What do you own? And what sort of stuff do you possess?
Ordinarily we think that people own material things like land, houses, automobiles, and jewelry. People also own pledges or contracts – in the form of money, bank accounts, stock funds, insurance etc. – that support basic needs and interests beyond basic needs.
However, a few voices at either end of a spectrum, the most radical on one side and the most religious on the other, have asserted that we do not own those things and those pledges.
The radicals suggest that everything really belongs to the community. Even so, someone must assume power over the distribution of material goods, and power emerges as a different kind of possession.
The religious voices suggest that everything belongs to God. We are simply placed among material possessions and contracts, and we live in their midst.
I’ve heard plenty of sermons urging us to regard ourselves as stewards of God’s wealth, and I generally agree with this view. When carried too far, however, the analogy fails. The chief steward on the estate commonly benefits from his closeness to the master. The chief steward and his family usually live well, enjoying greater goods and privileges than the lesser souls who work the fields and clean the house. Likewise dominant religious groups often coincide with those who have acquired secular power.
This picture carries over into the contrived justification of wealth known sometimes as the Protestant ethic or in the extreme as the prosperity gospel. Here an abundance of possessions is paraded as evidence of God’s favor. To the sin of greed the purveyors of prosperity add the sin of blasphemy.
Let’s look at a couple of Jesus’ teachings about possessions. First, from the Sermon on the Mount:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Later, speaking to the rich young ruler:
Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’
In these passages, Jesus clearly assigns little value to earthly possessions, except as a means for doing good to others. He contrasts earthly possessions with the far more valuable “treasure in heaven.” But what does he mean by “treasure in heaven”?
The quick answer is that heavenly treasure is an astonishingly valuable payback for the investment of faith and works during mortal life. Someone who has few possessions in this life will enjoy infinite possessions in heaven. Even those who are wealthy in this life will gain immeasurably.
The problem with this view of “treasure in heaven” is that the relationship between people and their possessions really doesn’t change. We still seek possessions, but we count and calculate upon the greater abundance to be had in the next life. Accumulation or scarcity of wealth in this life doesn’t matter, because we have acquired an investment for greater wealth in the next. Happiness, fulfillment, and favor in heaven as on earth continue to be measured by an abundance of individual possessions. We look at Jesus and see chiefly a seller of the heavenly contract secured by the investment of his blood. But somehow that just doesn’t fit.
There is another view not so readily grasped, but likely in the end more true. A clue comes from the first quote above: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In ancient times a person’s “heart” generally referred to the capacity to choose for good or bad. We can still understand it in this way today. “Heart” is a synonym for “the will” of a person.
Our identity, what makes us “us,” comes from our will or heart – the choices we make. How does this connect with “treasure,” as Jesus put it? If our will is essentially who we are, then the only things that can possibly attach to us – that is, the only things we can possibly own – are our choices and their consequences. Decisions and their consequences are the only things for which we are truly responsible. As temporary stewards of earthly goods, we can exert control or ownership only over that for which we take responsibility, and we are responsible only for the choices we make and their consequences.
Is this the meaning that Jesus intended? I think that it is. The treasure we ought to seek is “treasure of the heart.” It can be understood as the shaping of a good and abundant will, which is God’s purpose for our lives. This kind of treasure regards material possessions, contracts, and power merely as resources, and these not to be gathered and held, but to be spent and shared toward that end, whether on earth or in heaven. In this light the following quote from Jesus makes perfect sense:
The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.
Here the old ideas of heart, good, and evil describe the will of a person who makes choices for good or bad. Jesus also introduces to us a new phrase – “abundance of the heart” – which corresponds to the good treasure we ought to seek.
Is it only words from the mouth, or might actions also flow from the heart’s abundance? Although the quote above mentions only spoken words, which are important, elsewhere Jesus contends that actions always take priority if words and acts differ.
Ownership has multiple definitions in the English language. The verb “to own” can mean to possess something as property or to have power over an entity such as a corporation. An alternative meaning of “to own,” according to Merriam-Webster, is “to acknowledge to be true, valid, or as claimed.”
The 2nd definition of ownership amounts to a decision to take responsibility, a decision of the will. If I make a decision to act and later deny responsibility, then you will be right to charge that I have disowned the act. The negative word “disown” helps to distinguish the two meanings of “own,” because we rarely if ever speak of disowning property or power. We can keep, trash, or give away material possessions as well as power, but we either own or disown our decisions.
The compound verb “own up” signifies ownership in the 2nd sense. I think about Mark Felt, Associate Director of the FBI in 1972 – an American patriot who after more than 30 years of anonymity owned up to his role as Deep Throat, the leaker who guided the undoing of criminality at the highest executive level in Watergate. Of course, “owning up” refers most often to confessing and accepting blame for a choice that turns out badly. Yet even the acceptance of blame may add to the heart’s treasure by the calculus of Jesus.
Clearly the 2nd definition of ownership connects much better than the 1st with Jesus’ phrases, “treasure of the heart” and “abundance of the heart.” The heart’s treasure and abundance we can choose either to own or disown.
Yet a 3rd meaning of “to own” applies when a relationship is acknowledged to be true. This 3rd meaning has mostly lapsed into disuse or merged into the 2nd, but a negative usage may help to identify it, as when a frustrated parent disowns a child. In a positive sense, this 3rd meaning of “to own” survives as an adjective, as when I speak about my own family or my own circle of friends. How much better to say, “I vouch this child as my own, the great source of my pride!”
A marriage is a decision made together and owned by two people who jointly take responsibility for it. Marriage can serve as a model for joint decision-making at many levels. This extends as far as God and people according to the Bible, as God grants people free will to join or reject.
Treasure of the heart will magnify to greater abundance when it is shared by those who take responsibility and choose together.
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Header image: Bahraini gold jewelry, by Nawalescape | Pixabay CC0 Public domain. Photo of my son and grandson, family photo.
 Matthew 6:19-21, New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV).
 Matthew 19:21, NRSV.
 Luke 6:45, NRSV.
 Matthew 7:15-20, NRSV.