What are we truly looking forward to? That is a key question that all of this week’s readings ask us to ponder.
It looks like in all these readings, we are told that we should look forward to God doing something for us – if of course we are faithful and charitable servants. If not, perhaps we will be one of the ones to only get “beaten lightly,” as the extended Gospel of the day promises! But alas, it appears that we, like the disciples, are not ignorant of the master’s will, so it doesn’t look good!
One thing that we sometimes recoil from is the sense that there is something mercenary or problematic about God offering “rewards” and “punishments” in this fashion. After telling us to give alms, Jesus uses a traditional Jewish image of the poor as a “treasury in heaven.” In the similar passage about almsgiving in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns against seeking earthly rewards, like community praise, for one’s almsgiving, but explicitly says “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Has this been abused? Yes! Is it wrong? Well, consider a handout I recently saw from an elite college encouraging their students to “self-reward” with some external goodie “whenever you reach an important milestone or achieve a specific goal.” The handout goes on to explain, “Having something to look forward to increases your motivation and makes it easier to follow through with your tasks.” If this logic is good enough for college students at an elite liberal arts college, why not for God’s people?
Yet we would be wise to see that the readings invite us to think about “rewards” in quite a different way from the handout. While the handout admirably suggests things like call a friend or volunteer at a shelter as possible rewards, most of it is a kind of bucket list of ultimately trivial experiences. The problem is not the reward logic necessarily, but that the rewards still look like somewhat grown-up versions of giving candy to a child for going to the doctor’s office. Alasdair MacIntyre famously uses the example of bribing a child to learn to win at chess by giving them candy. This isn’t bad as a stage in a process, but the hope is that the child moves from playing chess for the external good of candy to playing chess because they love chess – for the goods internal to chess itself. If we take this example seriously, we should recognize that there is a “reward” for playing good chess, but we say it is rewarding because of how we delight in the activity itself, and not because of something external tacked on.
Do we see the heavenly reward that our readings discuss as something “external” to our actual daily lives here and now? Is it just somehow (usually not very clearly) tacked on? I think one part of our problem is that, like the “self-rewards,” we’ve held on to a rather childishly literal reading here. We actually picture people getting beaten or, conversely, living in a palace with all the trapping of wealth. Better to start thinking in terms of the images from Hebrews of a homeland or a city. Here again, we can be too literal. But the idea of longing for a homeland, a city, a common “inheritance” (another frequent image) is something unlike a little self-reward. We long to dwell in a place where we belong, where we are connected to others, and the like. We’re longing for a shared life in which every tear is wiped away and in which no one suffers. And we’re longing for a deeper, fuller, more (dare I say) mystical communion with God. I’ve written about how luxury goods and services trade on this genuine longing, promising mystical transcendence and deeper communion with others – if you just buy the right things. That is a tacked on reward in the opposite direction, trying to take the self-rewards of candy and make them into something that only comes from communion with God and others.
And once we begin to see that the “reward” God offers is precisely this communion, we should then see how giving alms, participating in liturgy, and being a good servant and steward of the gifts God has given us are not something we are doing for some kind of external reward. Rather, the actions themselves are a participation – a kind of sacrament – in the desired end state.
If this communion with God and others – the Kingdom – really is what we truly look forward to. The readings should challenge us to ask whether this is in fact the case, or whether we are servants who have decided to go about our own self-rewarding while the master seems to be away.