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.
The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Matthew 6:19-24, New International Version)
These beautiful teachings, taken from the Christian Bible, stand among the most misunderstood and misapplied of all Christian wisdom. Understood in their proper context, these verses carry radical, transformative power -- and a message urgently needed today.
Most Christians, I daresay, ignore them entirely. How could they do otherwise? Our existence today is inundated by the influence of money. Who among us could truthfully say that they do not serve money at all, in any way? And if we're really honest about that, how can we claim to also serve God? Much easier to pretend that these verses don't even exist.
It doesn't help that the verses, on their faces, seem difficult to reconcile with another of Jesus' teachings when, referring to the emperor's stamp on a coin, he preached to "give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's (Matthew 22:21)." In that verse, Christ seemed to suggest that financial activities like paying taxes are compatible with serving God. So what gives?
I believe that the resolution of the paradox comes from recognizing the esoteric nature of Christ's teachings about money. An important clue comes from the middle verses of the "treasures in heaven" passage: the cryptic claims about the eye being the lamp of the body. Since Christians aren't all walking around with flaming eyes, it's safe to say that this teaching is allegorical. But what does it mean?
The footnotes to my handy Zondervan NIV Bible point out that the ancient Greek word translated above as "healthy," as in "if your eyes are healthy," has a double meaning which also implies generous; conversely, the word translated as "unhealthy" also means stingy. From this perspective, we can see that once again, Jesus is engaging in some clever wordplay. But pay even closer attention to the relationship he describes between the body and the eyes, as its lamp: the light of the eyes shines not outward, but in. Conversely, when the eyes are unhealthy/stingy, then only darkness shines inward. Christ is telling us, in essence, that our internal experience depends on the way we see.
Now the dichotomy between serving God and serving money makes more sense! Jesus compares the service of God to "storing up treasures in Heaven" and to letting the light of healthy, generous eyes shine into the body. Conversely, storing up treasures on Earth amounts to unhealthy, stingy vision which fills our bodies with darkness. Why? Because "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Placing our heart in the realm of material treasures, where the vicissitudes of life eventually bring everything to its end, only places our hopes in an ephemeral wealth that will never last. True wealth, says Jesus, comes from seeing with healthy, generous eyes: recognizing that material existence itself is a gift, received by one's true self, the soul.
From such a perspective, there is no conflict between serving God and transacting mundane financial business: we can give back to Caesar what is Caesar's without sacrificing holy service. The key is to know where one's treasure is stored.
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