Honestly, when it comes to our spiritual lives, I don’t believe in reward theory. I don’t believe God rewards me for things because I have done righteous deeds or good things. Yet I have met people who act as if God owes them certain benefits because they have done three unselfish acts.
A buddy of mine and I block an hour or so aside every month to sit, have a beer, and some nachos. While there is never a set agenda to our conversation, it always turns into a spirited discussion of what God is doing in our lives and how we are personally responding to it. Last week I brought up the topic of reward theory and my absolute inability to explain why I am so blessed to have some of these incredible experiences which have filled my life, especially over the past four months. Now my friend is a wise father and an absolute amazing dad. And the line between fatherhood and the fatherhood of God is very, very thin for him. And his comments are filled with wisdom.
"You know," he said to me, "I like doing things for my sons. I like giving them experiences. They don’t need any more stuff, and so I don’t give them more material things. I don’t reward them for their achievements. There are a certain expectations they need to reach academically, but I like giving them opportunities and experiences. I make sure I schedule "Dad" time with all of my sons. Some occasions they just look at me and question, "Dad, why did you bring me here?" And I’ll assure them, just trust me and roll with it. Other times, they just light up because they get it and it’s so amazing for them." OK, I get that. That makes a lot of sense. It’s not about a God who rewards us for doing good. It’s more about how we are expected to do good and God certainly does delight in giving us some extraordinary experiences. So what does this have to do with the readings today?
The Gospel is a serious question. What is the cost of discipleship? Do we calculate the cost before signing up? For Luke’s community, the cost of discipleship is your entire life. Luke is calling forth a seriousness that you can’t just dip your toe in the water, testing it to see if you may want a little more. Jesus lists three different situations: family, possessions and of course the cross. He clearly states that discipleship means a new relationship with each of these. For most of us, giving up our entire life is not something we are willing to do. We start with one percent or even three percent. For Luke, you can’t start small. You calculate the cost beforehand. It is either all or nothing. You know what it is going to cost you going in. Yet the great surprise that we have never calculated into the equation is the Paschal Mystery. There is something about dying and rising that suddenly we begin doing the things we previously didn’t want to do and now there is a whole lot of joy in it. In the first reading, Paul explains, "For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work." Luke’s experience tells him that the joy he is receiving is not because he did good. It’s not about reward. Through dying and rising Christ dwells within us, and we are eternally different.
When I was a child, my mom would use rewards to get me to do the things I didn’t want to do. Now as I get older, I see how God, for his good purpose, works in us to both desire the good and to work for it. And suddenly the surrender of my whole life is a lot easier than trying to hold on to a percentage of it.
Fr. David Colhour, C.P. is the pastor of St. Agnes Parish in Louisville, Kentucky.