Laying Up Treasure in Heaven

by Lois Tverberg

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:19-21 (NKJV)

When we read Jesus’ saying above, it sounds like a vague idea about setting our priorities on heavenly things rather than earthly things. In fact, the phrase “laying up treasure in heaven” is actually an idiom with a much more exact idea behind it than just being “heavenly minded.” In fact, it refers to giving to the poor. We can see how it is used from another passage about “laying up treasure” from a Jewish writer before Jesus’ time:

Help the poor for the commandment’s sake, and turn him not away because of his poverty. Lose thy money for thy brother and thy friend, and let it not rust under a stone to be lost. Lay up thy treasure according to the commandments of the most High, and it shall bring thee more profit than gold. Sirach 29:9-11 (180 BC)

Helping the Poor

The logic behind this is that God is greatly concerned about the poor. When we give to them, we are loaning to God himself! We can be sure that we’ll be repaid in eternity. As Proverbs 19 says,

He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done. Prov. 19:17

Even more important than our being rewarded is our attitude, according to Jesus. When we share with others two things happen: our priorities with money shift to pleasing God with our money instead of ourselves. We also develop a “good eye” — a generous attitude of concern for others, rather than a “bad eye” — a greedy, self-centered outlook. (Mt 6:22-23) Then we will be taking hold of the life that is truly life, as Paul says:

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. 1 Tim 6:17-19

Photo: Jacques-Louis David

Having a Single Eye

by Lois Tverberg

Have a Single Eye 1The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. Matthew 6:22-23 KJV

What does Jesus mean in the strange passage above when he refers to having “a single eye”? Figures of speech in other documents from that time help illuminate Jesus’ puzzling words. Several idioms that mentioned the “eye” were about a person’s attitude toward others. A person who possessed a “good eye” was generous toward others, and a person with a “bad eye” was stingy and self-centered.

It has been suggested that Jesus was referring to having a “good eye,” but the Greek in the passage actually does not say “good” (kalos), rather it says “single” (haplous).

In fact, being “single” is not an uncommon idiom in that time, however, not in the precise sense we understand it today. Throughout the New Testament the idea of “singleness” (haplotes) is used to mean “sincere” or “undivided,” often in exhortations to have a “single heart” (See 2 Cor. 1:12, 11:3, Eph. 6:5, Col. 3:22). Sincerity and lack of duplicity seems to be the idea of the following passage:

The good man has not an eye of darkness that cannot see; for he shows mercy to all men, sinners though they may be, and though they may plot his ruin.…His good mind will not let him speak with two tongues, one of blessing and one of cursing, one of insult and one of compliment, one of sorrow and one of joy, one of hypocrisy and one of truth, one of poverty and one of wealth; but it has a single disposition only, simple and pure, that says the same thing to everyone. (1)

This passage describes a man’s “eye” in terms of his caring for the needs of others, and contrasts an “eye of darkness” to a disposition of “singleness”. The contrast seems to be between pretending to care about others with an inward attitude of self-advancement and of having a genuine concern for others, without hidden motives.

And, we do actually find the idiom of having a “single eye” in Jesus’ time too:

I never slandered anyone, nor did I censure the life of any man, walking as I did in singleness of eye (3:4)… And now hearken to me, my children, and walk in singleness of heart….The single [minded] man covets not gold.…There is no envy in his thoughts, nor [does he] worry with insatiable desire in his mind. For he walks in singleness, and beholds all things in uprightness of heart….Keep, therefore, my children, the law of God, and attain singleness…(2)

Here, the idea of “singleness” was associated with a freedom from envy of money. “Singleness” in this passage refers to a person of sincerity who does not have a secret agenda of self-advancement. This translates into a lack of covetousness and greed.

Now Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:22-23 gain more clarity in their context. Jesus seems to be talking about our attitude towards others. Do we have a simple desire to serve God by caring for the needs of others? Or are we insincere people who are self-centered and serving our own agenda? If all we recognize is our own needs, we are blind indeed.

To explore this topic more, see chapter 5, “Gaining a Good Eye” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2012, p 69-80.

(1) Testament of Benjamin 4:2-3 The Testament of Benjamin is of the body of literature called the “pseudepigrapha” — Jewish writings from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. that are not canonical, but are helpful for showing the cultural expressions and religious understandings of that time.

(2) Testament of Issachar, 3:4, 4:1-2, 5-6; 5:1 Also from the pseudepigrapha.

For more this, see the article, “If Your Eye Be Single” by Steven Notley at

Photo: Vladimer Shioshvili and Marc Baronnet

How Not to Pray

by Lois Tverberg

But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Matt 6:7 (KJV)

How Not to PrayJesus taught quite a bit about prayer, and through it he was revealing what our attitude should be toward our Father in Heaven. One thing he forbade was praying in “vain repetitions” or “babbling on and on,” meaning we shouldn’t try to coerce God into doing our will by repeating words over and over. The problem is not the words themselves, but rather our attempt to manipulate God. Worship of idols involved this kind of divine manipulation—the belief that a person could control the actions of the “gods” by incantations and spells. Employing these idolatrous techniques insulted the true God, whose will was supreme and immune to human coercion.

Interestingly, other rabbis expounded on the nature of a “vain prayer.” Two quotations are below:

Ber. 9:3 If one’s wife was pregnant and he said, “May it be thy will that she give birth to a male”—lo, this is a vain prayer. If he was coming along the road and heard a noise of crying in the city and said, “May it be thy will that those who are crying are not members of my household”—lo, this is a vain prayer.

