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Matthew 6:19-24 “Practical Righteousness, Part 1: A Perspective of Single Focus”

Having defined what kingdom righteousness looks like (5:21-48) and exhorted how kingdom righteousness is to be performed in acts of worship (6:1-18), Jesus now turns to exhortations of practical righteousness in day-to-day living (6:19-7:12). Jesus, the master preacher and teacher, continues to form His sermon with grammatical precision while binding the smaller topics to the main point with logical and lexical connections. Through careful study, we can see that not only is there sufficient structure in the following section, but these verses are also well connected to the previous sections of the sermon.

Just as Jesus’ definition of kingdom righteousness (5:21-48) is divided among the “you’ve heard it said…but I tell you…” statements and His exhortations for righteous worship (6:1-18) is divided into actions that Jesus assumes His disciples will participate in (when you do charity…pray…fast), this section also has its grammatical tells. In 6:19-7:12 are three present imperatives negated by μὴ (6:19, 25; 7:1), each commanding the disciples to stop doing something. Each of these sections elaborate with additional commands of what to do in place of what is being prohibited. Part of each explanation contains a reference to eyes (6:22-23, 26-28, 7:3-5), as well as warnings that increase in severity (6:21, 32; 7:6). The third major point of Jesus’ SM is arranged as follows:

1. Stop storing up treasures on earth (6:19-24)

2. Stop worrying (6:25-34)

3. Stop judging (7:1-12)

To this we should add that this final section contains several strong connections to Jesus’ exhortations for worship in 6:1-18. Structurally, we can note that each section is divided into three subsections. It is also interesting that while Jesus assumed that His disciples would continuing performing normal acts of worship (though with corrected Kingdom guidance), here He commands the disciples to cease specific actions. It is as though there has been a long lasting disconnect between their piety and personal living that must be corrected. In fact, we see connections to the themes of 6:1-18 being revisited in 6:19-7:12 in reverse order so that this section, which emphasizes practical righteousness, mirrors the previous section. After addressing the importance of fasting as a means to focus one’s attention on seeking God (6:16-18), Jesus immediately exhorts practical perspective with a single focus on God (6:19-24). In answer to Jesus’ teaching on prayer, an act that expresses and trusts God (6:5-15), He exhorts disciples to live with a perspective of trust and dependence (6:25-34). Jesus began His emphasis on piety by teaching the humility that is necessary in connection with charity (6:1-4). This same emphasis on humility in connection with necessary human interaction is mirrored in Jesus’ concluding teaching in practical righteousness (7:1-12). In short, 6:19-7:12 show the horizontal application of the vertical faith found in 6:1-18. The transition is therefore quite seamless as Jesus moves from the singular focus to seek the Lord (vv. 16-18) to one’s need to live with singular focus on the Lord (vv. 19-24).

Stop storing up treasure for you on the earth, where moth and eating disappear and where thieves break in and steal. But start storing up for you treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor eating disappear and where thieves don’t break in or steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will also be. The lamp of the body is the eye. Therefore, if your eye be single, your whole body will be bright. So, if your eye be evil, your whole body will be dark. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! No one is able to serve two lords; for either he will hate the one and love the other or he will cling to the one and despise the other. You are not able to serve both God and Mammon.

This is where the rubber meets the road. It is of little value that one’s worship is in line with Jesus’ teaching if their day-to-day living is not. True worship must extend into lifestyle. Here begins the transition from righteousness in worship to righteousness in living. It’s worth noting that Jesus arranges this first point about singular focus into three sets of twos: two treasures (vv. 19-21), two eyes (vv. 22-23, and two lords (v. 24).[1] As such, Jesus provides three reasons why the single focus of worship (fasting) is to be paired with singular God-centered perspective in daily living.

