Let me tell you a story about something that happened to me when I was six years old. We lived in the back of my parent’s business, Wilson’s Plastic Engraving. There was a shop in front, and, attached to the shop, was a two bedroom house. Behind the house was a back yard. Behind the yard was a small apartment building with two apartments downstairs and one apartment upstairs. I don’t think I ever saw our downstairs neighbors, but our upstairs neighbor was an elderly lady.
One day, I was playing in the back yard doing typical six year old boy stuff when the old lady walked up the walk carrying a couple bags of groceries.
“How would you like to earn a dime?” she asked. This was, of course, when a dime was big money to a six year old kid.
Well, of course I wanted to earn a dime, so I nodded my head. She asked me to help her carry her groceries upstairs to her apartment. I was happy to help anyway. So I took the bag of groceries and followed her up the stairs to her apartment. When we got inside, she took the bag from me, set them on the table, and then went into her small embroidered coin purse and pulled out a shiny Mercury dime and handed it to me. I was thrilled.
I immediately ran down the stairs and ran into the house to show my mother the beautiful dime I had earned. I was so excited. My mother gently explained to me that you should never accept money for helping someone. We are supposed to help other people. We don’t take money for it. She told me I had to walk back up those stairs right now and take that nice old lady her dime back. I was crushed, but I did as I was told. And the lesson stuck. I have never in my life since accepted a dime (or a dollar, for that matter) for helping another person. I have helped folks move, changed tires in the rain, and helped push countless cars, and never asked for anything in return.
A few years went by, and I discovered that most of my friends received a weekly allowance. I felt a little left out, because I did not get an allowance. Getting an allowance seemed like a good thing to me, especially since I never had any money. So when I got home, I asked my parents if I could have an allowance just the same as my friends did. My mom and dad sat me down and explained that families help each other. Keeping up the house was the responsibility of everyone in the house. You shouldn’t expect to get paid for doing your chores. Doing chores was just your share of keeping up the house. They told me that if there was anything I ever wanted, to ask them. If they had the money and could afford it, they would buy it for me. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t. You don’t expect a reward for doing what you’re supposed to do.
Now I know this is a controversial subject. Most folks believe giving kids an allowance a good thing. It teaches them to handle money. But I also see my parents’ point of view. I never did receive an allowance. Later, when I needed money of my own, I got a part time job after school. Of course, I have never learned to handle money well, either. Still, the thought that one should not expect a reward for doing what you’re supposed to do resonates with me.
As a teacher, I have seen children come to expect a reward for turning in homework and doing class work, for doing just what we expect them to do. We are encouraged to reward children for satisfying minimum requirements. This is called positive reinforcement. It is a long held behavioral practice. It works. Kids do what you want them to do if you reward them. Indeed, even my parents rewarded me for my grades. They gave me a dollar (huge money for the early sixties) for each “A”, and 50 cents for each “B”. However, they would not pay a cent for a “C”. Why? Because, they would explain, a “C” is passing. You are expected to pass your classes. There is no reward for that. “Bs” and “As” are over and above what is expected. Those grades deserve a reward.
My wife’s late brother had a business. He used to tell us that his young employees, the eighteen year old file clerks, used to complain that they got no raises for simply doing their jobs correctly. Her brother’s attitude was, “You’re paid to file. You file.” End of story.
Now what, you may wonder, and well you might, has all this to do with the Gospel According to Luke we’ve been traipsing through the past few weeks? Well, let me remind you of the story thus far. Jesus and his homies have been travelling on the road to Jerusalem. They have been followed by crowds of people, many of whom have been scribes and Pharisees, temple leaders, hoping to discredit him. Jesus has been rocking their world with one gigantic idea: God loves everybody.
First century Jewish thought held that the wealthy and powerful were wealthy and powerful because they were favored by God. The poor were poor because they deserved to be poor. God rewarded the good people with worldly riches. The sinners, He punished with poverty and disease. Yet, what the people who followed after Jesus saw was this holy Joe, Jesus, eating with the dregs of society. He told them stories about how God loved the poor.