They note that a person shouldn’t ask God to change the sex of an unborn baby, because God had already made that decision back at the time of conception. The prayer bids God to magically change reality, or go back in time and change history. There is no point in praying for something to happen that has already occurred, so a prayer of this type is empty and useless.

The second idea is that if a person hears cries coming from a city, he shouldn’t pray they’re not the cries of his own family. Once again, this prayer asks God to change history and reality, because a tragic event has already occurred. Even worse than that, it wishes evil on others—asking God to send affliction on someone else for the sake of the people you love!

These two ideas about inappropriate prayer aren’t just legalisms about what counts as a “vain prayer” any more than Jesus’ words about babbling on and on. All these instructions comment on our relationship to God and the manner in which we should approach him. The rabbis understood that to “pray in vain” specifically violated the command not to use God’s name “in vain.” Most assume this refers to using God’s name irreverently in conversation, but it really means to invoke God’s action in an empty or disrespectful way. To pray or swear in vain indicates that we don’t believe God is listening, or that we don’t revere him enough to offer him the respect he deserves.

By considering how and how not to pray, we are reminded that whenever we pray we are approaching the King of the Universe, and God takes our requests quite seriously. We should be awed by the amazing privilege of being able to speak to him, and always remember to approach him with reverence and love.

SittingTo explore this topic more, see chapter 6, “Rabbi, Teach Us to Pray” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 78-90.


The Golden Table Leg

by Lois Tverberg

Burying TreasureDo not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:19-21

(This story was adapted from a rabbinic parable.)

Once upon a time there was an old pastor who had served the Lord faithfully all of his life. He had an anointed ministry, and people found his prayers were powerful and effective. When he prayed for the sick, they often were healed. But with all of that, he was extremely poor, and he and his wife struggled daily to get by on almost nothing.

One day when they were out walking, after they had seen yet another person healed, his wife said to him, “God certainly must have prepared a rich reward for all of your years of work when you get to heaven, and he always seems to listens to your prayers. Why don’t you ask the Lord to give us just a tiny bit of your heavenly reward here on earth so that we don’t have to live in such terrible poverty?” The pastor thought this was a good idea, so right there the two of them asked the Lord to let them have a little something from what God prepared for them early, while they were still alive.

Immediately the sky opened above them, and a table leg made out of gold fell to earth right in front of them. They rejoiced and thought of all the things they could buy with this gift from God. The next morning, the pastor looked very troubled and his wife asked him what was wrong. The pastor said, “Last night I had a dream that we were sitting at a great banquet in heaven, and every family had its own table to sit around. But ours was missing a leg so that it tilted and wobbled terribly!” His wife sat down and considered this a long time. She finally said, “In that case, we must go quickly and ask the Lord to take back the gift he gave us yesterday.”

They prayed, and immediately the heavens opened, and the table leg rose back up into heaven. And this was the greatest answer to prayer of all.*

(I saw the point of this parable after I became friends with some pastors in Uganda who live in great poverty but have wonderful ministries. Where I live, there are many who do similar good work, but have a comfortable, prosperous life here in America. After seeing all the trials that my poorer friends go through, I think, personally, that the Lord will reward them for all the things they lived without in order to serve him.)

*Adapted from “The Two Legged Table” from the book Theology in Rabbinic Stories by Chiam Pearl, Hendrickson, 1997

Photo: Yelkrokoyade

Tov Ayin – A Good Eye

by Lois Tverberg

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! (Matthew 6:22-23 NIV)

Often things Jesus says in the gospels make little sense until we understand that they are Hebraic idioms and even lead to wrong interpretations. For instance, in the passage above, it isn’t clear why Jesus is talking about our eyes. The descriptive word for eye is translated “single,” “sound,” “healthy” or “good.” Some New Age teachers have said that Jesus was talking about the third “inner eye,” developed through meditation. An opthamologist has written a book to say that Jesus was describing a neurological condition!

Jesus’ saying appears, however, to be a Hebraic idiom that was used to describe a person’s outlook towards others. A person with a “good eye” (tov-ayin or ayin-tovah) was a person who looked at others with compassion and had a generous spirit, and gave to others as needed. The person with the evil eye (ayin ra’ah) is one who is stingy toward others and greedy with money.

This expression is still used in Hebrew today. When people go through Jerusalem raising money, they say, “Please give with a good eye!” The same idiom is also found in Proverbs: “A generous man (Literally, “A good eye”) will be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor.” (Proverbs 22:9) Jesus also uses it at the end of the parable of the landowner who pays the workers all the same, no matter how long they work. The landowner says to the complainers, literally, “Is your eye evil (greedy) because I am good?” (Matthew 20:15).

Understanding this idiom helps us understand the whole passage in Matthew 6 that begins with “Do not lay your treasures up on earth,” then talks about the good/evil eye, and then ends with “One cannot serve two masters – both God and money.” All three of these sayings are part of a greater teaching on having the right attitude toward money.

Now we know what Jesus means in terms how we can be filled with light and darkness. If we love others and help them by sharing our money and time, our life will be full of light. If we think only of ourselves and our bank accounts, turning a blind eye to the needs of others, we will be blind indeed.


Further reading:

See Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004. This is a collection of devotional essays that mediate on the meaning of biblical words and phrases in their original setting.

For a friendly, bite-sized Bible study of five flavorful Hebrew words, see 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know, by Lois Tverberg,, 2014 (ebook).