Consider Treasure’s Vulnerability (vv. 19-21)

The idea of treasure (θησαυρός) is significant in Matthew’s gospel. Of the seventeen times the noun is used, nine of them are in Matthew (2:11; 6:19, 20, 21; 12:35; 13:44, 52; 19:21). The verb (θησαυρίζω) appears only eight times in the New Testament, yet two of them are in Matthew (6:19, 20), the only book to use the verb more than once.[2] At the mere mention of treasure, we make our fist connection to the previous sections of the SM. Jesus has already made reference to heavenly rewards (5:12, 46; 6:4, 6, 18), most of which are found in His exhortation of righteous worship. This treasure is therefore in reference to one’s worship; whether that worship is focused on this earth or on the One who is in heaven.

Exhortation: Stop Hoarding Vulnerable Treasure (vv. 19-20)

Stop storing up treasure for you on the earth, where moth and eating disappear and where thieves break in and steal. But start storing up for you treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor eating disappear and where thieves don’t break in or steal.

These two verses are nearly identical as Jesus pits treasures stored on earth against treasures stored in heaven. Jesus commands the disciples to stop storing up treasures on earth and likewise to start storing up treasures in heaven. Woodenly translated, Jesus says something to the effect of stop treasuring treasures (μὴ θησαυρίζετε ὑμῖν θησαυρούς)…start treasuring treasures (θησαυρίζετε ὑμῖν θησαυρούς). It is not the fact that stockpiling valuables is wrong. Jesus literally commands His followers to stockpile their treasure in v. 20. Yet, it is the nature of those valuables and the location where they are stockpiled that Jesus brings into question. The point Jesus is getting at here is that of vulnerability. Simply stated: treasures on earth are vulnerable while treasures in heaven are secure.

The problem with treasures on earth is that they are susceptible to loss. Jesus mentions three kinds of treasures that each come with their own risks of vulnerability. First, the moth (σής) is commonly known to ruin clothing and other textiles. Any clothing, blankets, tapestries, or other fabric that is stored away in a closet or cabinet is susceptible to the appetite of the moth.

Next, there is the rust or, more literally, the eating (βρῶσις). Some have interpreted this as a euphemism for the corrosion of metal (rust), but that is doubtful. The noun appears 11x in the NT, always within the context of eating food (Matt. 6:19, 20; Jn. 4:32; 6:27, 55; Rom. 14:17; 1 Cor. 8:4; 2 Cor. 9:10; Col. 2:16; Heb. 12:16). Even in the 41 occurrences of the noun in the LXX of the Old Testament, the term is always within the context of food and never in the context of metallic corrosion.[3] The sense is therefore indicating stored foodstuffs like stockpiled grain that is susceptible to vermin eating away at the hoard. Both the moth and the eating have the ability to disappear earthly treasure. The verb normally translated as destroy (ἀφανίζω) is the same term used to describe the actions of the hypocrites who disappear (ἀφανίζουσιν) their faces in order to appear (φανῶσιν) before men (v. 16). The connection to fasting is now quite unescapable. The point is that both the moth and the vermin can literally make one’s earthly treasures disappear. Locked securely away in chests, closets, storage bins, barrels, and barns, these treasures can disappear without the owner knowing until it’s too late.

It's interesting that Jesus does not use more dramatic illustrations such as fire, plague, or storms to illustrate the vulnerability of earthly treasures. Rather, He uses such common and relatively un-frightening things like the larva of a moth or a few mice to illustrate how vulnerable earthly treasures truly are.

Finally, Jesus points out that even treasures which can stand up to insects and rodents are not safe. Precious metals are impervious to insects and are precious specifically because they do not corrode. Yet they are not safe either for they can be taken away as easily as they can be stored. Jesus describes the actions of thieves as breaking in or, more literally digging in (διορύσσω). The common home was not made of stone, but of mud. It would be relatively easy for a burglar to dig a hole in a wall to gain entry. The point is simple: one’s own home is no secure place to store one’s treasures.

One begins to wonder if the location of the stockpile is the only point to be made. Anything that can be consumed or taken away cannot be of real value. Only those things that cannot be lost is of true value. Of course, the place where these things are kept matters, for in there lies the security of the treasure. So, the identity of the treasure is linked with the secure place of storage.

The contrast to treasures in heaven is obvious yet beautifully presented by Jesus as He repeats the same ideas to convey security rather than vulnerability. In heaven, moth and eating don’t disappear one’s treasure and neither do thieves break in and steal. The problems that face earthly treasures do not impact heavenly treasure. At this point we should ask: what is this heavenly treasure?

