MATTHEW 6:19. Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, 20. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
So far He has denounced their false interpretation of the Decalog, purifying and cleansing their confused and obscured teaching. Then He went on to teach about genuine good works, in opposition to the glitter of their false good works. Thus He has taught the right understanding of the Decalog and the right performance of works. Now He begins His warning against the temptations that are an obstacle to this teaching, a warning that continues almost to the eighth chapter. He will do this with the immense skill of a good teacher, who skips nothing that serves to keep us in the right teaching and life.
First of all He takes up that great and beautiful vice called greed. Whenever the Gospel is taught and people seek to live according to it, there are two terrible plagues that always arise: false preachers who corrupt the teaching, and then Sir Greed, who obstructs right living. Now that the Gospel is being preached again, the people have become much greedier than they were before. They scrimp and scrape as if they were practically dying of hunger. They used to go around as if they were blind and transfixed, they used to let the preachers tell them any kind of silly notion, and they contributed their dues in piles. They did not see how much it was, and they did not complain. Now that their eyes are opened and they know how they ought to live and what genuine good works are, they watch their pfennigs so closely and they are so greedy that you would think every one of them wanted to take all the property in the world for himself. The only way I can account for this or explain where it came from is that it must be a plague from the devil himself. He tries to obscure the light of the Gospel by inserting this shameful vice. The Gospel gives us the consolation not only that we shall live forever hereafter, but also that we shall have enough to eat here, as Psalm 8 declares (Ps. 8:5–8): Christ shall be a King and Lord over the whole world, and in His hand He will have sheep and oxen and all the animals on earth, so that He will not let us starve to death. We know all this, and yet we ourselves are stuck deeper in greed and anxiety about our temporal nourishment than we used to be. We are always short of money and running out of funds, and for the glory of God we cannot give one tenth as much as we used to stuff into the jaws of the devil.
Christ taught the same thing in many other places and predicted it. For example, when He sent out His apostles to preach. He was concerned and He warned them mainly about two things of which they were to beware, false teaching and greed. And He severely forbade them to take any provisions with them for the trip or to be worried about what they were to eat and to drink (Matt. 10:9, 10). As I have said, there are two most dangerous and corrupting forces in Christendom: spiritually, it is the false teaching that corrupts faith; physically, it is the greed that corrupts its fruit. Once doctrine and life have begun to go in the right direction, therefore, preaching and warning are necessary to stay on the right track and not to be diverted from it by a false interpretation of Scripture; furthermore, to be on the lookout lest greed secretly sneak into us and take over. Then we shall not have our aim only on temporal things and on having enough here, as if that were everything. This is a dangerous vice that sticks to a person. It can put on a good front and make a fine impression that deceives even Christians, so that no one can feel secure against it. People look at their lot in the world, at the affliction that the world is continually inflicting upon them when it begrudges them so much as a crust of bread. On account of the world they almost have to die of hunger. Thus the poor preachers now are compelled to endure trouble and want. They undergo such temptation that they begin to think about acquiring and accumulating something to enable them to remain in the world. Finally they fall into worldly care and greed, they neglect their ministries on account of this, and some of them even surrender the Gospel completely.
You see, that is why Christ begins now to preach many words against the great idol Mammon, drawing a most ugly kind of picture of him to put people on their guard against him. The first thing He says is: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust corrupt and where thieves break in and steal.” The treasures on earth He assigns to three trustees—rust, moths, and thieves. These are miserable watchmen to put in charge of treasures! But God has wisely ordained that wherever there is a treasure, there must be such fellows to watch it, just as there are usually sparrows or rats or mice near the grain. And that is just what we deserve; for we do not use our money and property rightly, and in our miserable greed we scrape up everything for ourselves, while no one gives or grants anything to anyone else.
