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What Does Jesus Mean by ‘Reward’?


  Matthew 6:1-6

Isaiah 25:6-10         Hebrews 11:32-39          Luke 14:1-14


I: — “How would you like to make $700,000 per year?” The question was put to me that starkly. I had been asked to make a house call. No reason for the call was given, but I assumed that there was difficulty or perplexity or pain of some sort. When I was seated in the living room it turned out the couple was involved in pyramid sales. They wanted me to become part of the pyramid. I was to work for them, in a sense; that is, they would profit from whatever I sold. But at the same time I was going to pick up $700,000 annually for myself. Their appeal was directed straight at my self-interest.

Everywhere we look we find self-interest ascendant, strident and shameless. Labour negotiations, admittedly sometimes undertaken to remedy injustice, are more likely to be a contest between two parties, each of which has only one consideration in mind: how can I gobble up as much as possible to feed my ease and satiate my acquisitiveness? – as if it could ever be satiated.

Politics is much the same. Any political party asks itself one question: “How can we give the people what they want so that we can get what we want? The bottom line for everyone is “what we want.”

The titles in the bookstores speak volumes. How to Pull Your Own Strings. How to Make Relationships Work to Your Advantage. How To Get Your Own Way Without Seeming To.

   Obviously scripture is correct when it says the root human problem is an innermost perversity wherein we make ourselves the measure of the whole universe; wherein we make ourselves lord of ourselves, as well as lord of everyone else. To say the same thing differently, the root human problem is plainly an ego so swollen that it corrupts and suffocates everything, an ego so very inflated that the only perspective we have on others is how they can render us even more inflated (and more ugly, we should add.) The last thing any of us needs is a bigger carrot dangled in front of us. A bigger carrot would only render us more grasping than we are already. Since super-swollen self-ism is the root human problem, then surely our Lord is concerned to do something about it, to reduce the swelling, to free us from the choke-hold we have on ourselves and deliver us from our schemes for feeding our self-interest. Surely our Lord intends to operate on us right here.

Then it’s right here that there seems to be a contradiction, for Jesus speaks so very frequently about rewards. “Count yourselves blessed when you are persecuted for my sake,” he says, “for your reward is going to be great.” “When you are giving a dinner party,” he continues, “don’t invite the socially prominent who will boost your social standing; and don’t invite the people just like yourselves who are going to invite you back next month. You won’t get any reward from God for doing that. Instead invite those whom the world overlooks, even despises, and at the last you will surely receive your reward.”

Again and again Jesus speaks of the rewards that are coming to his followers as dependably as night follows day. Then is he no different from the couple who suggested I join the pyramid and make a bundle of money for myself (not to mention a bundle for them?) Is he no better than this? If so, then in the guise of liberating me from my acquisitiveness he’s everywhere strengthening it. If so, then the TV preacher is right when he urges hearers to “invest” in God since God is no one’s debtor.

We must put all such misunderstanding behind us: our Lord does want to free us from the choke-hold we have on ourselves. He wants to repair the ugliness our self-importance has wrought in us.

We must hear him again when he repudiates utterly any suggestion of tit-for-tat. “When you are doing someone a kindness,” he insists, “don’t advertise it. Keep it secret. Don’t let anyone know. Don’t even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Elsewhere he commands, “Lend whatever you can – and expect nothing in return.” He knows better than we that if we expect something in return, then soon we’ll be doing whatever it is we do in order to get something in return. Our self-ism will have been inflated yet again.

When my sisters and I were ten or eleven years old my younger sister, one winter’s day, shovelled the snow off the very short sidewalk of the elderly man next door. She said she was doing it simply to be helpful (although I have my doubts.) He gave her 75 cents. This was a substantial sum for a ten-year old in 1955. (Do you know what 75 cents in 1955 is worth in 2005? It’s $18.75. My sister had shovelled off the short sidewalk in three minutes.) She was so very taken with her newly discovered source of fabulous wealth that for the rest of the winter she was shovelling his sidewalk as soon as three flakes had alighted on it. “When you render help,” says Jesus, “don’t expect anything in return. Your left hand shouldn’t know what your right hand is doing.”

