Not in the saving, but in the spending well of your precious life will you find your treasure, and there your heart will also be

The collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 (Picture source)

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation.


As many of you will be aware, serious concerns have recently revived about the state of some American and European banks, following the recent collapse of Silicone Valley Bank, Credit Suisse and First Republic. Although there are significant differences between the situation that is currently unfolding, and what happened in what is now known to us as “the 2007/2008 global financial crisis”, these new bank failures, quite naturally, remind many of us of that time and, rightly, we wonder what, if anything, of lasting importance has been learnt? 

Although it seems to me undeniable that the answer to this question is, by and large, “Not a lot”, I freely admit that the regulation of financial products, institutions, and markets is not something about which I can authoritatively opine. However, I am qualified to say something — albeit, of course, not the final word — about the religious and philosophical implications of certain human responses to these kinds of events.

Of all the human responses that struck me forcibly during the general panic which followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers investment bank in September 2008, one in particular continues to stay in my memory. Whilst following the rolling news on the radio, TV and in the newspapers, I saw an interview with a young man who had just lost his job with Lehman Brothers. As the shocked employee was leaving the company’s building, he was asked something along the lines of whether he’d had any inkling of the true state of Lehman Brothers. I do not remember his full reply, or even whether he attempted to provide one, but I vividly remember his concluding comment which began by him asking the interviewer, “But how could this happen?,” and finished with him pointing in disbelief at the Lehman Brothers’ skyscraper behind him and saying, “Look at the size of the building!”

At the time his response strongly reminded me of something written by the Roman Stoic philosopher, politician and dramatist, Seneca (c. 4 CE–65 CE), two-thousand years ago:

“Nothing is durable, whether for an individual or for a society; the destinies of men and cities alike sweep onwards. Terror strikes amid the most tranquil surroundings, and without any disturbance in the background to give rise to them, calamities spring from the least expected quarter. States which stood firm through a civil war, as well as wars external, collapse without a hand being raised against them. How few nations have made of their prosperity a lasting thing!” (Seneca, Letter XCI, trans. Robin Campbell).

In part, it was as a response to this universal truth that in the Roman Empire, Christianity attempted to offer people a kind of prosperity that would be “a lasting thing.” One teaching of Jesus’ that was employed to do this, can be found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:19-21):

“Do not store up treasures for yourself on the earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves penetrate by digging and steal; Rather, store up for yourself treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves neither penetrate by digging nor steal; For where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.”

But, promising though this idea might have seemed at the time, the problem is that heaven — at least as the idea of heaven seems to have been understood by Jesus, and certainly by Christianity — has turned out to be yet another “too big to fail” institution that’s collapsed, leaving behind huge psycho-spiritual debts and damage, just like Lehman Brothers, Silicone Valley Bank, Credit Suisse and First Republic have left behind huge financial debts and damage. If it were possible, which it isn’t, I can easily imagine an inhabitant of heaven’s golden City of God being interviewed as he or she came out of its huge doors, saying to us: “But how could this happen? Look at the size of the building!”

Anyway, my point is that we all know, or should by now know, that Seneca continues to be right, and that few nations have made of their prosperity a lasting thing. This is, of course, now painfully the case here in the UK. And it’s a fact which should remind us that it remains the height of folly to seek to store our most valuable treasure — symbolized by the image of the human heart — in any institution and its instruments that claims it’s permanent and whether that is a bank, a religion, a business, an industry, a nation state or an empire. They will all fail because nothing is durable or too big to fail. [Think of Ozymandius’ foolish words at this point . . .]

All of which musing makes me ask two questions.

  1. What actually is our human treasure, where our hearts will also be?
  2. Can we store that treasure somewhere safe?

I find I can only properly answer the first of these questions by beginning with an answer to the second. This is because, perhaps the most important thing I want to say here, is that there is a major problem with the word “store” in this context because we cannot store our human central human treasure which has always seemed to me to be nothing less than the mystery and miracle of life itself.

It’s vital to see that the treasure of life, symbolized by our beating hearts, is a living, ever-changing, transforming, metamorphic process, and so is something only fully available to us when we are truly immersed in it, spending it out wisely, to the full, right up until the moment of our death. The simple truth is that the treasure of life is not something solid, static and stable like gold, silver, diamonds or a soul that, at least in theory, can be stored up for later use in some bank vault here on earth or in some putative eternal heaven. No, because, to cite the old bon mot, with life, it’s a case of “use it or lose it.” As the evidence of his own actions seem to imply, I’d like to think that Jesus actually knew this and that, therefore, his recorded words on this matter were not his own but were, instead, a later Christian misinterpretation or misremembrance. But, about this, we will never be sure. So, on this occasion anyway, I am forced to offer you in conclusion a significant rewrite of Jesus’ recorded, and I think faulty, teaching, and to say to myself, and you:

Do not attempt to store up treasures for yourself in heaven or in earthly banks where moth and rust destroys and where thieves penetrate by digging or stealing by moving cash into shadowy, offshore accounts or offering useless promissory notes about future salvation or financial profit. Rather, invest your treasure of life by making this earthly life better for all beings whom you meet along the way. And then, in the mindful spending well of your precious life, right here and now, you will find your treasure, and there your heart will also be.