It is natural for us as human beings to want to exercise some control over our lives. Each of us use our wits, our effort, our strength to try to make the world a better place for ourselves. For many of us, during most of our adult lives, it seems to work well enough that we can pretend that the outcome is really up to us. With enough effort, enough savvy, resources collected and deployed, we think we can do almost anything. Sure enough, as a society, collectively, we have done amazing things: we have flown to the moon, split the atom, built chess machines that can outplay grand-masters, and cured smallpox. No wonder it is possible to think that we are in control of our lives, that we, with the right resources and know-how, can take care of ourselves.
But the truth is that this is an illusion. Reality has a way of breaking through. Despite all our efforts, suffering and death is an inevitable reality for everyone. In times of crisis, the illusion is even harder to maintain: suffering and death is ever present, undeniable. It is something we can sometimes affect, but never fully control.
Jesus advises looking at human control as it really is: flawed, incomplete and ultimately inadequate. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a story about a rich man with highly productive lands, who was running out of space to store his abundant crops. He decided one night that he would replace his barns with bigger ones, and then he would be set for many years. But that night, as he was deciding what to do about his barns, the man’s life ended, and all his plans and wealth came to nothing. [Luke 12:13-21]
Instead, Jesus tells us not to put our trust in our preparations for our own needs. Store your treasures in heaven, not on earth, he says:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. [Matthew 6:19-21]
But what exactly is this “treasure in heaven” that Jesus is talking about? Jesus describes it to a rich young man who asked what good deeds he should do to have eternal life:
Jesus is saying that treasure in heaven is earned through helping the poor. God remembers generosity for the poor, and credits it to the doer. This credit is solid: no moth or rust can destroy it, nor any thief steal it. Not merely some natural good that helps preserve life, this credit is life itself, promised by the very author of life.
St. Paul provides concrete advice that builds on this. He tells Timothy, his protege, to teach the better-off members of Timothy’s congregation to use their wealth to help others:
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. [1 Timothy 6:17-19]
This approach turns worldly attitudes on its head. Instead of “taking care of number one”, looking out for oneself first, Christians are asked to take care of others first, to use our resources to help the poor. In so doing, we build up credit with God. As for our own needs, we leave that to God, knowing that he loves us and knows what we need. So instead of fretting about having what we need to preserve our own lives, let us store treasure in heaven by helping others, confident that God, to whom our lives are entrusted, will one day give us life eternal.