Thursday, October 17, 2013

Heavenly Reward?

I was driving out in the country the other day, and I passed by a big sign in someone’s yard, which read “Reward for Information about Stolen Property.” It was a large, well-manicured lawn with a big house set well back from the road. Although I was driving pretty quickly, I saw enough to realize that there was a collection of antique memorabilia and signs on and around a building near the house. I allowed myself to imagine the owners and their frustration when items they valued—not just for their monetary worth—were taken from them. The sign was an odd cry for help and an expression of anger and hurt.

In the gospel lesson for today (Matthew 10:34-42), Jesus puts a big reward sign in the front yard of faith: “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple-truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward." Actually, I’d like to see that sign—“Reward for being nice”—in someone’s yard, but I don’t really like reading it in the gospel.

I experience an icky feeling when someone starts talking about the product of our faith in terms of our “heavenly reward.” I’m already over-motivated by money. I don’t need Jesus waving a fat stack of bills in my face. In fact, I’d rather him do the opposite. I’d rather him smile from the shadows—just visible to me.

Earlier this week, I was visiting a parish for a stewardship consultation, and I enjoyed a back-and-forth with a woman in the congregation about the tithe. We sparred for a while, and I think our conversation helped the whole group get a better sense of why God asks us to give him the first 10% of our resources. But, after the session was over, she and I finished our conversation as we turned to the issue of how we offer to God not only our money but also our time and talent. “Sure!” I said, “Give to God 10% of your time, too.” The response I got surprised me a little bit: “I give way more than 10% of my time!” “That’s great!” I responded. “Keep it up! We’ll give you a pat on the back and a shiny gold star.” I was joking—perhaps even teasing a little bit—but the joke was lost on my audience.

“We don’t want that,” she protested. “We don’t do it for a gold star or a pat on the back. We do it because we love it. Those of us who give our lives to something don’t do it for a reward.” She’s absolutely right, and I told her so. We don’t give our hearts to God in order to receive a reward. The giving itself is the reward we treasure.

What is a prophet’s reward? What sort of reward do the righteous get? What does Jesus offer us in exchange for a glass of cool water? Maybe it’s lying down at night with a sense that you have a calling and a purpose. Maybe it’s the sense of selfless satisfaction that comes from serving God by serving others. Maybe it’s the comfort of approaching the end of one’s life in faith rather than fear. We aren’t Christians because there’s a reward waiting for us. We’re Christians because being Christians is a reward now.

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