In our Lord’s parable of the sheep and the goats the element too often overlooked is the element of surprise. The sheep are those who have assisted the needy and comforted the suffering and renounced themselves for the disadvantaged and made whatever sacrifice they felt they had to make when faced with someone else’s hunger or loneliness or pain or perplexity or guilt. Their only motive has been the undeniable need of someone they couldn’t ignore. Reward for this? It has never entered their head. Because they have acted without thought of reward they are surprised, stunned in fact, at the munificent reward they now receive. They had been kind not because they were thinking to be kind; they had simply acted spontaneously, without calculation, when faced with human distress. Now they are speechless when God blesses them.

The goats, on the other hand, had calculated. Quickly. Experts in mental arithmetic, in an instant they had added up that by helping those whose privation and pain were gaping, they were going to gain nothing. The “goats” wouldn’t act unless a huge carrot was dangled in front of them.

Plainly the reward or blessing that Jesus promises his people is reward of an unusual sort: his reward is promised only to those who act without thought of reward. His reward is promised to those who can only be surprised at their reward. In other words, so far from reinforcing a reward-mentality, our Lord’s promise of reward contradicts reward-mentality.

You and I have taken a giant step toward Christian maturity (not to say spiritual profundity) when we can spend ourselves for someone else and keep on spending ourselves without expecting anything in return. Of course we’d never expect our kindness, even our sacrifice, to bring us money. But how about a little recognition? Just an acknowledgement. Wouldn’t a word of appreciation be in order? A nod of thanks? How much we are ‘expecting’ – even simply expecting appreciation – is evident in our reaction when we receive no appreciation. “That’s the last time I go out of my way for her,” we fume; “I’ve never seen anyone as ungrateful.” Jesus reminds us that his Father sends and keeps on sending rain on the just and the unjust alike, the appreciative and the unappreciative, the grateful and the ungrateful. Surely the test of authenticity in all we do is our continuing to do it when we aren’t recognized or thanked. Goodwill towards others is genuine goodwill, and patience with others is genuine patience, only when we aren’t recognized or thanked yet continue in goodwill and patience. Patience isn’t patience if we’re expecting something in return. If we’re expecting something then what looks like patience is merely an investment whose dividends haven’t yet paid. For how long has God poured out his mercy, on how many people, only to have them reciprocate with protracted hostility? Our Lord promises his people reward even as he forbids them to ponder reward.


II: — Then what does Jesus mean when he says that God, who sees in secret, will never fail to bestow reward? There are two aspects to note here. One, God rewards his people in the life to come. “Blessed are you when you are hammered for my sake,” says Jesus, “for great is your reward in heaven.” It will be ours in the life to come. The other aspect: God rewards his people now, in this life.

In the first instance Jesus means that whatever kindness we do, whatever integrity we refuse to surrender in the face of opposition, whatever truth we uphold in the face of self-interested “fudging” God will honour inasmuch as God treasures all of this in a world that is indifferent to kindness, contemptuous concerning integrity, and hostile to truth. The smallest cup of water given to relieve someone else God sees. Yet he does more than observe it. What God sees God adopts; God owns; and in his own way and in his own time he will bless the selfless giver of that cup in a manner we can’t apprehend at this moment.

We all understand how it is virtually impossible for historians to evaluate accurately the historical significance of events that are occurring right now. Something that appears crucial today may turn out, fifty years from now, to have been only a tempest in a teapot. On the other hand, something that seems a trifle today may turn out to have had momentous historical impact.

In the same way there are people who manage to get themselves noticed and congratulated, even feted by the prominent and the powerful. Do you ever look at the society page in Saturday’s National Post? The centre-fold spread features the socially privileged who were at last night’s ball to raise money for this or that project (no doubt worthwhile) and who are fawned over inasmuch as Mr. Snodgrass owns the fitness club that professional athletes frequent while Mrs. Snodgrass is Canada’s largest importer of rare gems.

And then there are other folk. Their lives unfold anonymously. Their faithfulness and goodness will never be heard of. Invited to last night’s ball? They wouldn’t know a daiquiri from a door knob. But the God who sees in secret sees. And what he sees he owns. In the life to come he will bless the person who thought she was behaving so very ordinarily that her ordinariness didn’t attract the recognition it didn’t deserve.

