19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
22“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
24“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
25“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Every now and then I circulate a questionnaire among the Christians in the church parish. I’ve found that people are a fund of creative ideas! One of the queries I make is about sermons: “How long?” And, “About what?”
My all-time favorite response is, “I’d like to hear a sermon about Jesus and about 20 minutes.” But another good idea came in this form: “I’d like to hear a sermon entitled, ‘Too many BMW’s in the church parking lot!’” There you have it! What, indeed, does the Bible say about materialism?
Things are important in our culture. Wall Street stock broker Ivan Bosky, in 1986, told the UCLA Berkley Business School graduates, “I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.” He got a standing ovation.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Bosky went to prison for his part in an insider trading scandal. While in prison, I understand he began to take correspondent school classes from a theology school. He is looking for more, but not necessarily from the material world.
Here in the USA, the unparalleled land of economic opportunity, citizens from both ends of the spectrum are fixated on materialism. The rich are worried about how to keep it, get some more, and pass things nicely on to their children. The poor are simply worried about how to get their share in the first place.
The desire to acquire and retain– it’s in all of us. So, what does the Bible say? Jesus, in 15 verses of His Sermon on the Mount, explains His views on materialism quite clearly. So, let’s ask the right questions and take the measure of our lives in the truth of God’s Word.
What is Materialism?
The first question is, “What is materialism?”
We live in a material world. Your hair, breakfast, the air you breathe, cars, clothes, houses– all of these are material things. And each of us must learn to relate to them.
Over the centuries three very distinct philosophies of materialism have emerged.
One notion is that materialism is evil. And from this idea two totally opposite philosophies have arisen.
Asceticism is the thinking behind the monastery. If creation is evil, then the smart thing to do is drop out of the world as much as possible. Become a monk. Deny yourself.
In Israel, 26 miles of hard walking up a dry river gorge, is a monastery. No women, no automobiles, no television. Up at 4 a.m. to sing God’s praises. Dry bread and water to eat. A plank bed to sleep upon. Ah! The ascetic life!
On the other had, epicureanism also believes the material world to be evil. But it comes to the exact opposite conclusion from the ascetic. Epicureans reason that if the world is evil, then nothing matters. If the body is evil, then the best one can do is “live it up.” Go ahead and indulge yourself. Wine! Women! Song!
Both asceticism and epicureanism are blasphemy. The Bible says, “God looked on all He had made and said, It is very good.” (Genesis 1:31). God Himself even took shape among us in the flesh of Christ Jesus. He ate, drank, had clothing, and lived a completely sinless life.
So, some, indeed, believe the material world is evil. But a second philosophy teaches that the material world is everything, all there is, and, hence, the greatest good.
Communism arises from this school of thought. To the Marxist, the material world is all that matters. If you want a religion, they suggest you try science. Empiricism. The logical study of how things relate.
Capitalism comes from this same source. “Good news” is in profit, acquiring more and more goods and services. A successful person has plenty of “things.”
Recently I shared with a group of Junior High schoolers in town at their Bible club called The Fellowship of Christian Athletes. As part of my lesson I asked each child to write their response to the question, “What would make you happy in life?” Going over the answers later, a distinct pattern appeared. “To make the right grades, so I can get into the right college, so I can get the right job, so I can make the right money, live in the right house, drive the right car, have the right things . . .” Their parents trained them well by age thirteen to be committed capitalists!
Jesus spoke of this second philosophy of materialism. He said, “Take heed! Beware of all covetousness. For a man’s life does not consist of the things he has.” (Luke 12:15).
So, according to the Bible, both extremes are wrong– that things are evil or that things are the greatest good. The truth simply is in the center.
Notice in Matthew 6:19-33 how several key words teach us to relate properly to this material world. Verse 19: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.” Verse 22, “The eye is the lamp of the body.” So, we have both storing and seeing. Verse 24: “No one can serve two masters.” So, we have, serving. And, verse 33: “ first the kingdom . . .”
Storing. Seeing. Serving, and seeking.
How much of my priority, time, effort do I spend storing, seeing, serving, and seeking material things? What I eat, put on, drink, live in etc.
By definition, then, materialism is an imbalanced lifestyle with too much emphasis on the world at the expense of the spiritual.
