by David Williams
19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, 23 but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.
Whenever we think of Pharisees, we think of those who posit themselves as being ‘holier than thou,’ but it’s actually much more complex than that. Jesus starts this chapter by drawing a contrast with what true religion looks like compared to what was practiced and taught by the Pharisees. We could easily divide this chapter up to our present passage as such:
- 6:1-4 – giving to be seen of men;
- 6:5-14 – how NOT to pray (and what the purpose of prayer really is);
- 6:15-18 – the true purpose of fasting.
In our current passage, Christ exposes the Pharisees’ true focus – worldly gain – under the pretense of spirituality. Though the Pharisees were often the objects of Christ’s most harsh criticism, there were, however, fundamental agreements that existed between them. They were not all wrong in all places. For example, Jesus agreed with them on the resurrection as well as their interpretation of the precepts of the Torah. But if they had so much right, then how could they get so much wrong? I believe an examination of their history will provide key insight as to where they went off the rails and why Jesus uses them as an example of what not to follow.
The term ‘Pharisee’ comes from the Greek ‘Pharisaioi,’ which is derived from the Hebrew ‘Perusim’ meaning “separated ones.” According to scholars, this sect emerged from the Hasidim, a group of devout separatists known as the “righteous” or “pious.” Though information about the Pharisees is limited, their rise to prominence only lasted about 220 years, from ca. 150 BC – 70 AD, and it would appear they formed as a response to the historic idolatry that plagued Israel’s history. As such, they were devoted to the observance of the Jewish religion and known for their commitment to their no-nonsense approach to the observance of the law through strict interpretation. This devotion to the Mosaic law led to the development of an extensive set of oral traditions for the sole purpose of maintaining rigorous religious fidelity and purity. Though there is disagreement among ancient sources as to whether they were a political party, a philosophy school, a sect, or a voluntary organization, what is agreed upon was their strict devotion to maintaining ritual purity. Their rise to prominence was in their firm attitude in their adherence to the Torah, along with keeping themselves set apart both socially and theologically from the Jewish aristocratic Hellenistic sympathizers as well as the uneducated commoners. So great was their devotion to the Torah that even though their direct influence subsided after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, almost all forms of modern Judaism trace their lineage through the Pharisees.
So how did they run afoul of Christ? They were devoted to the Word of God, they were against all the wrong things, and they were influential. How did they miss it? Simply put, they fell victim to their own institutionalization. Their commitment to the Torah became commodified and monetized, and their devotion became a pretext to maintaining their stations in life. They were given a voice and a platform, but in the end, they wanted it for themselves and for their own benefit, not the Lord’s.
Jesus explains this passage by drawing a series of contrasts -the earthly treasure to the heavenly; the healthy eye to the diseased; light with darkness; and two masters – God and money. Perhaps the most telling is how Jesus illustrates his point in verses 22 and 23. Here, Jesus uses the eye figuratively as the representation of our ability to focus. In other places, the term ‘healthy’ is translated ‘simple, ’single,’ or ‘sound.’ From the original language, we could also use the terms “without ulterior motive” and “unambiguous.” Christ is warning against divided allegiances - spiritual astigmatism with the inability to focus on the eternal to keep the temporal in view. Calvin writes, “Those who are devoted to riches are alienated from the Lord. For the greater part, men are wont to flatter themselves with a deceitful pretense when they imagine that it is possible for them to be divided between God and their own lusts. Christ affirms that it is impossible for any man to obey God and, at the same time, to obey his own flesh. This was, no doubt, a proverb in common use: No man can serve two masters. He takes for granted a truth which had been universally admitted and applies it to his present subject: where riches hold the dominion of the heart, God has lost his authority. True, it is not impossible that those who are rich shall serve God; but whoever gives himself up as a slave to riches must abandon the service of God: for covetousness makes us the slaves of the devil.”
The sad truth is that one may be deeply religious and yet still fall victim to serving mammon, just like the Pharisees. They absolutely were pious, yet their piety and unrivaled devotion were no barrier to the sinful desire for riches. Ultimately, this desire for earthly treasure undermined their original purpose – avoiding idolatry and maintaining fidelity to God. And this is the lesson for us as we examine stewardship in this current series: Are we, like the Pharisees, unfaithful servants who seek to seize upon that which we’ve been entrusted with, or are we faithful servants, who merely superintend that which belongs to our Master?