A golden lesson from King Midas

“For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Lk 12:34).

This well-known quote comes from Jesus. You can find it in Matthew’s Gospel (right after the Lord’s Prayer) and in Luke’s Gospel. In Luke, it comes after the story of the rich fool. We know that one well, too: a rich man with such wealth that he can’t house it. So he builds new barns, thinking to retire to “eat, drink and be merry.” Except, he dies that very night.

Where do our own treasures lie? Of course, as good Christians, we readily say, “With Jesus Christ.” That’s exactly the truth we should live. However, what do our actions reflect?

Oh, there are the obvious questions to ask: What size is my house, my car, my boat – if I have one? Then there’s the one about what I might collect – jewelry, expensive clothes or footwear. Do I take lots of cruises or travel to many exotic places?

Those are not necessarily bad, but they are things that help us examine — between ourselves and God — where our hearts’ treasures lie.

The rich fool might remind us of the more ancient Greek/Roman legend of King Midas. In that story, as recorded by the Roman poet Ovid just before Christ’s birth, Midas asked for the gift to turn everything to gold with a touch. His wish was granted by the Greek god, Dionysus. At first, the results delighted Midas. Imagine the unlimited wealth, and the power that comes from that unlimited wealth. We can all think of modern examples that border on having that type of power.

However, Midas soon learned that gold doesn’t always glitter. His food and water turned to gold: hard, metallic and inedible. Midas ended up considering his golden treasure a curse.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, retelling the story in 1852, added a twist. Midas happily changed all the roses in his garden to gold. His daughter, Marygold, finding her perfumed flowers turned to hard, cold metal, came weeping to her father. Reaching out to comfort her, Midas turned her to gold. Effectively, this killed the girl.

Of course, Hawthorne left Midas an out. The king prayed to the “heavenly stranger” who had first granted his wish, asking to be saved from what had become a curse. His prayer was heard and Midas was able to reverse his daughter’s fate. And he could eat, drink and be merry again — with simpler things, like a cup of water.

So how like Midas are we? What do we sacrifice to maintain what we have, or to get what we want? This can be explored on so many levels: from our work to our home lives to our politics. Whenever we focus on one great, overarching thing in this world — a thing we believe will make our lives better — we risk becoming like Midas. We risk ruining whatever we touch. We risk our families, our country, our children, our climate and — in the end — our souls. How foolish.

Midas learned from his mistake. In the older versions of the story, his regret came too late and Midas starved to death. In Hawthorne’s, Midas receives the grace to repent and be saved. As Hawthorne’s stranger tells him: “You are wiser than you were, King Midas! … You appear to be still capable of understanding that the commonest things, such as those that lie within everybody’s grasp, are more valuable than the riches which so many mortals sigh and struggle after.”

We will enter a new year in a few weeks, a year likely to be filled with political tensions, unstable economics, migrations, war and violence in our schools and on our streets, the likelihood of more unusual weather. As we face this new year, do we understand that the most common things, things we may not even consider valuable — like a flower, a sea turtle or a stranger from another land — may be the very things that can keep our hearts soft and responsive, and thus able to save us from the danger of becoming as hard and cold like gold?