What’s Wrong With Materialism?
Now that we’ve considered what materialism is, let’s look at what’s wrong with it.
First, materialism seeks the wrong satisfactions. The Bible says, “God has given us all things richly to enjoy.” (1 Timothy 6:17). The two key words in this passage are “God” and “things”. Which is the most important? The materialist is one who consistently chooses things over .
I believe God has given me my house, my car, my clothes, my things “richly to enjoy.” He does not want me to be ashamed of them, nor to brag about them to others. They are simply to enjoy.
If I give my child a nice bicycle and he is embarrassed by such a gift and locks it away unused in the basement, I’d be upset with him. On the other hand, if he becomes so attached to it he refuses to come to me when I call him for supper, then I, again, would be angry.
The gift should never obscure the giver. A bike should never usurp a father’s place. And the things of creation should never take the place of the Creator.
This is what God had in mind when He wrote the First Commandment against idolatry. “I am the Lord you God. You shall have no other God’s before me.” The trouble with materialism is that it seeks satisfaction in things, not God. And Jesus said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of and His righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” (Mt. 6:33).
Second, materialism is unhealthy because it stores up the wrong things. In Matthew 6:19 Jesus talks about storing up treasures on earth where moths and rust and thieves get in and diminish.
Here in the United States we’ve become absolutely overwhelmed with consumerism. Our houses, closets, and garages are so stuffed with things we can’t even turn around. We pack money into IRA’s, savings, and investments. And all the while give no thought to “storing up treasures in heaven.”
A highlight of the ministry here in church is hosting some of the missionaries who pass through. I highly suggest it for you. You’ll find that missionaries are well traveled, highly intelligent, skilled people who can talk about anything from the Bible to international politics to geography to native tribal dances. Yet they drive an old beat-up Chevy, dress in clothing long out of style, own no house or furniture, haven’t seen the latest movies, and haven’t the slightest notion who “Madonna” is.
Jim Eliot, missionary to the Auca Indians in South America, said of the missionary lifestyle, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep in order to gain that which he will never lose.” The trouble with materialism is that it stores up that which one cannot keep and forfeits that which one will never lose.
The third trouble with materialism is that it serves the wrong master. Jesus said, “You can’t serve God and mammon.” “Mammon” is to make a God of your own success, self, things, and money.
A middle aged actress performed in a Broadway play and received a standing ovation. A friend later found her crying softly in her dressing room. “But why these tears? The critics loved you. You should be happy!” The actress replied, “I know. It is a wonderful night. It’s just that I’m afraid as I grow older there won’t be many more nights like this.”
It’s easy to serve mammon. But those who do find themselves living for things that do not last.
Fourth, what’s wrong with materialism is that it sees life through the wrong lenses. This is what Jesus meant when he spoke, “The eye is the lamp of the body.”
Henry Ford, the great inventor of the automobile, asked a new manager, “What is your goal?” The manager replied, “Why, to make money, of course!” Mr. Ford quietly removed the man’s glasses, taped a silver dollar to each lense, put them back on the man’s face, and said, “If your goal is to make money then this all you’ll see. Not people. Not God. Not spring flowers. Nor even our fine products. And I pity you.”
The trouble with materialism is that it’s rich in things and poor in God, rich in this life and poor in the eternal life to come. It serves the wrong master, life through the wrong lenses, seeks the wrong satisfactions, and stores up in the wrong place. It simply is misspent serving, seeing, storing and seeking.
What Should We Do About Materialism?
In discussing how to relate to the material world around us, Jesus began by saying, “The eye is the lamp of the body.” He warned us to take care what we set our eyes upon, what we focus upon.
Use your best vision here. Hold yourself accountable with hard questions. “Where do my interests really lie?” Unless we’re honest, we can live in the twilight gloom of denial, self-deception. And all the while our foolish materialism is obvious to others, it’s not obvious to us. So, “Where do your interests really lie?” Fishing? Business? Self? Sports? Society? Career? God?
In taking inventory of your life, the best place to start is your checkbook. Are you giving to Jesus Christ? Is your gift sacrificial or mere tokenism? Do you have plenty of money for golf, pizza, staying warm, and movies, but only a few crumbs to scatter before God? I like the tither’s prayer written to be spoken as one places his gift before Jesus, “Dear God, in spite of all I say and do, this is what I think of you.”