But by “moths and rust” He does not refer merely to the ones that consume clothing or iron or brass. By “mice and rats” He does not mean only the ones that are caught in traps. And He does not apply the name “thieves” only to the ones that secretly rob the money boxes. He is also talking about huge living moths and public thieves. There are, for instance, the great braggarts and bigwigs21 at court, who can clean out a prince’s granary and treasury and finally strip him of everything he has. And in the cities there are not only the people who break into a citizen’s house, but also the ones who cleverly and secretly suck out a city’s resources with their usury and their swindles in the market and wherever else they can. In short, wherever there is money and property, there must also be moths and thieves that are after it. Wherever people live together in the world, it is all full of such rats and mice. An unfaithful courtier or official who does nothing but devour a prince’s money or property while there is some to devour—what is such a man but “rust or moth”? There are many of these hypocrites now, with their heavy, unnecessary, and vain expenses every day. They are impoverishing the princes, and it does not matter to them whether a prince is prospering or going to ruin, just so long as they can be masters of his money and run things the way they please.
In all the cities and villages, similarly, everything is full of rats and moths, big ones and little ones, secret ones and open ones—shoemakers, tailors, butchers, bakers, brewers, bartenders, and other craftsmen, workmen, and day laborers. For that matter, any householder who has a lazy and unfaithful servant, what does he have but a weevil that is devouring more of his goods than if he had the floor full of rats and mice?
Now you see what a fine god Mammon is. The best guards and courtiers he can assemble are moths and rust. Though someone may have been accumulating great treasures for a long time, these parasites have to devour so much that the one who ought to use it never has a chance to enjoy it or to take pleasure in it. Have the fortunes of great lords and princes ever been invested wisely? Usually they have been wasted in war or fed to these miserable maggots or squandered or destroyed in some other useless way. Therefore those who do not have many treasures are the best off, for they do not have many rats to feed and do not have to be afraid of thieves.
What then? Is it wrong to have any treasures at all? Is this a general condemnation of everyone that gathers treasures on earth? Surely that cannot be the case. For if everyone were to behave the way you and I do, by tomorrow no one would have any house or home left! The lords and the princes have to get and store provisions for their land and people. That is why God created gold and silver and gave them mines. So we read in Scripture (Deut. 17:16, 17) that Moses taught the king not to have too many horses or too much gold or silver. This concedes that he may gather treasures in moderation. Such was King Solomon’s boast about himself (Eccl. 2:8). The patriarch Joseph collected so much that he subjected all of Egypt to the king—its corn, money, property, cattle, and finally the very bodies of the people as the king’s vassals (Gen. 47:14–26). Thus Abraham had many sheep and much gold and silver, with which he carried on his business (Gen. 13:2). What shall we say, then, about Christ’s clear prohibition of gathering treasures? For that matter, you have to say that He Himself had a fund—since Judas carried the money box and the money (John 12:6)—and that He always had a reserve on hand, so that the disciples never lacked anything when He sent them forth, as they themselves said (Luke 22:35). Then why does He forbid it here, and why does He say that they should take along no purse or bag or sandals (Luke 10:4)?
Answer: We have already said often enough that in this sermon Christ is giving instructions to the individual or the Christian man and that a sharp distinction must be made between the Christian and the man of the world, between a Christian person and a secular person. For a Christian as such does not bear the title male or female, young or old, lord or servant, emperor or prince, peasant or townsman, or anything else that can be named as belonging to the world. He does not have a “person” or mask, and he should not have anything or know anything in the world but be satisfied with his treasure in heaven. Whoever does not distinguish carefully here but imitates our sophists and fanatics in mixing everything up and confusing it, cannot correctly understand any of these sayings.
Of course, a prince can be a Christian, but he must not rule as a Christian; and insofar as he does rule, his name is not “Christian” but “prince.” The person is indeed a Christian, but his office or his princedom does not involve his Christianity. Insofar as he is a Christian, the Gospel teaches him not to do injury to anyone, neither to punish nor to take revenge, but to forgive everyone and to put up with any injury or injustice that may be done him. That, I say, is the Christian’s duty. But it would not make for a good administration if you were to preach that sort of thing to the prince. This is what he has to say: “My status as a Christian is something between God and myself. It has its own directions about how I should live in relation to Him. But above and beyond this I have another status or office in the world: I am a prince. The relation here is not one between God and this person, but between me and my land and people.” The issue here is not how you should live in relation to God, what you should do and what you should tolerate for yourself. That applies to you as a Christian person who is not involved with land and people. But this is not the business of your princely person, which should not do any of these things but should think about the administration of the government, the maintenance and protection of justice and peace, and the punishment of the wicked.
