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Friday, January 15, 2016

Treasure

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
-Matthew 5:19-21 (NIV)

Wu Chen didn’t mean to lose all his money. It just happened.

     The 67 year old retired fisherman from China’s Sichuan province put away his life savings five years ago. The funds amounted to about 35,000 Yuan, or a little over $5200. Wu felt that it was too much trouble to put the money in the bank, but he wanted to keep it safe. So, he chose a time-honored method.
     He buried it.
     Pirates famously buried chests full of plunder taken from, well, their pirating. Bilbo Baggins followed a map to a dragon’s treasure hidden deep in a mountain. Centuries of legend, literature, and film turn on the pursuit of buried treasure, hidden and recovered. Wu probably figured that if so many pirates and dragons buried their loot, it had to be a good solution for keeping his retirement fund safe.
     One difference: pirates and dragons usually aren’t heavily invested in paper currency.
     And they don’t usually choose biodegradable plastic bags to bury their treasure in.
     Wu, unfortunately, did both. And when he dug up his money, the bag he put it in had started to degrade. Water, mold, and insects had done what they do. His cash had crumbled and rotted away into a wet, shredded mess.
     Doesn’t that just about sum up our relationship with money? We work hard to accumulate it. Try to use it wisely. We do our best to keep it secure, make sure we have enough stashed for the future. And then, in spite of our best efforts — we find we can’t hold on to it as long or as securely as we imagine. 
     We have to try, of course. That’s how the world works. Money can’t buy everything, that’s true, but the things it can buy are pretty important to most of us. That’s why when we read about a retiree in China losing his life savings, we cringe and worry and feel compassion.
     Thankfully, Wu’s local bank helped him out. He brought in the fragments of banknotes he dug up, and some workers painstakingly started piecing them together. Eventually, they were able to piece together enough to replace about 21,000 of the lost 35,000 yuan. It’s only three-fifths, but it’s something. And, hopefully, Wu will put it in the bank, or invest it, or something. 
     That’s what money’s for, after all, isn’t it? It’s to be used. Not hoarded, not stashed, not kept in a vault or buried in the ground. Money is a tool to be used for the things that matter most to us. Jesus, who has a lot to say about money, reminds us that stockpiling wealth can prove disappointing. Thieves break in and steal it. Moths and vermin destroy it. Even now, when wealth more likely takes the form of 1’s and 0’s on a hard drive, it can still be stolen. It can still be lost: A few greedy bankers write a few high-risk mortgages, a few financial institutions start to fail, and suddenly retirement funds all over the world are bleeding profits. What you thought you had, you no longer have. 
     Still, Jesus talked about a greater problem with hoarding treasure than the risk of losing it. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” We like to think that if our hearts are right, we can hoard as much as we’re able. Jesus implies that it doesn’t work that way. Your heart follows your treasure, not the other way around. Your real values and priorities, your true love, the god you really serve, will inevitably be found wherever you keep whatever you hoard and stash and stockpile — whether it’s money or the things we buy with it.
     Even if we want to argue — and sometimes we do — we know it’s true.  
     I’m thinking of Cameron’s dad’s car in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It’s a red 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder (“it is so choice”) that’s kept in a glass-walled garage overlooking a ravine. Ferris “borrows” it for his day off, and through a long series of events it gets destroyed. When they bring the car back, Cameron launches a tirade against his dad while kicking the car over and over. “What do you love?” he shouts as he lays into the Ferrari. “You love a car!” We’ve all known folks who serve as cautionary tales, who sacrifice everything, even relationships with those they should love most, for wealth. We know it could be us.
     So how do we make sure it isn’t us? Well, a good start is to take Jesus seriously. “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” is his obvious suggestion. That’s a bit cryptic, to be sure, but you probably get the idea, right? Jesus himself unpacks it: Whatever else it might involve, he definitely means sharing what you have with those who don’t have
     It’s a choice to consciously do the opposite of what we’re unconsciously conditioned to do. Instead of stockpiling wealth, we give some of it away. We use it to bless others, to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to share the gospel, to fund education, to care for the orphans, to lighten the load on a single mom. It can take a thousand forms. What they have in common is that they raise our hearts to heavenly places, draw our attention and our priorities and our energy to the work that God is doing in the world, and keep us safe from the danger of loving things and using people, instead of the other way around.

     It isn’t only the Warren Buffetts and Bill Gates of the world that are tempted to store up treasure on earth. It’s you and me. So may we resist that temptation by investing what we have in what God wants done around us. And then we can sleep soundly, knowing that our wealth is in good hands.

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