In our Collect of the Day today, we pray that we may become partakers of God’s heavenly treasure. Partakers of heavenly treasure. What does that mean? When you try to picture a treasure in heaven that you might participate in, what is it you see? What does that look like?
A golden harp, a golden halo you’ll wear as you walk through a supernal Jerusalem where the streets are paved in gold? Images of gold like that are frequently used in the tradition to describe heaven. Is that what heavenly treasure looks like?
I heard someone describe heaven once as a huge banquet table, with all kinds of delectable foods – and everyone had a golden spoon that long, so they couldn’t feed themselves – but everyone was feeding each other, and the real treasure was the companionship and community around that table. Is that what heavenly treasure looks like?
What does it look like to partake of heavenly treasure?
Well, one thing it does not look like is what’s described in our reading from Amos today. “Woe to those who live in luxury, who eat and drink and lounge on beds of ivory” the prophet says, “but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!”
Amos preached at a time of unprecedented wealth in the Kingdom of Israel (which he poetically calls Joseph). At that time the merchants were prosperous and the king was powerful. The borders of Israel encompassed as much territory as they were ever going to conquer. Things looked great.
Until you looked closely enough to see that all this power and prosperity was not being shared by all the people. Some people were growing immensely wealthy; but there was poverty and hunger and loss of ancestral lands and debt-slavery increasing in other segments of the population. And Amos saw this; and he interpreted it not only as a social problem, but as a spiritual problem: by failing to care for each other, by failing to treat each other justly, the people were also failing in their covenant with God. Their social disorder of great wealth among a limited few and increasing poverty among everyone else was actually just a symptom of a much deeper spiritual sickness: being puffed up with pride in their own accomplishments, trusting in their own wealth and power to uphold them, and forgetting that the only real source of life and joy is God. Those who lived in luxury would fall the hardest, Amos warned them, because luxury always fails, and it is only in God that true life can be found.
What Amos describes on the social level, Jesus, in the parable in Luke today, describes on a much more personal level. There’s the rich man and there’s the beggar Lazarus. The rich man dies and is carried off to be tormented in Hades not just because he is rich, but because with all his riches he never even sees Lazarus at his gate. He never even knows there is an opportunity there for him to share compassion. Who knows? – he might have used his wealth to do good for Lazarus, maybe even to do good for other beggars in his town. He might have – if he had known they were there. But he is so caught up in his purple and fine linen and feasting sumptuously every day, that he never even bothers to look outside his gate. He is so wrapped up in himself that he doesn’t even know he could share. The rich man’s sin is not just that he’s wealthy, but that he doesn’t even care.
My daughter recently took the high school youth group of the Methodist church where she works on a mission trip to the Rosebud Native American Reservation in South Dakota. And she told me that most of her youth said something very similar to what our Trinity youth say when they go on their first mission trip to Honduras. They say they never realized before how very much they have in life. Things they take for granted – food, shelter, new clothes, cars to drive, smartphones to communicate with (and play with), public schooling, sports teams to play on, the basic security of waking up in the morning and knowing you’ll have most everything you need to get by – things they take for granted and never before thought of as being “wealth,” they suddenly realize are things a lot of other people do not have. One of the effects of mission trips like this is not just to help other people, but to help us ourselves understand better how wealth is distributed in this world and how blessed we really are.
And the next question, of course, is what we are going to do with that understanding. Will we be like the rich man in Jesus’ parable? Will we be like the loungers on ivory beds in Amos’s Israel? Will we get so caught up in our treasure that we can’t even guess what the treasure of heaven looks like?
Or can we find a better way? Is there something else that would look more like heavenly treasure?
The Epistle reading today begins to give us a clue. The First Letter to Timothy says that a good pastoral leader will counsel those who have riches “not to be haughty,” not to be too proud of all their stuff; not “to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches,” as if the temporary wealth of the world can be expected to last; but instead to pay attention to God “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” This shifting of attention to God helps to reframe riches, so that they’re no longer just things to enjoy in themselves, but they become instruments and tools for doing something godly. In this light, riches become what makes it possible “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.” In this light, riches actually become a means of relationship, an outward expression “of the life that really is life.”
So maybe treasure used to build relationships that give life is heavenly.
Many years ago, in another congregation, I had a parishioner who told me he was trying to develop a “1% Club.” He said he was trying to get together a group of people who would pledge to give 1% of their total wealth annually to churches and charities and good works. He was aware, of course, that the traditional biblical tithe is 10% of income. But he also pointed out that there are some people whose income is only a small portion of their total wealth; and for these people 10% of income would be nice, but 1% of wealth would be amazing. His goal was to work on that 1%.
And as he explained all this to me, I thought to myself “Here is someone who understands money, and understands finance, and understands generosity.” I think it’s a great gift of God when all three of those go together. I don’t have all three – just ask the Finance Committee, they’ll tell you about how much use I am at Finance meetings – but I’m always impressed when I meet someone who really understands how the money-world works, and at the same time feels deeply the call of God to be generous, to be ready to share, to be rich in good works.
And the thing about my 1%-parishioner was, to look at him, you’d never know he had that much wealth. He actually lived very simply. His car, his home, his clothes – his stuff – were nice, but not flashy, nothing special. And his personal demeanor was always unpretentious, always down-to-earth, and fundamentally happy. I think he exemplified another thing the Epistle teaches: “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.” My parishioner was content; he had wealth but did not crave wealth; and therefore wealth never became a trap to him but was always something to be used for relationship and compassion. He knew how he was blessed, and he was always ready to share the blessing.
And that meant that there was something heavenly about him. Quite apart from images of harps and halos and streets of gold, his compassion and generosity and joy on earth was like a little glimpse of the life of heaven.
So, today, when you pray to be a partaker of heavenly treasure, what does that look like to you? What godliness and contentment do you know? What relationships can your wealth, the things you might just take for granted, help you build? How can you look around outside your gate and care?
O God, grant us the fullness of thy grace, that we, running to obtain thy promises, may become partakers of thy heavenly treasure. Amen.