Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Gospel readings in recent days have focused on a recurrent biblical theme: what do we treasure. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Mt 6:19-21). The theme recurs this Sunday, tied in with the need for vigilance about losing the sense of what is most important in life, and the unpredictability of life’s often shocking changes of fortune.

Certainly, this is something we can all relate to in our precarious times, when a pandemic, a natural disaster, a downturn in the markets or, on a more personal level, a sudden change of health or occupational status can with lightning speed wreak havoc on our sense of security and stability. While we might strive to find them, there really are no “safe spaces” in our earthly existence. Which raises the question, why does humanity repeatedly fall into the trap of building bigger barns and towers, to use biblical imagery again, only to be disappointed or surprised, as if we had no warning?

Prophets bewail how fallen humanity tends to erect idols — persons, places and things that we turn into false gods, items of our own creation that we deify or invest our trust in as if, magically, they will save us from our fears and weaknesses of falling apart. Ironically, that’s all they will do: leave us flat, or as one psalmist says dramatically, “you have picked me up and thrown me down” (Ps. 102:10), blaming God for the fall, as we often do when things do not go quite as we expected or predicted. 

A great part of this is tied to the devil’s own greatest self-deceit — pride — which he loves to instill in those he tempts, which is not just Adam and Eve, but all of us. Recall that was his pitch to our first parents in the Garden of Eden. God is not enough for you. You need more. God is hiding things from you by keeping certain things to himself, like that tree over there, that he fears you will draw fruit from and become like God, when (he tells them) eating of it will make you higher than God. The ancient deceit that leads to the ancient curse: that some greater treasure exists than God, some greater source of wealth, some possession that we can own and control that will save us from ourselves.

We may not at first view it that way, but this is “anti-love,” the opposite of true love. True love is letting go, not clinging to or possessing, in the sense of control or manipulation. What we own, how much we own, or who we own are substitutes for what love is. The continuity in the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures could not be clearer: human beings end up destroying themselves and one another when they lose sight of the most important truth about their own humanity: that God is our Creator, Lover and Redeemer — our true treasure — that no idol or possession can supplant. 

Christians have the special assurance that this God, who becomes present to humanity through the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, is as accessible as any material object or fleshly creature, and not merely an idea or concept or an image in the sky that must be imagined. Jesus really has a human body, even today, that makes God present to us in the sacramental life of the Church.

Theologians, especially St. Paul, have developed an understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ. Every baptized person is connected through the Holy Spirit in this mystical body, which is “the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way” (Eph. 1:23). It is — the Church is, as St. Paul envisions it — a gift of the Father to Jesus Christ himself, to be united with us in this holy and sanctifying union, which is why the Church can be said to be “holy.”

Our experience of sinfulness in ourselves and others is indeed a source of disappointment and scandal, for it contradicts the reality of who we truly are and are called to be. It becomes a real obstacle, a stumbling block, when we witness the terrible things that can happen when we substitute other things and even other people for our true treasure, Jesus Christ. We can even abuse our own bodies when we use them as objects, over-indulging them in sensuosity or using them to seduce others into our own idolatrous forms of manipulation.

One who is subjected to the predations of an abuser of any kind is essentially treated as a prop, a pawn, a plaything. This is not God’s way. God, who is Love, invites and frees us to be our full and true selves. One might envision God as a gardener who takes delight in seeing his garden growing and flourishing. A gardener’s deepest impulse is not to ravish and root up the plants he or she has patiently raised and watered, but to prune and make it more beautiful, increasing its yield of fruits and flowers. The liberality of that prodigal sower, who even lets the seed fall on ground showing little promise of fertility, is another image of a God who will stop at nothing to empty himself for the sake of the beloved, as Jesus ultimately does on the Cross.

This Jesus is truly present, as he tells us, “where two or three are gathered in my name” (Mt. 18:19). He just “shows up,” as he did among two men engaged in conversation on the road to Emmaus (cf. Lk 24:13-32). We can count on his presence in the communion of faith we call the ecclesial assembly, the Church. Someone will say, of course, that not every member is holy, and Jesus tells us many parables about the evil one who will sow bad seed — weeds — and that the master will patiently wait before ridding the field of them, till harvest time, when the good and the bad will be sorted out. This also takes patience, prayer and perseverance on our part, lest we become discouraged by the presence of sinners in our midst. That is one reason why the Sacrament of Reconciliation is given to us, for cleansing and healing.

One sacramental reality can never be compromised: the Holy Eucharist. If Jesus is truly present in the Church, albeit not always admitted fully into the hearts and souls of every member, he is really REALLY present in the Mass and can be counted on as the pearl of great price, the treasure that will never let us down if we receive him into our hearts. However we may have been used or abused, exploited or disillusioned by others or by idols of our own making — the tangled webs woven around our hearts through pride, lust or avarice — Jesus is our treasure. When we embrace him as the center of our lives, he will set us free from anyone or anything that oppresses or possesses us. Hang on to the Cross, look upon him and live!