“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:19-22
This passage has always kind of disappointed me.
It inspired an image of my doing a good deed on earth, while in heaven, an angel threw another gold coin on my treasure pile. Not that compelling. What will I buy in heaven? Why, again, am I being paid for good deeds? Or being encouraged to hoard treasure anywhere? Immanuel Kant, reflecting on this passage, shared in my discomfort, saying that virtue should be its own reward.
To be fair, Jesus doesn’t say anything about gold coins or even good deeds. That’s my own imagination at work. The good deeds I think I can defend: In Matthew 19:21 Jesus tells the rich young man, “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
But still no definition of the treasures. What exactly are they?
Whatever they are, they apparently have the impact of drawing my heart toward heaven, which neither good deeds nor the imagined gold coins have done.
Then this month I lost a friend. His name is Andrew. He was not a particularly close friend. I hadn’t seen him since seminary. But he was present at an important time in my life, and he was the kind of person for whom it is evident that his loss is a loss to the whole world. He was so kind and funny and gentle. He died of brain cancer in his early 40s. The loss hit me in a way that I didn’t expect.
I have begun to wonder if my husband and I, in our early 40s ourselves now, are transitioning into a new phase of life. We went through the season where we had a wedding every other weekend and then the phase where most of our friends were having babies. And now, Andrew was our second friend lost to cancer his year, and we have another who is biding his time. I have heard elderly folks talk about the grief of losing all their friends to death. Maybe we are just starting to get a taste of that.
I was thinking about all this walking to church one morning. It seemed strange that Andrew’s death had had such an impact on me. He lived in Australia. I can’t imagine a reason that we would ever have seen each other again apart from Instagram. And yet, I felt such grief at his passing.
Epiphanies strike unexpectedly. As I stepped up the curb crossing onto Sherman Street, for the first time it felt real that now that he has died, Andrew is nearer to me than he was before. Now he is part of the great cloud of witnesses cheering me on, and we will see each other again someday. My love did not die with Andrew, but only moved from being located in Australia to being located in heaven. It made me all the more eager to go there.
Kant is right, but it’s not opposed to Jesus. Virtue is its own reward, because true virtue requires and produces love, and the love is the reward. Even the rich young man of Matthew 19 would have found this to be true. His sharing, had he done it, would have ignited love in himself and the recipients. His joining in their poverty would have deepened his understanding, his compassion, his sense of mutuality. It wasn’t some angel somewhere tossing coins into a treasure chest with his name on it. It was the people. It was the love which cannot be taken from us, even by death. Death only transforms our love to grief and relocates it to heaven.
I don’t know for sure if this is what Jesus meant, but here is a reward that resonates with me: The people I have loved here, welcoming me there. Andrew, with his kind smile. Ben, who encouraged me to draw. My Grandmother, who was the person whose prayers I could count on. Pippin & Mabel, who should have grown up with my children, but who were lost before they were born. Nancy Ellen, the old hippy with an oxygen tank, who walked her dog out the window of her car. When she met my stoic baby boy, the two of them laughed together for a full five minutes.
These are some of my treasures. As more of the people I love die, my treasure will keep calling me forward until my own death is all reward.