Historically, humanity has used its curiosity and creativity to explore and discover new resources to be used in building new civilizations bigger and better than the previous ones. As a result, we have become insatiable consumers of material resources. Depleting the supply in one place, we move to another. When we arrive there, that location is usually already occupied. Initially the two parties may cooperate for a while sharing resources and prospering. But with passage of time, violent conflicts inevitably arise as the disputing parties compete for exclusive claims to a given location’s resources. The prevailing party then becomes the oppressor and the conquered party the oppressed.
And on and on it goes. That same fundamental theme has repeated itself over and over again throughout human history. Civilizations rise and prosper for a while only to finally be left in ruins. Why? The late Stephen Hawking attributed the problem to human aggression. He said,
“The human failing I would most like to correct is aggression. It may have had survival advantages in the caveman days, to get more food, territory, or a partner with whom to reproduce, but now it threatens to destroy us all.”
So how do we break the cycle? How can this clear human failing finally be corrected? Since thought precedes action, if we want our actions to change, we must change the way we think.
One of the greatest minds of the 20th century, Albert Einstein said that,
“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it”
At one time or another, we have all been admonished to solve persistent problems by thinking “outside of the box.” So here goes. What if the most basic human need is not physical resources, but spiritual enlightenment? Could the path to a lasting supply of material resources come through seeking direction from a higher level of consciousness? Could doing so, abolish the need for aggressive human behavior in order for all to live abundantly?
It is exactly this approach that Jesus taught his listeners in what is referred to as “The Sermon on the Mount”. Notice what he said,
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” [Matthew 6:19-21]
Jesus encourages his listeners to focus their lives on spiritual matters (what Jesus describes as ‘treasures in heaven’), where there are no conflicts, theft, and destruction. If you’ve ever had something stolen from you or lost a home in a fire, you know what I’m talking about. It can cause tremendous suffering and stress.
But does it have to? It depends on where we focus our priorities. It does when the focus of our lives is on the attainment of physical resources (what Jesus describes as ‘treasures on earth’). Any satisfaction we derive is temporary at best. Jesus continues,
“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness..” [Matthew 6:22-23]
Jesus uses the term ‘eyes’ in this case to depict perception. Where he speaks of healthy perception, the original Greek word that is translated here as ‘healthy’ actually means ‘generous’. Similarly, when he refers to unhealthy perception, the Greek word that is translated here as ‘unhealthy’ actually means ‘stingy’.
Let’s think back to the example above. Nobody is glad to have something stolen, but where does the suffering actually come from? It comes from an unhealthy perception, caused by focusing on the lost resource alone. In other words, it comes from focusing on matter. A healthy perception comes from focusing on your state of mind. A healthy or generous perception can never be lost, except by you.
The negative consequences of focusing on physical resources over spiritual enlightenment go beyond increasing our own suffering after a loss. Think about it: under what form of perception are conflicts more likely to occur – one based on generosity or one of stinginess? Competition to acquire or defend certain resources, and the conflicts that it brings about, also stem from an unhealthy perception.
But wait a minute. Don’t humans also display generous behavior as well? Of course they do, but the problem is that we’re trying to do both. We have divided loyalties. This problem goes all the way back to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, when we first started trying to live with one foot in each world. It is ultimately because of this inner conflict that humanity has repeatedly developed great civilizations only to have them destroyed in the end. Jesus addresses this problem and presents the solution to it in the next verse.
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other, You cannot serve both God and money.” [Matthew 6:24]
In this verse, God represents the spiritual and money represents the physical. Jesus says your devotion can only be to one or the other, not to both at the same time. Yes, we do need money to obtain the physical necessities of life. But what is a necessity, and what happens when we want more? Conflict inevitably arises, bringing destruction, disease, and death in its wake.
In this world, it has always been this way and it always will be this way unless we change the way we approach the problem — unless we change the way we think. Jesus tells us how in the verses that follow. We will be examining those verses in a future post. Stay tuned!