Treasure In Heaven
By Peter Brown
St. Augustine and other early Christians challenged the Roman idea of charity by invoking the ultimate authority—God.
Jesus repeated this challenge to his disciples: “Sell your possessions and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.”
The transfer of treasure from earth to heaven was also current in Jewish circles. In the Jerusalem Talmud of the late fourth century, there is a story about King Monobazos, the Jewish king of Adiabene on the Euphrates. He was said to have spent his fortune providing food for the poor in Jerusalem. His infuriated relatives accused him of living up to his name, which was derived from the word bazaz—“to plunder.” Monobazos was plundering his earthly inheritance. He answered them: “My fathers laid up treasure for below, but I have laid up treasures for above. They laid up treasures in a place over which the hand of man may prevail: I in a place over which no hand can prevail.”
The words of Jesus and the story of King Monobazos urged or described heroic acts of renunciation and generosity. By the third century, however, in both Judaism and Christianity, the gesture of giving had become miniaturized, as it were. One did not have to perform feats of heroic self-sacrifice or charity to place treasure in heaven. Small gifts would do. For instance, Cyprian, who became the bishop of Carthage around 249, treated the steady, low-profile flow of alms to the poor on the same footing as the renunciation of all wealth that Jesus had urged on the Rich Young Man. Heaven was thus not only a place of great treasure houses, it included prime real estate in a state of continuous construction due to almsgiving performed on earth by means of common, coarse money.
When one turns to present-day scholarship on this theme, we find that the idea of a transfer of treasure to heaven is surrounded by a loud silence. Neither in the Catholic Dictionnaire de la Spiritualité nor in the Protestant Theologische Realenzyklopedie is there an entry for “treasure.” Nor can such an article be found in the Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion. A large inscription erected over the tomb of the famous bishop of Arles, Hilary (430–449), declared that the bishop, through his renunciation of wealth, had “bought up heaven with earthly gifts.” There is no hint of embarrassment in those proud lines. Not so with their modern interpreters. The editors of a recent catalog of the early Christian monuments of Arles suggested, somewhat timidly, that such a phrase might strike a modern person as “a formula which certain of us…would no doubt have found somewhat abrupt or heretical!” Even the few articles devoted to the theme of “treasure in heaven” have approached it with ill-disguised discomfort. In one such study, the biblical historian Klaus Koch insisted that when Jesus spoke of “treasure in heaven,” he must have meant something very different from the meanings that came to be attached to it in later centuries. It is the same in Jewish circles. Faced by the tale of King Monobazos, the great Jewish scholar Ephraim Urbach felt ill at ease. He confessed that it was difficult to see, in Monobazos’s “prolonged and monotonous explanation…traces of a more refined doctrine.”
Altogether, it is a notion that causes acute embarrassment to modern persons. Such discomfort is calculated to make the historian sit up and take notice. Why is it that a way of speaking of the relation between heaven and earth that late antique and medieval Christians took for granted seems so alien to us? Why is it that we have such inhibitions in approaching the subject of the joining of God and gold?
One way of emphasizing the importance of the transfer of treasure to heaven is to view the question through the writings of St. Augustine. Augustine, who was bishop of Hippo (now Annaba, Algeria) from 395 to 430, developed a distinctive attitude to religious giving.