The reference to heavenly treasure is not ambiguous, nor is this the first time Jesus mentions it. Those blessed saints who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness are commanded to rejoice because their reward in heaven is great (5:12). Loving only those who love us receives no reward (5:46). Those who give charity in humility (6:4), pray dependently (6:6) and fast with focus (6:18) are promised reward from their heavenly Father. The context of the SM defines storing up treasures in heaven as humble submission and obedience to God from the heart. The disciples’ reward is eschatological (awaiting the coming of the Kingdom) and are secure because this reward is held in the hands of the Father. The point is thus pitting self-advancement against service to God. This is made clearer in the implication that Jesus points out in the next verse.

Implication: One’s Treasure Reveals One’s Heart (v. 21)

For where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.

The reason (casual γὰρ) Jesus commands His followers to stop stockpiling earthly treasures and commands them to start accumulating heavenly reward is because these actions reveal the heart. It is not that one’s treasure turns the heart in a particular direction (heavenly treasures turning the heart toward heaven vs. earthly treasures turning the heart toward earth) but that one’s treasures reveal where the heart truly lies. The obsession with clothing, crops, and coin exposes that the heart is self-sufficient, self-reliant, and in all other ways selfish. Jesus uses the term of treasure, stockpiling, and even hoarding on purpose. The point is not that one cannot work hard to see to one’s needs. The point is that one has an abundance and therefore sets to store away and pile things up. His treasure, value, and joy is amassed in the things. How foolish indeed to place value in such things that can be disappeared. The heart of such a person is set squarely on himself. Yet, the one who seeks to serve and please his Father in heaven not only has a reward that is secure but reveals a heart that belongs to God because the heart is part of that reward.

It is difficult not to see the promised new heart of the New Covenant (Ps. 51:10; Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 36:26) in this statement. This is something of a self-examination. Where one’s focus, effort, affections, and attention is placed betrays the condition of his heart.

Consider Focus’ Benefit (vv. 22-23)

Jesus moves from His analogy of two treasures to an analogy of two eyes. At first glance these verses seem difficult, yet with a few observations regarding the context they should fall rather soundly into place. First, vv. 19-21 address tangible and earthly treasure. Second, v. 24 specifically mentions money or Mammon. Third, the first section (vv. 19-21) and the last section (v. 24) pit a positive option against a negative option (earthly vs. heavenly treasure, God vs. Mammon). We should therefore assume that (1) the illustration of these two eyes have something to do with money/treasure and (2) the two eyes are pitted against each other.

Illustration: A Single Eye vs. An Evil Eye (vv. 22-23a)

The lamp of the body is the eye. Therefore, if your eye be single, your whole body will be bright. So, if your eye be evil, your whole body will be dark.

There are a few observations that we should make initially. First, Jesus’ opening statement that the eye is the lamp of the body is a simple statement and needs to be understood as such. There is no need to debate whether Jesus realizes that the eye does not in fact produce light but is rather a receptacle of light. The point is simply that the body (a person) has no means of registering light except for the eye. The presence or absence of light is irrelevant to the individual if the eye does not register it.

Second, the term normally translated as clear (NASB), good (NKJV), or healthy (ESV) literally means single (ἁπλοῦς). The adjective only appears here and in the similar context of Lk. 11:34 in the New Testament. The related noun ἁπλότης literally means simplicity or sincerity with varying nuances that extend to ideas of graciousness that comes from a sincere, undivided heart (Rom. 12:8; 2 Cor. 1:12; 8:2; 9:11, 13; 11:3; Eph. 6:5; Col 3:22). The singleness of the eye is in view, not the health of the eye.

Third, similarly the term translated in our versions as bad (NASB, NKJV, ESV) is literally evil (πονηρός). The single eye is therefore pitted against the evil eye. This evil eye has nothing to do with magic but is a normal Hebraic expression to indicate an eye that is selfish, stingy, and greedy (Deut. 15:9).[4] Thus, the evil eye continues the concept of selfishness begun with the earthly treasures in v. 19.

