

Sermon on the Mount
Jesus teaches his Sermon on the Mount in this stained glass window. Shutterstock images

In 5:1, we read that when Jesus saw the crowds “he went up the mountain.” The same phrase appears in Exodus 19:3 when “Moses went up to the mountain of God.” In the sermon, Jesus places the Law given through Moses in conversation with his own teaching. Several times in this chapter of the sermon, the comparison is made explicit by the so-called antitheses of Jesus. Before offering his own teaching, Jesus references some element of the Mosaic law — “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors… But I say to you” (5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-37, 38-39, 43-44).

In all, this contrast affirms the substance of the Mosaic Law and carries forward its emphasis on human agency and divine recompense. At issue in the sermon (and indeed throughout the whole of Matthew) is how one might attain the kingdom of heaven. The first of the beatitudes, with which the sermon beings, is “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3). The eighth beatitude promises the same to those “who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness” (Mt 5:10). If in the first instance, the promise emphasizes one’s docility to the divine instruction, in the latter the accent is placed on one’s response. The term “righteous” here refers to one’s keeping of the Law. Faithful action leads to blessedness. Though we are accustomed to contrasting the punctilious observance of the Law that characterizes the scribes and Pharisees with the freedom of the followers of Christ (cf. Gal 5:1), the story is not so simple. Jesus appears here as new Law-giver — a new Moses — and the promise of the kingdom goes not to those who are unlike the scribes and Pharisees, but to those who outstrip them. “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

The terrible “woes” of Matthew 23 — verses that form a negative image of the beatitudes — bring the scribes and Pharisees in for a sharp rebuke. But it is never their desire to keep the Law that grounds Jesus’ disagreement with his fellow Jews. Quite the opposite. The final two beatitudes run parallel to each other and make this clear. After Jesus proclaims as blessed those who “are persecuted for the sake of righteousness” (Mt 5:10), he says to the crowd directly, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me” (Mt 5:11). The imitation of Jesus is synonymous with “righteousness.” To exceed the scribes and Pharisees is to keep the Law in and with the person of Jesus. To such as those he says, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” (Mt 5:12).

The following chapter of the sermon continues the theme of righteousness and reward. As central components of the life of righteousness, Jesus commands us to a life of almsgiving (cf. Mt 6:1-4), prayer (Mt 6:5-15) and fasting (Mt 6:16-18). The verses that bracket this teaching speak of the reward for righteousness in financial terms: “[But] take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense (misthon) from your heavenly Father” (Mt 6:1). The Greek term here — misthon — can also mean “wages” or “reward.” The notion that one earns what is given to them is a fair inference. The closing verses makes this teaching explicit: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal” (Mt 6:19-20). The same language appears elsewhere in Matthew in Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man. “If you wish to be perfect,” Jesus says, “go sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (19:21).

Examples in Tobit, Daniel

The economic metaphor is especially strong in the first Gospel. As we already observed from Nathan Eubank, “Matthew repeatedly describes the coming judgment as a settling of accounts,” and there is a preponderance of financial language unmatched by the other evangelists. Most notably, this is true even in the Our Father. “Forgive us our trespasses” is in truth “forgive us our debts” (debita nostra in Latin).

This economic imagery and the related suggestion that one is able to earn a divine recompense comes out of a long Jewish tradition. As Gary Anderson has shown, the Old Testament reference to sin as a weight gave way eventually to the language of debt. The same begins to appear also in language concerning righteous deeds that are themselves an antidote for sin. Most fittingly, and most especially, it applies to the giving of alms. As we read in Proverbs 19:17, “Whoever cares for the poor lends to the Lord, who will pay back the sum in full.” Or again in Proverbs, we learn that “treasuries of the wicked person do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death,” where “righteousness” means almsgiving (cf. 10:2).

The angel Raphael cures Tobit of his blindness in this painting by Simon Hendricksz van Amersfoort. Public domain

The third- or second-century B.C. Book of Tobit makes this claim most fully. Tobit is put forward as a paradigm of fidelity to the Law. This fidelity is epitomized by his works of loving kindness, such as burying the dead and giving alms. At the story’s resolution, the angel Raphael explains that he was sent to reward Tobit for such deeds (Tb 12:11-22). Earlier, when Tobit believes he is about to die, he commends his children to the same practice of charity with words that echo those of Proverbs as well as anticipate those of Matthew:

“Through all your days, son, keep the Lord in mind, and do not seek to sin or to transgress the commandments. Perform righteous deeds all the days of your life, and do not tread the paths of wickedness. For those who act with fidelity, all who practice righteousness, will prosper in their affairs. Give alms from your possessions. Do not turn your face away from any of the poor, so that God’s face will not be turned away from you. Give in proportion to what you own. If you have great wealth, give alms out of your abundance; if you have but little, do not be afraid to give alms even of that little. You will be storing up a goodly treasure for yourself against the day of adversity. For almsgiving delivers from death and keeps one from entering into Darkness. Almsgiving is a worthy offering in the sight of the Most High for all who practice it” (Tb 4:5-11).

3 Key Lessons
  • Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount about laying up treasure in heaven draws on several Old Testament passages that speak in economic terms about almsgiving and the performance of righteous deeds.
  • More than any other text in the New Testament, Matthew explores the relationship between God and man using economic terms and imagery.
  • In his generosity, God allows us to be participants in our own salvation. As seen in the parable of the talents, what we do determines our reception or rejection of God’s gift to us. Matthew’s use of economic terms and imagery does not detract from God’s freedom. Rather it shows what God’s freedom makes possible.

Last, we can point to Daniel, a book that is set in the time of Nebuchadnezzar but that took shape in the second century B.C. After interpreting the king’s dream, Daniel councils Nebuchadnezzar to earn good favor before the Lord: “Therefore, O king, may my advice be acceptable to you; atone for your sins by good deeds, and for your misdeeds by kindness to the poor; then your contentment will be long lasting” (Dn 4:24).

The “treasure in heaven” that Jesus speaks of draws on all of these. Both in the Sermon on the Mount and in his conversation with the rich young man, he requires that one give to the poor and thus “lend to the Lord.” And whereas it is only implicit in Proverbs, Jesus states plainly his identification — God’s identification — with the poor: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me” (Mt 25:34-36). The crucified repays his debts.

The whole of this “economy” presupposes God’s gratuitous love. This shows itself in the parable of the talents, which precedes the passage about judgment just quoted. In that text, each of the servants is rewarded or punished for his industry. The condition of the whole test is, of course, their reception of the master’s money to begin with. “The one who had received five talents came forward bringing the additional five. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents. See, I have made five more'” (Mt 25:20). It is, paradoxically, the Lord’s generosity that makes it possible to “lend to the Lord.” God stands in need of nothing, but in Christ he wills to become poor and to identify with the least. In this way he opens the possibility that we might love him with the same love with which he has first loved us.

Anthony Pagliarini is an assistant teaching professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Coming Next Month
In March, we will further discuss the Sermon on the Mount. The teaching of the sermon is often dismissed as largely rhetorical or as containing precepts only for the perfect (and so not for any but the most religious.) Drawing on the commentary tradition, we will explore the possibility that the demands of the sermon are intended for every single follower of Christ.