So you see that each status or office is properly distinguished from the other; and yet they are combined in one person and, so to speak, are contradictory. At one and the same time, the same person is supposed to tolerate everything and not to tolerate it, but in such a way that what is distinctive about each office is applied to it. That is, as has been said above: If it involves me as a Christian, I should tolerate it; but if it involves me as a secular person—an obligation not between God and me, but between me and my land and people, whom I am commanded to help and protect with the sword that has been placed in my hand for that purpose—then my duty is not to tolerate it, but the opposite. Thus every human being on earth has two persons: one person for himself, with obligations to no one except to God; and in addition a secular person, according to which he has obligations to other people. In this life we have to have social relations with one another. Take a husband or the head of a household, for example, with his wife and his children. Although he is a Christian, this does not mean that he has to stand for it if the members of his family raise a rumpus or cause trouble in the house. Rather he must resist wrongdoing and punish it, to make them behave properly. Once you correctly understand this distinction, Christ’s teaching is easy to understand. For here and in all His sermons He is not talking about the way a secular person should work and live, but about the way you should live uprightly before God as a Christian, as one who does not have to be bothered about the world, but who should direct his thoughts exclusively to another life.
This is what I say in comment on this text: That person of mine which is called “Christian” should not worry about money or save it, but should give its heart to God alone. But outwardly I may and I should use temporal goods for my body and for the needs of other people. As far as my secular person is concerned, I may and I should accumulate money and treasures—yet not too much, so that I do not become a greedy belly that seeks only its own benefit and can never be satisfied. A secular person has to have money, grain, and supplies for his land, his people, or the others that belong to him. If it were possible to govern the way the patriarch Joseph did in Egypt (Gen. 47:14), filling all the storehouses and granaries with provisions, administering the country in such a way as to provide for all its need, and using the supplies to help the people, to give them a loan or a gift when they needed it, that would certainly be a great prize and a fine and Christian way to use temporal goods. For whatever a prince accumulates, he accumulates not for himself but as a universal person, indeed as a universal father of his entire land. We dare not all be beggars. Everyone should earn enough to support himself without being a burden on other people, and to be able to help others as well. Thus one should contribute to others in time of need.
For this reason every city should store away as much as possible for the common need, and in addition every parish should have a common treasury for the poor. That would not be wrong. It would be a way of laying up Christian treasures. This is not the kind of treasure that is gathered to gratify greed and lust, the kind the world gathers. Thus our priests used to collect money with no other purpose than to enjoy it and to play with their guldens the way little girls do with their dolls. But when there was an emergency and other people needed help, then there was nobody home. Such treasures as these belong to the devil, and in opposition to them Christ is saying here that you should not lay up treasures on earth, that is, for yourself and for your own pleasure, and make your heart a greedy adherent of temporal Mammon; but you should search for and lay up another treasure in heaven. In your outward and secular life you may lay up as much as your relation with God and your honesty permits, not for your own pleasure and greed but for the need of other people. Whoever lays up treasure this way will obtain blessing and indulgence besides, as a pious Christian.
But there are some people so greedy that they keep on scratching and cannot stop. They will not let anyone else enjoy it, and they cannot even get any pleasure out of using it themselves. Such people will get what is described here. Moths, rust, and thieves will consume it; as it was gained, so it will be lost. On the other hand, it often happens that even where the accumulating had been good, the consuming takes place this way. That is the best treatment that temporal goods can expect on earth anyway. Now, if this is what happens to people who lay up their treasures properly, how much more will it happen to people who seek nothing but the money, not the use or benefit or fruit of the money! The benediction pronounced over it here is this: Moths and rust shall come over it and consume it, and it shall be stolen. Thus no one succeeds if he is greedy and grabs everything for himself this way. If a farmer has a big harvest, he still dare not use it, and he does not take pleasure in it. He has to bury it, so that it is of no use either to him or to anyone else. Otherwise the worms will gnaw at it and chew it up, or it will be taken over by the mercenaries and the bigwigs22 at court. They will keep it from being invested more profitably.
