GSC – Easter 7 2019
Did you get given pocket money as child? I didn’t really, isn’t that sad? I guess I had little jobs quite early on in my teenage years and so earned bits of money here and there; and my parents would always make sure I had some money if I was going on a school trip or something like that. Some of my school friends, however, were given pocket money in exchange for doing chores around the home: £2 for washing up or £5 for vacuuming and an elaborate system was thereby created as to how much parents owed their children for doing particular things. Children, of course, love saying to their parents, especially in the presence of other adults, “You owe me x amount.”
Through these Sundays of Eastertide we’ve been working our way through the Apocalypse, or the Revelation as it’s sometimes called, and today we reach the final chapter. So we’re being given a glimpse of the final moments of humanity before all creation is finally handed over to the Father and the Lord appears and says, “Very soon now, I shall be with you again, bringing the reward to be given to every man according to what he deserves.” So I wanted to unpick with you this evening this concept of being rewarded.
It’s an important principle and the basis of many of our Lord’s parables. Think of the Parable of the Talents (Luke 19:11-27) where ten slaves are entrusted by a travelling nobleman with the Talents, an amount of money equating to about three months wages for a labourer. To those who invest it well, the nobleman says, “Well done, good slave! Because you have been trustworthy in a very small thing, take charge of ten cities.” There’s a reward involved. See how in this parable it is while the owner is away that the servants have to prove their zeal. So now to us, having celebrated the Ascension of Jesus on Thursday, He has ascended to the Heavens and we now are to ask ourselves: how do we use the gifts God has given us? Think of the things you’re good at, the opportunities you have: offer them in service to one another, offer them to God’s church that the family of God’s people might benefit from them.
It is this eschatological reward, or our final reward that we might especially think about. Think of another parable Jesus tells as He approaches Jerusalem for His Death and Resurrection, the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. Here, those who treat others kindly, visit the sick, clothe the naked, these are invited by the Son of Man who comes in His glory: “Come, you that are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” And this feels very much like a reward, very much like something we become entitled to because of how we have lived our lives: an inheritance and a reward. As many know, following the death of someone inheritances can lead to arguments and claims of what is mine by right.
And it’s this language of rights and entitlement that we have to be so careful about. We see this on earth when we think of things like free speech, NHS care, free time and a whole host of other things, which we are blessed to be able think of in this country as being rights shared by all. But the language of rights mustn’t neglect the aspect of responsibilities nor that these are given and have to be paid for or they come with the flip side that they don’t encroach on others’ rights. Our delicately interwoven set of relationships require care and attention, not being smashed down by language of rights.
In our first reading, with the death of St Stephen, who was the first to die for His Christian faith, we see someone who could have insisted on his rights in those moments when a crowd has condemned him. They condemn him for speaking the truth and speaking of what is dear to him. Stoning must have been an awful death to endure but Stephen doesn’t shout out, ‘Wait a minute’ or ‘How dare you trade me like this.’ Rather, he sees Heaven’s gates thrown open and so prays for forgiveness for his persecutors and commends his soul to God. He teaches us how to die and shows us emphatically not worrying about earthly repute, world wealth or rewards in this life.
And this heavenly inheritance must never be a right we insist on as being ours. This sort of arrogance we see so often condemned by our Lord: to those who boldly assert: “We have Abraham our Father” our Lord replies: “You are from your father the devil” (John 8:39-47) because arrogance, pride lies in their heart. Elsewhere in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14) we see the arrogant language of rights and self-congratulation utterly condemned. In that parable, remember, the one who goes home justified is the one whose prayer is quite simply, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” A hymn we don’t sing written by St Francis Xavier that I remember really striking me when I was young is particularly pertinent:
“My God I love thee; not because
I hope for Heaven thereby,
nor yet because who love thee not
are lost eternally.”
We love Jesus not because we fear hell, nor because we want a reward. That’s a selfish love and “love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude” as St Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth so eloquently (I Corinthians 13). We cannot love for hope of a reward.
At the heart of who God is is not the language of rights and entitlement, but the language of gift and sacrifice. This we see in the High Priestly prayer of our Lord in this evening’s Gospel where our Lord prays, “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am.” Gift and union are part of this wonderful movement as Jesus goes to the Father to be at His side and yet, as we will celebrate next Sunday with Pentecost, He will also give us His people a gift, the gift of the Holy Spirit. We need never be afraid when we are called to give an account of our faith (Matthew 10:20). We need never be concerned about whether our prayers are efficacious or not (Romans 8:26). We ought never to think the gifts on the altar on which the Spirit is outpoured will continue to be just some bit of bread and some bit of wine.
My friends, we must therefore resist the temptation to bribe God. So often our prayer lives and our acts of kindness have deep within our hearts the intention of getting a reward: “Oh, if I help this person, God will reward me … If I attend this Mass, God will help me pass my exams or win the lottery…Why did this bad thing happen when I’m so nice to everyone and faithful to God?” Let us be sure to spend time considering this generous love of God. The hymn I quoted earlier by St Francis Xavier has this as a last verse to conclude the struggle of not loving God for the wrong reasons:
“So would I love thee, dearest Lord,
and in thy praise will sing,
solely because thou art my God
and my most loving King.”
And if this is true of our love for God, then it will also be true of our love for others: it too will need to have at its heart this willingness, in the words of St Ignatius of Loyola “to give and not to count the cost.” This will be evident in our lives when we lend to someone, we will not expect it back; when we help someone, we will not expect to be thanked; when we buy a present for someone, we will expect nothing when it is our birthday. Rather, we’ll make those acts of charity, of love, simply in faithfulness to God’s commands and because our own hearts are so full of the knowledge of the love of God for the whole of humanity.
It is through contemplation of who God is that we will know His generosity and approach His throne justified before God, not thinking about all the amazing things we’ve done for which we deserve a reward, but rather counting one by one all the great things God has done for us and singing His praises. Can I encourage us all to do this especially before we receive Holy Communion and then again afterwards. This isn’t a time for us to be fussing with books or queues or chatting but for intense contemplation of who God is for we receive Him at the moment of Communion, when God is most clearly about gift, about sacrifice, about not seeking a reward. May we be the same.