Shortly after Maureen and I arrived on our first pastoral charge in northeast New Brunswick (one of the most economically deprived areas of Canada ) a girl invited us into her home after morning worship. She and her mother lived in a shack. It couldn’t have been more than 300 square feet – about the size of a suburbanite’s bathroom. (Needless to say, the facilities belonging to this home were twenty-five yards away at the back of the backyard.) The girl had a learning disability: she was fifteen years old yet only in grade seven. Her mother was impoverished. The two of them were thrilled that we had come into their home, for no minister ever had. They insisted on feeding us. I demurred since food is money and money was manifestly scarce. They wouldn’t be deflected. And so they set before us bread, margarine, tea and tinned peaches. Maureen and I shall never forget their generosity and their joy at granting us hospitality.

Some people who were more privileged financially or culturally might have laughed at their deed had it been known. After all, what were people as poor as they thinking about to ask educated, big-city people into their shanty? And then to serve them bread and peaches for lunch? The worth the world assigns to this meagre. But the God who sees in secret sees, and he will honour their kindness he with his own reward. What is it? We can’t say; we await it. Still, we can be sure that he who keeps the promises he makes will bless them in a way we can’t anticipate and they never expected.

Jesus always urges transparency, truthfulness, honesty, integrity, compassion. I have seen men and women exemplify these only to be passed over for promotion; only to be exploited and rendered a stepping stone for the devious and the dissimulator; only to be expelled from the office clique. They have paid dearly to uphold what the world scorns. What they paid: has it simply been thrown away, like money rolling down a sewer? On the contrary, the God who sees and notes and remembers also keeps his promises.

The other aspect of the reward our Lord promises pertains to this life.   One form such blessing takes is a richer experience of God himself. To uphold truth is to be rewarded at least with stronger conviction of the truth and clearer perception of the truth. To have resisted the temptation to dissemble is to find oneself with stiffer spine and reduced vulnerability to the lure of dishonesty. To have remained faithful in any commitment is to find oneself that much more intimate with our Lord whose faithfulness to us has never flickered.

Our Methodist foreparents used to sing,

Thy nature, Lord, thy name impart,

This, only this, be given:

Nothing beside my God I want,

Nothing in earth or heaven.


Those people discovered that as they obeyed God regardless of cost or convenience, expecting nothing in return, they were given everything: the name of God was branded upon them (they were marked his) and the nature of God (his love) suffused them and they knew then if they hadn’t known before what Paul meant when he cried, “What God has prepared for those who love him God has revealed to us through the Spirit.” For the Spirit is God in his utmost intimacy and intensity rendering himself impossible for us to doubt and impossible for us to deny.

The truth is, scripture says far more about the believer’s experience of God than today’s church does. Peter exclaims, “Not having seen him, you yet love him…. And you rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy.” Reward? Greater capacity to love God and greater delight in being loved. Paul reminds the believers in Thessalonica that the gospel didn’t come to them in words only, but “in power, in the Holy Spirit, and with full conviction …. You received the word in much affliction, with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.” One aspect of God’s reward is intensified joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, intensified so as to outweigh any affliction that would otherwise leave us thinking we were God-forsaken.

Most people find our Lord’s teaching on rewards difficult to understand in that they assume that reward is the same as payment. But reward and payment are categorically different. Payment is always something, a thing that has no logical connection with the deed it compensates. If I cut the grass and I’m told I may now go fishing, then fishing is payment for grass-cutting. There’s no logical connection between grass-cutting and fishing. Reward, on the other hand, is always related logically to what it rewards. What’s the reward for decades of marital faithfulness?   It’s not a new set of Tiger Woods golf clubs. The reward of marital faithfulness isn’t something logically unrelated to marriage. The reward for marital faithfulness is simply a richer, stronger, more resilient marriage. Payment for the student’s diligence at her homework is a ticket to the next rock concert. The reward for diligence at her homework is her capacity for more profound intellectual work, greater enjoyment in it, and satisfaction with it for as long as she lives.

What’s the reward that Jesus says our Father will never fail to give us?

Thy nature, Lord, thy name impart,

This, only this, be given:

Nothing beside my God I want,

Nothing in earth or heaven.


The reward for standing with Jesus Christ when his truth is mocked and his way derided and his invitation ridiculed and his people despised; the reward for standing with him there is that he, his truth, his way, his invitation and his people: these are made sweeter than honey to us. These are made transparently real and self-evidently right, even as our intimacy with him is made ever more wonderful.

Isn’t this reward enough?

                                                                                                     Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                             

February 2005