by Elizabeth Palmer
Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:21).
We hear these words each year on Ash Wednesday as we remember the transience of our earthly possessions and the mortality of all flesh. Our awareness of this transience is perhaps why we hold on so fiercely to the gifts of this earth, treasuring the people and possessions and perceptions that give us joy.
Our hearts can be measured by our attachment to those things that matter most to us. But God doesn’t necessarily call us to detach from all of our earthly belongings and relationships. There is, in fact, great complexity in the relationship between our earthly attachments and the vocations to which God calls us. It’s obvious that we should let go of our attachment to the things that harm us, but the moral value of most of our earthly treasures is not so easy to measure. Even the Bible paints a complex picture of what we should hold onto and what we should let go.
In the book of Ruth, the young widow is lauded for her love and loyalty to her mother-in-law. Following a famine and the deaths of their husbands, Ruth tenaciously holds onto Naomi, proclaiming: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die.” (Ruth 1:16-17). Ruth’s deep attachment to Naomi eventually results in her marriage to Boaz and the birth of a son from whom Jesus would eventually be descended, forever changing the course of salvation history! If we apply this story to our own lives, it seems that we should value our relationships with loved ones above all else.
However, the story is more complex than that. In order to cling to Naomi and become the ancestor of Jesus, Ruth has to give up her birthplace, her family of origin, even her religion. Indeed, the story of Ruth calls to mind those puzzling words of Jesus: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Is Jesus calling us always to hate our family members, or just to reject those family members who hinder our relationship with God? The answer isn’t obvious. But it does seem that sometimes God calls us to hold on to the people with whom we are in closest relationship while other times we are called to detach from them.
The mixed message of having riches
Scripture also gives mixed messages about how we should regard our attachment to our possessions. On the one hand, passages warning against wealth abound in the Bible. These teachings are summed up by Jesus’ words to the rich young man: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). The lesson for us is clear: storing up treasures on earth, particularly while people less fortunate suffer all around us, is neither ethical nor spiritually edifying.
It seems that Jesus’ disciples learn this lesson well. Only a few chapters later in Matthew’s gospel, they criticize the woman who anoints him at Bethany with costly perfume, saying that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Surprisingly, however, in this case Jesus scolds the disciples: “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me” (Matthew 26:10-11). These words are startling, but Jesus goes on to explain that the woman has anointed him for his burial. The point of this story is not that we should habitually waste expensive things or stop helping the poor. Rather, we should use our earthly possessions to minister generously to those who are most acutely in need—as Jesus surely was during those last days before his death.
Serving our neighbors
But it’s not always easy to know how to minister to others. It might even be the case that our ideas about how God calls us to serve, no matter how well intended, keep us from the fullest relationship with God. Recall the story of Mary and Martha, where Martha is scolded for attempting to serve Jesus a meal while her sister sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him. From our perspective, it may seem that Martha was fulfilling her vocation by being a good servant. But Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42).
Jesus’ apparent indictment of Martha’s vocation as servant is surprising, since in another context he chastises “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink” (Matthew 25:42). Indeed, we would be missing the point of Jesus’ words to Martha if we took them to mean that we should entirely give up our calling to serve others. But when our dreams and goals in life become so important that they overshadow our relationship to God, it may be time to take a break and sit at the feet of Jesus.
The Bible doesn’t provide easy answers about what we should hold onto and what we should give up. Nevertheless, God calls us to evaluate prayerfully (and with the help of Scripture) the ways in which our earthly attachments might help or hinder our faith lives. In the end, the decisions we make about how to live with our earthly attachments won’t make or break us as children of God. Because God attaches fiercely and loyally to us through Christ, like a mother hen who spreads her wings over her brood to protect us as we grow. May we live confidently into this relationship and treasure it above all else!
1. What do your dearest earthly treasures say about the orientation of your heart?
2. Have you ever felt a conflict between your attachment to family and your relationship to God? If so, how might you resolve it?
3. Are there ways in which you, like Martha, may be too attached to your sense of who God is calling you to be in the world?
Thank you, God, for the treasures that you bestow on us, especially the gift of Scripture. As we struggle to understand your Word and relate it to our lives, give us discerning hearts to know what we should let go of and what we should hold onto. When we fall short, turn us always back toward you. In the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, Amen.
The Rev. Elizabeth Palmer serves as Lutheran Campus Pastor at the University of Chicago. She is currently very attached to her young daughters, Anna and Miriam.
Thank you. This is an inspiring, comforting and thought-provoking essay.
When I was young, I often felt as if I were heading into battle, trying so hard to protect and advance the values I had gained from my faith and the people who were dear to me. As I have grown older, I find that it is so much more about letting go; about returning again and again to that central relationship which remains as all else passes away. There is no person or idea we can be sure of holding onto; no idea or institution that stands in the place of God.
I really appreciate this posting. She has chosen her words wisely and well.