Preached at Prince of Peace, Wasaga Beach, and St. Luke’s, Creemore, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, July 2, 2023. Readings for this Sunday: Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42
41Whoever 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; (Mt 10.41)
Imagine that you saw a Lost Cat sign on a telephone pole, and then you see the cat in the photo. You call the number on the sign, the owner comes, and collects the cat. Would you ask for a reward?
Now imagine that you helped someone find something valuable, perhaps a new smart phone, or a beloved piece of jewelry. Would you ask a reward?
I could imagine some different answers to these questions. An animal lover would probably decline the reward, and would simply be happy to know that they had united a fellow animal lover with their pet. The person who helped another recover a valuable piece of property might be content to know that they’ve been a good neighbour.
What if it was you that lost a valuable item? Would you offer a reward, and if so, why? Your decision would probably come down to your feelings about other people. Can you trust others to be good neighbours who would show you the kindness you would show them? Or would you hope that a reward might work against their baser instincts? Maybe some easy money as a reward would appeal to the finder more than the trouble of trying to sell your lost valuable.
The decision to offer a reward would be a hard one. You’re essentially betting on whether the person who found your valuable is a moral or an immoral person.
I’m asking these questions to get us thinking about why we live our lives as Christians. Do we try to be good followers of Jesus in order to get our heavenly reward? Or do we try to be good disciples because our lives as Christians are their own reward? It’s complicated, isn’t it? I suspect that most of us would say, both, really. We want to have the promise of eternal life that Jesus offers us, but we also try to live a Christian life because it’s the best way of life we know. Let’s look into it a bit, starting with today’s gospel.
Today’s gospel reading comes at the end of Matthew 10, and all of that chapter is Jesus giving instructions to his disciples before he sends them out. Jesus tells them to preach that the kingdom of heaven has come near, cure the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons, and do all of this without any expectation that they will get paid for their good deeds: “You received without payment; give without payment” (Mt 10.8). Jesus tells them that they will be entirely dependent on the kindness of those who receive them, and if no one shows them kindness or hospitality, then move on to the next town and try again.
Jesus also warns them that this work will be downright dangerous. You’ll be put on trial, Jesus warns them, you’ll be badmouthed, accused of being in league with the devil, you’ll be whipped and driven from town to town. And what’s more, Jesus doesn’t even promise them danger pay. He does say that they will receive a prophet’s reward, but even that sounds ominous, as it doesn’t always end well for prophets in the Hebrew scriptures.
Jesus does say that everyone who welcomes the disciples and help them will share in their rewards, but he never says what that reward will be or when it will be given. Sometimes Jesus speaks as if the reward will come down the road. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, he talks about comforts and blessings that will come to those who are suffering in the present: 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt 5.12).
Other times, Jesus talks as if the reward is in the here and now. When he is asked about when the Kingdom of God will come, he says it’s here now: “For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17.21). Jesus heals and feeds people while he is with them. He walks with his friends and disciples and teaches them while he is with them. He promises that the Spirit will be with them after Jesus is gone, so that his friends will never be alone. And he teaches them to do things, like eat and drink together, so that they will never forget him. All of these things sounds like the reward is about knowing Jesus as a friend and teacher and companion in the here and now of our lives, which is how friendship should be.
When you think about it, the rewards of friendship are in the here and now. A good friend is with you in moments of distress, and is there with you to celebrate good things. A friend will open their door or take your call when you need them. A friend will teach you things, advise you, call you out when you need it and help you be your best self. At the same time, friendship is about sacrifice. A friend may have needs, may make demands on our time, ask us for all sorts of help. That’s ok. The friendship is the reward.
Imagine meeting someone you really like and want to be with. They tell you, yes, I will be your friend, but I’m really busy right now, so don’t ask me for anything and I won’t ask you for anything. I don’t have time for coffee or visits and I won’t take your calls but trust me, one day I’ll have time for you, and it’ll be great, we will be such good friends. How would you react? Would you want to wait, or would you find someone else that could be a real friend in the here and now.
Or imagine that you join a church. The people there say, we won’t give you a name tag because we don’t have time to know you. We never have coffee hour and we never share meals. We won’t pray for you or help you in rough times, but if you just give us money and say your prayers, one day you’ll go to heaven. I think most of us would say, that’s not a church I want to belong to, and we’d go looking for a church that was a proper community.
I was describing our life at All Saints to a newcomer recently and he said, “you guys really seem to like eating together” and said, “Yes, that’s kind of the point of being church. It’s our time together around a table that helps make our community of faith real and enjoyable”.
So I would say that our lives as followers of Jesus, our lives in the church, are their own rewards. We trust in the promise of eternal life, but we know that part of the reward is in the here and now. Our community as believers, the friendship of our fellow disciples, and our friendship with Jesus are all their own rewards. Jesus will ask things of us. He asks us to think hard about how we use our time and our wealth. He asks things of us. He challenges our prejudices and he pushes us to uncomfortable places and tells us not to go back to our old, self-centred lives. Friendship with Jesus does involve sacrifices.
So yes it’s human to want a reward. We want the promise of eternal life. We long to see that heavenly city where there is no pain or sorrow, but only light and joy. We yearn to look again on those we love who have gone before us. We have the promise of these things, and they are part of the reward of the Christian life. But, for those of us who answer the call to follow Jesus, we find that following him in this life is it’s own reward, and the more we follow him, the harder it is to tell the gift from the reward.