Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Re-thinking "Rewards"...

But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

-Mat 19:30 ESV

A few weeks ago, I had an interesting discussion with a man from my church with whom I meet regularly. As a pastor, it is a rare thing to find a brother in Christ with whom you can share honest and open discussion. Christ’s church is a beautiful lover to the one who has poured out his life for her. But like many a fiery beauty, she can go from clear skies to thunderstorms in a moment, and woe to the servant who catches her when the clouds are building. So I cherish those trustworthy friendships that the Lord provides… because they can be few and far between.

Anyway, our topic on this particular evening as we were walking and talking in the late evening was the subject of salvation and rewards. Now, I fully admit up front that there is much about the subject of rewards that is up for debate. And I think it is probably best left as a grey area. Nonetheless, in light of the discussion, I wanted to investigate the subject a little more thoroughly and put down a few of my own thoughts on the subject.

First, taking a look at the Greek, there are three words typically used for reward as a noun in the New Testament. The first and most common is transliterated ‘misthos’ – “hire, wage, reward”. It is most often rendered ‘reward’ in most Bible translations. However, in some places it is also translated ‘wage’ or ‘pay’ (ex: Rom 4:4, ESV, RSV, NRSV, NIV, NKJV, HCSB). The second word is transliterated ‘antapodosis’ and carries the meaning “reward, recompense or repayment”. It occurs only once in the New Testament at Colossians 3:24. The third form 'misthapodosia' occurs three times and seems to be a contraction of 'misthos' and 'apodidomi' and occurs three times in the New Testament.The verb form of ‘reward’ comes from only one Greek verb, ‘apodidomi’ which occurs only 5 times in the New Testament and has a broader set of meanings including: “to give away”, “to pay off”, “to recompense”, “to give back/return”.

Considering these words, I propose that we allow the concept of reward to include all of the above meanings: wage, reward, something given away or a recompense. Context, of course, must determine the specific meaning – but it seems that the range of conceptual meanings possible is rather broad.

I am particularly interested in the idea of a reward being something “given away”, because I happen to believe that the idea of ‘rewards’ as a positive (pride evoking) or negative (fear evoking) motivator is probably not the best understanding. In fact, I will show my strategy early in the game – I suspect there is good reason to believe that the ‘reward’ discussed throughout the New Testament has nothing to do with the "do good stuff - get a special prize in heaven" mentality. Mind you, this is one man's opinion - so take it as such.

Why do I think it's not the best understanding? Well, let's begin with Jesus' attitude about competition in the area of the Kingdom. Using Kurt Aland's Synopsis of the Four Gospels and borrowing some ideas from Robert Farrar Capon's book Parables of Grace, allow me to reference the following passages that describe what appear plainly to be the same event:

And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you discussing on the way?" But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, "If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all." And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me."

- Mar 9:33-37

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

- Mat 18:1-4

Following their argument about who will be first (about who will get the greatest rewards), Jesus seems to be saying, "Knock it off... you guys don't get it. It's not about trying to be first or get the most. It's about receiving me and whoever is humble as this child receives me. I'm the only reward you need to worry about." In support of this idea, the passage in Mark has Jesus immediately talking about receiving him - not rewards or status.

Of course, the disciples - being much like you and I - just can't let it go. At the end of Matthew 19, we see Peter responding to Jesus' comment to the rich young man about giving up everything and following him. "Ahem... Jesus," Peter says gently clearing his throat, "...have you noticed that we have given up everything. And... well... we were kind of wondering... what's in it for us?" And of course, Jesus responds... "Everyone who gives up anything will receive many times more, and eternal life. Not only that, I'm going to make sure everyone gets the best seat in the house... but... please understand that many who are first will still be last and vice versa." In other words, Jesus is telling them, "You guys still have your focus wrong, it's not about what you're going to get. In fact, what you're going to get is me... and everything that comes with me (good and bad, by the way)."

And as if to punctuate the point, these comments of Jesus' are followed up with a rather devastating argument against the "rewards" mindset of much of Christianity: The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard:

"For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, 'You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.' So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, 'Why do you stand here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You go into the vineyard too.' And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.' And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?' So the last will be first, and the first last."