With these words Christ is trying to talk some sense into us, to keep us from becoming so greedy for Mammon; and He talks about him with such scorn and contempt that He could not have made him look any more ridiculous. What sort of god is it that is not even capable of defending himself against moth and rust? He has to put up with their gnawing and destroying every day, and he has to lie there as easy pickings for anyone. Everything that comes along can devour him, and every thief can rob him. It is frustrating to have a god that governs the whole world and yet is the helpless victim of moth, rust, and thieves. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves for being the sort of people that cling to such a rusty treasure and put all their confidence in it. “Since you know this,” He wants to say, “do not set your hearts upon it, and do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth. But be content with whatever God gives you here, and remember that it is in constant danger of being lost or taken from you.” There is no other way out, especially for the person who intends to be a Christian and to confess or preach his Lord. As a person who has challenged the world and all the devils, he always has to anticipate that people will snap at him and reject him. If he is to follow through on this challenge, he must be courageous enough to despise all their treasures and goods and to be sure of another and a better treasure.
That is why Christ says: “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” That is to say: “Let the world have its rusty treasures, which are waiting for someone to rob and steal them. All they are good for is to give the world something to enjoy and trust. But you who are not of the world, who belong to heaven because you have been redeemed for it by My blood, and who therefore have another and an eternal possession prepared and set aside for you—do not let your hearts be enthralled here. If you occupy an office or a status that requires you to deal with earthly treasure, do not cling to it or serve it. Rather take it as your goal to acquire those treasures which have been set aside for you in heaven. Those are genuine treasures. Neither moth nor rust can touch them, and they are secure against anything that can devour and steal. They have been set aside in such a way that they never lose their freshness or wholeness, and they are guarded in such a way that no one can break into them.”
Whoever wants to be a Chrstian should take delight in this stimulating argument. It would certainly delight any greedy belly and make his heart laugh if you were to show him the sort of treasure that no rust could corrode and no thief could steal. But the world will not pay attention to this, because this is not what it sees or what it is looking for. It keeps on clinging to the gold and silver that glitters in its sight, though it certainly knows and realizes that this is not secure for a single hour against rust and thieves. These are not the people to whom we are preaching. Whoever refuses to stick to the Word of Christ and to be guided by the invisible treasure, let him go his way. We will not drag anyone in by the hair. But wait and see when it comes time for you to depart. Then summon the treasure you have laid up, the one you have made your reliance. Just see what you have in it then and what help it can give you!
The outcome is the one described in Psalm 76:5: “All the rich men sank into sleep, and they found nothing in their hands.” When it came time for the rich bellies that had served Mammon to die, they found nothing whatsoever. It is really terrible that those who have served Mammon all their life and who have wronged and harmed many other people on his account, and who have despised the Word of God, should be unable to make use of him in time of need. Then their eyes are opened for the first time. They catch sight of another world, and they go groping around for the supplies they have stored up. But they cannot find a thing, and their passing is ignominious and empty. In their anxiety and fear they forget about what they have laid up, and they do not find anything in heaven either. What happens to them is just what Christ describes in Luke 12:16–21. A rich man once had a great and glorious harvest, so that he decided to pull down his barns and build larger ones. He counted on having good days, and he said: “My dear soul, now you have great supplies laid up for many years. Eat, drink, and be merry.” You see, that is the peasant’s song that all the greedy bellies sing. But what comes next? “Fool! This night your soul is to be taken away from you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Thus he lost the real treasure; and he had to surrender the property he had accumulated, and surrender it so pitiably that he did not even know who would get it.
