Reasons, rewards, and righteousness

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

It’s so hard to get it right! If you try to maintain a low profile, or take a back seat, someone will accuse you of false modesty or of unwillingness to participate in the work to be done. If you put yourself forward for a particular role, someone will accuse you of arrogance, or of wanting to take control of things. If you befriend the new manager in your department at work, someone will say you are ingratiating yourself in order to win favours. Whatever we do, others are ready to question our motives, or rather to presume our motivation and to judge it adversely.

But what motivates our behaviour? What should? At one level the wisdom expressed in our reading from Proverbs suggests that humility should underpin all that we say or do. We should never regard ourselves as better, more important than others. Quite the contrary: live like this and our true worth will be seen and rewarded by those who have authority in any given situation. In theological terms the message seems to be: be humble in all things and in due course you will be granted a place of honour in the presence of God. Your reward will be in heaven.

However, if we recognize the context of these words from Proverbs, it becomes evident that they are offering advice to those who want to get on in the world. The passage is about the strategy to adopt in order to obtain a position of status and privilege. These words of wisdom about humility become a programme for self-aggrandisement at the expense, even the humiliation, of someone else. This portrays social climbing or blatant ambition at their worst. So here we find the crux of the problem: is disinterested goodness possible for us as humans? Or, do we fear God for nothing?

In other words, is our behaviour always motivated by rewards we hope to receive? Do we only do good because of what we will get out of it, be that eternal life, a place in God’s kingdom, or a seat at the heavenly banquet? George Caird once noted the moral contradiction that is inherent in being unselfish with an eye to heavenly gain.

The same dilemma arises in the parables from Luke’s gospel. In context they are directed against those who presume their own righteousness since they belong to the people of God and follow God’s law to the letter. Their presumption is that privileges flow from a relationship with God. They are critical of Jesus because he mixes with outsiders and sits light to religious laws. Jesus warns them through both parables that they may get a nasty surprise when the day of judgment comes and discover that they are not honoured by God, while those with no thought for themselves who follow the ways of Jesus by being generous, hospitable, welcoming to the poor, the needy, the outcasts will actually be the ones to receive divine favour.

So perhaps the real problem comes when we focus on trying to ensure we are in the right relationship with God. Or start worrying about how others see us. Or when we try to analyse the motives of others and make judgments on them. Or when we become more concerned about making the correct, or the beneficial, response to any situation, than with actually making a response.

In our reading from Hebrews we’re urged to practise hospitality for its own sake and told that by so doing we may discover that we have entertained angels unknowingly. I wonder what that reference to angels brings to your mind? The original recipients of this letter, as they read it, would have immediately been reminded of the stories of Abraham and then Lot in Genesis 18 and 19, of Gideon and then Manoah and his wife, Samson’s parents, in Judges 6 and 13. All these characters offered hospitality to strangers, described as angels, whom they encountered. They invited them to stay and eat and prepared meals for them. Only with hindsight, when the angels had departed, did they come to realise that it was actually God who had been present around their table.

God had come to them in the guise of ordinary human beings and in their encounters, their conversations, through their offer of welcome, time, food, they each discovered something more about God’s purposes and power. They received afresh God’s promises and understood more about the reality of God’s presence in their lives and that they would always be able to trust God. They heard again God’s call on their lives and began to appreciate God’s ability to transform and equip them for whatever their future would entail.

When the focus had been on providing for another person’s needs, a stranger’s of whom they could have no expectations, God was able to draw close and touch their hearts.

Hebrews continues by setting before us examples of good Christian living, of righteousness. It reminds us that this is the behaviour that is pleasing to God. It offers nothing more than an implicit suggestion that if we conduct our lives in this way, with generosity, love, kindness towards everyone, then we will discover that we are living in God’s kingdom. Become like this and God’s presence with us will be more frequently discerned. As this way of life becomes second nature for us, so will our ability to recognise all the benefits that flow from living in close relationship with God, prompting a response of thanksgiving and praise.

So when we contemplate what motivates our behaviour, let’s rejoice in the benefits of hindsight and focus backwards rather than forwards for once. Instead of worrying about the consequences of what you decide to do, try recalling all that God has done in your life and let thanks and praise flow out from your heart. Then just do what comes naturally; and who knows, you may discover you’ve met an angel, or Christ, on the way.

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