- Mat 20:1-16 ESV

That's about as straightforward as you can get. And it follows right on the heels of Peter's asking "Hey, what do we get for all we gave up?" So, this is clearly addressing the issue of rewards. All I am saying is, let's address any discussion about a "reward" in light of Jesus' own teaching on the matter.

Now let's return to the usage of the word "reward" in the New Testament scriptures. At the beginning here, let me point out that some have suggested - and I believe correctly - that Jesus' purpose was revealed to him only gradually by his Father as he pursued his calling/destiny as Messiah (for an example, see Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus by Robert Farrar Capon - I borrow heavily from him here). If that were the case, then there is reason to believe that Jesus' early sayings, as recorded in the gospels, may be based in a more traditional (from the Jewish perspective) understanding of his role as messiah. As his journey brought him closer to the cross, however, he began to see the perfect fulfillment of his role as savior-messiah in his death and expected resurrection.

Now, I realize that this may go against some views of Jesus' nature/identity, but let me offer two thoughts. First, I offer the Chalcedonian Creed - the creed that established the "orthodox" understanding of the nature of Christ. I will quote only a portion of it:

"...two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence,"

This creed indicates very clearly the belief that Jesus' two natures were in no way confused ("inconfusedly")... or in danger of "being... taken away" (or violated by each other). I believe that we are on fair ground (in my opinion, good ground) to suggest that Jesus' humanity was not compromised by his divinity in the area of his mental/logical processes. In other words, that his "God-nature" had been voluntarily limited by his taking on of human nature, but also that he was no less the essence of God because of it.

The second argument is primarily a theological one. If Jesus were some super hero messiah, he would not have been "one of us", he would not have been able to "sympathize with our weaknesses" as we are told in Hebrews 4:15. More importantly, if Jesus had not been fully human, it is hard to see how his death could have been an effective offering or 'propitiation' for our sin. Physical death would have held no fear or pain for such a super hero messiah - and the display of the cross would have been just a carnival sideshow performance. Jesus was not pretending to be in agony and anguish on the cross... he was in agony and anguish.

What we are saying then, is that Jesus' was fully human. Of course, he was also fully God - but his human-ness was not compromised by his God-ness. He set aside his supernatural abilities as God when he became human. Any supernatural power we see expressed by Jesus should be understood as the power of the Holy Spirit working through him as a human being - in the same way it can work through us. The only difference between us and Jesus - that is, in our mutual human-ness - is that Jesus was born without a sin nature by virture of his virgin birth. In that way he may have been more "transparent" to the power of the Holy Spirit working through him.

If you can handle all of that, then we're in good shape to move to discussion regarding Jesus' usage of the word 'reward'. What's interesting here is that Jesus' usage of the word 'reward' ends around the middle of each of the gospels (except in John, where it's not used at all). In Matthew's gospel, it appears right after the declaration of the beginning of Jesus' teaching about his death and resurrection (Mt 16:21). In Mark and Luke, it appears before both of the parallel declarations (Mk 8:31, Lk 9:22) of this apparently new teaching.

The fact that all discussion regarding the 'rewards-based' mentality ends at precisely the time Jesus realizes and/or starts teaching about this "new" (and rather un-messiah-like) plan - seems rather conspicuous. It is as though Jesus himself stops teaching about rewards because the complete plan is fully dawning on him in his human mind. Let me also add, as further evidence, that the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard referenced above also follows shortly after this pivot point in Jesus messianic message. I think an obvious conclusion would be that as the message becomes clear to Jesus, his teaching changes to more accurately reflect that message.

Perhaps in the beginning Jesus' message was based on an understanding of genuine heart change toward God reflected in obedience, though he apparently had some consciousness of his death prior to this point (Lk 5:35). At this point, however, I believe he realizes with clarity his more complete purpose is to fulfill the law, turning it on itself and overthrowing death itself by his own death and resurrection. So the focus of his message and ministry changes accordingly. The discussion on individual rewards ends as Jesus earns the reward for all humanity, to be received simply by trusting in him.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Possibly the most amazing post that I have read today!?!