On one occasion, children were coming up to Jesus. Now back in the first century, children were the lowest of the low. They were the most disposable of society. They were below consideration. And when the disciples tried to shoe them away, Jesus reprimanded them. He instructed them that only those who approached God as a child were fit for heaven. He went so far as to say that anyone who tried to cause a child to stumble would be better off had he never been born. So much for the pope, a few bishops, some priests, and a whole lot of other adults out there in the world. In fact, I’m guessing the creators of the video game, Grand Theft Auto ought to be a little nervous.
Anyway, this whole attitude just freaked out those twelve some odd guys who followed Jesus. They just didn’t get it. But at least they were hip enough to realize they didn’t get it. That’s the first step, isn’t it? You have to realize you’re wrong before you can ever discover what right is. They asked Jesus to increase their faith.
“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith.’ And the Lord said, ‘if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. But which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, who comes in out of the field, will say to him, ‘Come immediately and sit down to eat’. But will he not say to him, ‘Prepare something which I might eat, and fastening garments, serve me as I eat and drink, and after this, you will eat and drink’? Does he not have grace to the servant because he did the things commanded? And you also, when you have done all the things commanded you, you say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We are obligated to do what we have done.'” (Luke, Chapter 17)
Jesus is telling them, “Look, guys. You just don’t get it. It isn’t about earning your way in. It doesn’t matter how much faith you have. It isn’t about how good you are, or who you are. You can’t earn your way into heaven. Nobody “deserves” to get into heaven. You guys seem to think that you should get into heaven because you have faith, or because you do good stuff. But having faith and doing good stuff is what you’re supposed to do! We’re all supposed to have faith and do good stuff. You don’t get a reward for doing what you’re supposed to do. Heaven isn’t your reward for doing good stuff, or even for having lots of faith. You don’t get to be with God because S/He’s so very impressed with how wonderful you are. You get to be with God because God loves you and wants you to be with Him/Her, because you are a part of God and God is a part of you.”
A lot of traditional Christians will take this idea that we don’t deserve heaven and twist it. They don’t get it, either. They will say, “See, you don’t deserve heaven because you’re just a miserable sinner, so you better believe in Jesus-excuse me–JAYYYYSUS, or else you’re going straight to hell, brother!” But that isn’t the point of the story either.
You don’t have faith in your parents because you’re supposed to. You have faith in your parents because you know they love you and will take care of you. You trust them. You don’t do your share around the house because your parents will reward you. You do it because you love them, and want to do your best to help out. It’s all a matter of attitude.
You don’t have faith in God because God will reward you for your faith. You have faith in God because S/He’s the only game in town. God, or whatever you want to call that power, be it God, or Atman, or The Great Spirit, or Allah, or The Great Spaghetti Monster, or whatever, is creator, loving parent. You are a part of God and God is a part of you. You complete each other. You have faith because life is not possible without faith. You don’t need more faith. It isn’t about earning anything. You don’t have to earn anything.
Listen, here’s the message. It’s very simple. You are a child of God. The world can be a scary place. But there is no reason to be afraid because nothing can really hurt you. You cannot be destroyed, because you are pure love energy. No matter what happens to you, you will be okay, one way or the other. Either you make it through here, or you go back to become part of God. Either way, you’re okay.
The world can be very difficult, but we can make it a lot better by just sharing what we have with one another and helping each other out along the way. That’s what we’re supposed to do. We don’t get some reward later on for that. Our reward is having a much better, safer, friendlier, and happier world in which to live. We get to live a life without fear and anxiety. We get to know that we are never alone. We get to walk with the understanding that we are loved.
Like the servants in the story, we should not expect to be rewarded for doing what is expected of us. Now when you look at the message of Christ, it’s not all that crazy. It isn’t about talking snakes, or sins, or a bunch of rules to follow, or rituals, or sex, or judging one another, or any of that. It’s about love, plain and simple. And, as is almost always the case, the simple beautiful truth of the message takes your breath away. It’s enough to bring tears to your eyes.