The point is that of focus. The single eye is focused on the light (i.e., heavenly treasure) and therefore brings light into the body. A person can see and function as designed because his eye has complete focus on the light. In contrast the evil eye is focused on something other than the light (treasures on earth) and is therefore, by definition, registering only darkness. The implication of this darkness brings another self-examination.

Implication: When Light is Dark, Darkness is Dark Indeed! (v. 23b)

If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

The eye is supposed to bring in light, but that requires a single eye, an eye that focuses on the light. If the eye brings in darkness instead of light, then that person is as good as blind for the darkness is great indeed! The point is that there are only single eyes and evil eyes. Therefore, the body is either full of light or it is shrouded in darkness. There is no middle ground here. Jesus does not speak in terms of dim light vs. bright light but darkness vs. light. It’s important that Jesus uses the eye in the singular (ὀφθαλμός) rather than the plural (ὀφθαλμοί). An eye can only focus on one thing at a time. Any attempt to divide the eyes focus results in one being crossed, which brings nothing into focus and causes confusion at the very best and destruction at the very worst. This undivided focus is brought home in Jesus’ third and final illustration.

Consider God’s Exclusivity (v. 24)

Jesus moves from an illustration of two treasures to an illustration of two eyes to arrive finally at this illustration of two lords. For some unknown reason, the majority of translations have opted to translate κύριοις as masters instead of lords. Jesus’ choice of wording is in fact very important. We should also note that Jesus arranges this final illustration in a chiasm were He first makes a general statement (no one can serve two masters), followed by a perfectly balanced explanation of the statement, only to be concluded by a reiteration of the original statement yet brought from the general into the specific where He names the two lords in question (you cannot serve God and Mammon).

A General Statement (v. 24a)

No one is able to serve two lords.

Jesus is not speaking in terms of what is wise or preferable. The language here describes what is impossible. No one is able (οὐδεὶς δύναται) to serve two lords. It is not possible to serve two different lords. The fact that He uses lords (κύριοις) is telling. The context addresses two utterly different persons rather than some kind of joint venture by which two people jointly own a single slave. One cannot be jointly possessed by opposing factions any more than one can dutifully serve them. This is not possible. Jesus does not leave it at that but continues to elaborate.

Elaboration (v. 24b)

For either he will hate the one and love the other or he will cling to the one and despise the other.

The language of hate vs. love and cling vs. despise illustrates the impossibility of divided attention. Jesus uses the adjective ἕτερος (different/other – of a different kind) to illustrate that these lords or opposed to each other rather than the adjective ἄλλος (another – different object of the same kind).[5] If the competing lords are not of the same kind but are opposites, then one must choose between them. Jesus concludes by naming these competing lords.

A Specific Statement (v. 24c)

You are not able to serve both God and Mammon.

The initial statement maintains its original potency regarding impossibility yet gains additional emphasis. Jesus directs this statement specifically at His audience. “No one can do this” is turned into “You cannot do this”. The implication then is “don’t even try”. The translation of Mammon is actually a transliteration of μαμωνᾶς. The term is not Greek, but Aramaic (מָמוֹן) and means wealth or property. The fact that this term is not translated into Greek is curious. It is as though Jesus does not speak of wealth as an inanimate object, but that He gives wealth a proper name. There are now two individuals, two choices, two lords to choose between: God and Mammon.

This brings the whole discussion to a climax. It is not only that earthly treasures are foolish in that they are vulnerable, and that greed is incompatible with light. The point here is that of idolatry. One can follow God and trust Him to secure one’s treasure, or one can trust Mammon, the god of wealth. The line in the sand is drawn.

[1] Grant Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 241.

[2] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 152 §n. 63.

[3] Charles Quarles, Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology 11 (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011), p. 234-6.

[4] The MT reads וְרָעָה עֵינְךָ בְּאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן (…and your evil eye on your needy brother) which is translated by the LXX as καὶπονηρεύσηταιὁὀφθαλμόςσουτῷἀδελφῷσουτῷἐπιδεομένῳ (…and your eye might be wicked to your needy brother).

[5] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 279.


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