Next go to your living room and look around. Check out your book shelves, your magazine rack, the videos you’ve watched. If you find Better Homes and Gardens, Southern Living and The Wall Street Journal, do you also find Guideposts, World Magazine from a Christian perspective, and the Holy Bible?
Now go to your calendar. How are you spending your time? Are you remembering the Sabbath day or giving in to sports, too many vacations and work? Does your child never miss a piano lesson but hit and miss youth Bible study?
Be tough with yourself. Show no mercy. See with an honest eye. Does your life reveal a healthy serving, seeking, seeing, and storing of Jesus Christ?
We must learn to recognize materialism– too much seeking, seeing, serving, and storing at the expense of the spiritual.
We must learn to reject materialism. Do you want to go on serving things or Jesus? Which will treat you better in the long run? The rich young ruler had to choose. When the Lord asked him to give it all up to follow God, the man went away sorrowfully. We, too, must choose.
And we must learn to resist materialism. The apostle Paul wrote, “I die daily.” I am not a monk, but I find it healthy to say no to my flesh at least once or twice a day. To deny myself a candy bar, to turn the T.V. off, to make a call I find difficult, to do something that needs doing that I’d rather not do.
Believe me, recognizing, rejecting, and resisting materialism is an ongoing struggle. We can never kill it once and for all. It’s like the ocean tide. It cannot be slain. It must be dealt with daily.
There are no simple solutions.
One is to stay single. Paul wrote that “Those who marry will have worldly troubles.” Can I get an Amen?
At the World Conference on Evangelism, Christians came up with “The Luzanne Statement.” In it is the vow, “I will live a simple lifestyle.” But what is a simple lifestyle? It’s better to say, “I will live a more simple lifestyle.” We can all do that.
In the text Jesus is saying our faith, our theology, our relationship with God should enter in to what we drink, what we wear, what we eat. And it is vital to see how very relative it all is.
I know people to whom money comes quite easily. They think about it very little. And even though they live in a big house, drive a luxury car, and eat nice food, they are still very committed Christians seeing, seeking, storing and serving Christ. Their shoulder is to the plow in terms of time, talents, and tithes.
Increasingly I’m seeing poor people for whom money comes hard. They’re working three jobs, eighty hours a week, wanting what the rich man has, not resting without it. They think money will make them happy. So, they’ve no time for God or the Bible or prayer. Their life is absorbed in things.
And which is the materialist?
It’s in other cultures, too. I was teaching the young pastors on a Caribbean island. And there was s rumbling criticism among the students. It seems that a few of the ministers had managed to buy mo-peds to get to their churches, while the others had bicycles or went on foot. “Some of us are getting too materialistic,” a young pastor said.
If there is a cure for materialism it is in Christian stewardship. Such begins with an awareness that all I have came from God, it is His now, and it’s all going back to Him.
Stewardship means I receive from God’s hand as a trust all that I have. My time, money, and talents I manage for His glory, not my own, knowing I must one day give a full account to Him.
Today, as the poet has said, “The world is much with us.” We are living in the richest nation in history. And so many of us, awash in things, are enslaved to seeking, storing, seeing and serving creation. Our spirit of enjoyment is stronger than our spirit of sacrifice, worship, and love.
In all this, the church is seriously wavering. Will we serve Christ or our culture? The Creator or creation? Jesus or self?
In Java they tell the story of a young man who spied a beautiful maiden on the road and followed her. After several miles she turned and rebuked him, demanding, “Why do you follow me?” “Because,” he declared fervently, “you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen and I have fallen madly in love with you at first sight! Be mine.”
“But,” the maiden said, “you have only to look behind you to see my younger sister who is ten times more beautiful than I am.”
The gallant suitor turned to see as ugly an old woman who ever drew a breath. “What mockery is this? He demanded. You’ve lied to me!”
“You lied to me, too,” the lovely maiden replied. “If you were so madly in love with me, why did you turn around?”
Today, will you fall madly in love with Jesus? Will He be who you see, store, serve and seek?
O Lord, forgive! I have too much loved the world. Set my affections upon you and help me to recognize, reject, and resist materialism.