That is the way of the world. Only seldom are great fortunes accumulated in a God-pleasing manner. Therefore they cannot be spent either to provide genuine enjoyment or to give someone some help. Instead they have to be dissipated in such a way that no one knows where they have vanished. This has often been my experience, particularly in the case of certain canons who were successful and wealthy and who left great fortunes. After their death such a fortune quickly disappears or is distributed among people who do not feel the least bit grateful to them for it, but who squander it heedlessly and waste it miserably. And if a war breaks out, then the devil really has a chance to do what he pleases. The hotheads get their hands on the money, even though it was never meant for them, and they use it to inflict all sorts of misery on the people.
If someone has been saving for a long time, therefore, and he is asked who will get his savings, he has to answer that he does not know. Frequently it does not turn out the way he had planned. A man is a silly fool if he makes all his confidence and his happiness depend upon this, torturing himself all his life with cares and worries and yet not knowing for whom he has been accumulating it. Still people refuse to pay attention to this. Human blindness and wickedness are too great, and the world insists upon being the world and upon suffering, just in order to serve its rusty treasure. When it has served for a long time and has angered God, this is its ultimate reward: God cannot help, and He leaves them out in the cold, adding insult to injury. It refuses to let anyone prevent this, just as fire cannot be prevented from burning or water from putting a fire out. So just let the world go, and remember the preaching which you have heard as a Christian. It has told you where you should plan to have and find your treasure, where it will be secure for you, and where it will remain forever without ever being transferred to somebody else. Meanwhile you make use of secular possessions, and you let them come and go at will as something temporary. If in doing this you accumulate a fortune in a godly and honest way, then He will also see to it that it remains, if it ought to remain, and that it does not get lost but is well spent and does a great amount of good.
Now Christ concludes with a proverb, saying: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” This is equivalent to what we Germans say about a greedy belly: “Money is his heart”;23 that is, if only he has money, that is his joy and his comfort, in other words, his god. On the other hand, when he has nothing, that is death for him; then there is no heart, no joy, no comfort. What He means is this: “Keep watch on your own heart, and test it. And be assured that your heart will be in the same place where your treasure is.” As the common saying has it, “What is dear to a man, that is his god.” It is to this that his heart draws him; he thinks about it day and night; he goes to sleep with it, and he wakes up with it, whether it is money or property, pleasure or fame. So take a look at your own heart, and you will soon find out what has stuck to it and where your treasure is. It is easy to determine whether hearing the Word of God, living according to it, and achieving such a life gives you as much enjoyment and calls forth as much diligence from you as does accumulating and saving money and property.
I can draw the conclusion that money and property are not my heart’s treasure, provided that my heart has this attitude, and, if necessary, proves that it has: that I would be willing to lose not only my money and property, but even my neck, before I would desert or despise the Gospel or do injury and violence to my neighbor for my own benefit. Though I still may be accumulating some savings, I gladly risk their loss or destruction in order to aim for another treasure in heaven, the one that is hidden in the Word of God.
But then again, you may have another attitude. Regardless of all preaching, teaching, and admonishing you go along supposing that you have enough and can live in style. You do not ask whether or not it is an injustice to your neighbor for you just to keep what you have, and to make your calculations in such a way that with one pfennig you make two or even ten. And you say: “Let God worry about His Word with its preachers and about the world with its laws!” Then you can realize that your treasure is not in heaven above, but that it is still stuck with the moths and the rust. You would be willing to bring upon yourself the wrath of both God and the world rather than to surrender or give up even a pfennig of this for its sake. Nowadays peasants, townspeople, and noblemen everywhere are so impudent in their talking and living that for the sake of a heller they dare to stand up against God and His sovereignty over the world. Thus this saying remains true and actually convicts them, since they refuse to hear or to be told. It cannot come out any other way, even though we spend a long time worrying about it and wish we could see it come out some other way. Once they have been told, it is best to let them go their own way and to give them as much scorn and ridicule as they give us. For God says in the Second Psalm (Ps. 2:4, 5) that He knows how to laugh, and to laugh in such a way that it will cause them to cry bitterly; as it says, “He will speak to them in His wrath, and terrify them in His fury.”
Luther, M. (1999, c1956). Vol. 21: Luther's works, vol. 21 : The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (21:166). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.