Yearly Meeting Miscellany: 2. Storing up treasures

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven”. (Matthew 6:19)

Bear with me, this is going to be about Yearly Meeting, because I try reading this verse thinking about sustainability. The first reading doesn’t look promising; nothing on earth lasts for ever, so don’t bother with it. Concentrate on the spiritual stuff, forget the material. Get out as early as you can, and meanwhile be as unworldly as you can.

Um, not convinced that’s what’s going on. I’m not convinced, in particular, because reading scriptures and rabbinic texts with Jewish friends and colleagues has given me the strong sense that you don’t store up treasures in heaven by being ‘spiritual’; you store up treasures in heaven by keeping the commandments of God. Which suggests to me that the difference between ‘treasures on earth’ and ‘treasures in heaven’ isn’t the difference between caring about material stuff and caring about spiritual stuff, but the difference between doing things because you believe they’ll work and doing things because they’re right.

And because this verse sounds like wisdom teaching – sensible advice about how to end up with some treasure in the long run –  the point might be that it isn’t wrong to care about the success of what you do. It’s just not particularly reliable as a guide to how well things are going. ‘Treasures on earth’, good results of one’s actions, will always rely on other people and on circumstances (hence the worry ‘there’s no point us doing anything to reduce our consumption if the rest of the world doesn’t’). But, I hope, we don’t do what we do just because we think it’s going to work. We’re not doing very well on world peace, after all.

A passage from the Mishnah I read with Jewish and Muslim scholars a while back and thought about a lot at YM: “these are the things for which a person enjoys the fruits in this world, while the principal remains in the world to come: honouring father and mother, acts of kindness, and making peace between people; and the study of the Law equals them all”. [I’ve just failed to find the right reference within my time available; think it is Shabbat 127a]. On which I reflect that there are certain actions and courses of action – including peacemaking, and culminating in seeking the guidance and following the ways of God – that quite often do make the world much better (they bear fruits/ pay dividends); but even if they don’t, the principal, the main point of doing them, their true value, doesn’t go away.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. I love your searching way of treating Scripture, Rachel. Thanks. I have a little bit to add.

    By my reading, Jesus elsewhere elaborates on “storing up treasures in heaven” as giving to the poor. He had declared a Jubilee in his first words of public ministry (in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 4)—the day of Yahweh’s favor. This, according to Leviticus 25, called for four things: the release of all debtors from their debts; the release of all debt-slaves from their service; the return of families alienated from their ancestral family farms by bankruptcy to their ‘portion,’ their inheritance; and letting land lie fallow for a year.

    “Do not worry about tomorrow” is one of many passages in which Jesus defines what the fallow provision means in the kingdom he was proclaiming, especially when you are too poor to have any land—that is, radical reliance on God’s providence. (“Give us this day our daily bread.” etc.)

    In fact, the Jubilee year, as the fiftieth year in a cycle, would have followed a sabbatical year (the 49th year, the last of seven sabbatical years as defined by Deuteronomy 15), so, in theory, the land lay fallow for two years in a row. Talk about radical reliance on God’s providence! In actual practice, even good Palestinian soil was too poor to use six years in a row and it seems the cycle was really 3-4 years. Anyway, though God’s providence was essential, survival also required careful planning, prudent management of animal wealth, effective technologies for food and seed stock storage, and a social system of mutual support.

    Here is where these providential teachings of Jesus meet the issue of sustainability, I believe: in creating a social system that takes care of those in need, and an agricultural system in which farmers know and protected their land and that has built-in mechanisms for renewal.

    Reply

  2. Thanks Steven. I’m aware, as you are, of multiple interpretations of the texts and the intertextual conversations to which you refer. For myself, I’m particularly interested in the reading of ‘do not take thought for tomorrow’ that emphasises a refusal to seize control of (one’s own portion of) the future. It seems to me, as you suggest, that there are sustainable and unsustainable (or life-giving and death-dealing) ways of thinking about the future, and these radical ‘take no thought’ texts can break the power of a death-dealing approach, ie the desire to make one’s worldly future entirely, as it were, future-proof.

    Reply

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