In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and corrosion destroy and where thieves break in and steal; rather, lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor corrosion destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19-20). While the comparison shows that heavenly treasures are not susceptible to decay or burglary, questions persist: How can people on earth store up treasures in heaven, and how does this heavenly bullion benefit the earth-bound believer? A look into Second Temple text and tradition provides the answers. In ancient Jewish thought, sins accumulated debt before God, and earthly charity produced the heavenly treasure that could pay down the debt of sin.
Shortly before Jesus refers to “treasures in heaven,” he asks God to “forgive us our debts (ὀφειλήματα; opheilémata) as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). In this case, Yeshua does not describe earthly, financial debts; rather, he asks God to pardon sins. In Jesus’ native language of Aramaic, the word for “sin” and “debt” was the same: חובא (hova). In the Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible that began in Jesus’ day, the translators render the original Scriptures to reflect this economic metaphor. For instance, in the Hebrew Torah, Pharaoh says to Moses, “Carry away (שׂא; sa) my sin (חטאתי; hatati) just this once” (Exodus 10:17). The Aramaic Targum reads, “Remit (שׁבוק; shevoq) my debt (חובי; hovai) just this once” (TgExod 10:17). Jesus shares this targumic understanding of sin, and he asks God to forgive the record of debt in the heavenly ledger.
It is in this context of sin as debt that Yeshua says to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” Just before the Our Father, Jesus declares, “When you give alms (ἐλεημοσύνην; eleemosúnen)… may your giving be in secret” (6:3-4). Immediately after his reference to heavenly treasure, he encourages having a healthy eye (ὀφθαλμός; opthalmós; 6:22-23)—a common Jewish metaphor for being generous with one’s funds—and concludes that one “cannot serve God and money” (6:24). The Second Temple Jewish text of Tobit (c. 200 BCE) provides a precise precedent for Jesus’ principle that giving charity results in heavenly treasure. Tobit says to his son Tobias, “Give alms (ἐλεημοσύνην; eleemosúnen) from your possessions, and do not let your eye (ὀφθαλμὸς; opthalmòs) begrudge the gift when you make it…. Thus, you will lay up good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity. For almsgiving delivers from death and… is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High” (Tob 4:7-11). For Tobit, and for Jesus after him, alms are personal sacrifices that reflect a healthy eye; giving money to the poor helps to pay down the debt of sin by building up treasures in heaven.