I always get impatient during my local public radio station’s on-air fund drives. I turn on to hear “Fresh Air” or “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” and all I get is breathless program hosts oozing about how great the station is, how lucky I am to have it, and how crucial it is to support it—in any amount, nothing’s too small. I know they have to do it, but it drives me wild when they do.
Now, here comes another unedifying confession— I’m what’s known as a free-rider. It’s been a very long while since I “picked up that phone to make a pledge.” I listen all the time, but contribute nothing. I should be embarrassed. I am.
But as I drove to a meeting the other day and was listening to ‘BUR go on and on about money, I wasn’t thinking about how embarrassed I should be. I was thinking, “This is really irritating”—right up, that is, until the moment when one of the announcers said that for a donation of just a few dollars per month, they would thank me with a hefty gift certificate to a restaurant that just happens to be my favorite tapas place in the Boston area.
I pulled over, fished out my phone, and dialed 800-909-whatever that number is. Seriously. Right then and there on the shoulder of Route 128. And I doubled the amount they were suggesting, because I could, and because I wanted to, and because I’d also get a limited edition mug along with the restaurant gift certificate.
I suppose I should now also feel embarrassed that it was not some noble appeal to my better angels that finally moved me to give, but the simple prospect of a desirable reward. And yet I don’t feel embarrassed at all. In fact, upon whimsical reflection, I feel rather biblical about it!
After all, even God was not above luring people into the divine plan by holding out promises of reward. And some of the greatest figures of our tradition were not above jumping at them . They pulled right over and fished out their phones.
Abraham gave more than a few dollars a month—he gave up everything— to obtain God’s thank-you gifts: a land of his own, offspring as numerous as the stars, and the rights to divine protection.
Paul left everything behind so that he could obtain a prize, a crown, the glory of a race well run—and the surpassing gift of knowing Christ.
And after that rich young man in the gospels refused Jesus’ invitation to sell off his wealth and follow, it dawns on Peter that the disciples had done what that rich man would not. “We have left everything. So what’s in it for us?”
We tend to find it an embarrassing question. Unworthy of a disciple. But Jesus doesn’t bat an eye. He lays it out for Peter and the others–you’re going to get houses and lands and family and friends and….
No, I don’t find it embarrassing that Peter asked. I find it amazing that the rich young man didn’t, and that mostly we don’t either. I guess we’ve been schooled to think only about the size of the surrender we need to make to follow Jesus, not what we might be passing up by not giving in. Maybe we should ask more often.
Like a lot of church people I was brought up to believe that I should never ask, “What’s in it for me?” You do good because good is what you’re supposed to do, and virtue will be its own reward. I think instead that it might be a great exercise to ponder the rewards of our surrender. To try to imagine what is coming our way. To rejoice in God’s thank-you gifts and yearn to attain them. To pinch ourselves and shout the spiritual equivalent of, “A generous gift certificate to all that luscious food, and all you want, dear God, is a few dollars a month? I can do that! I can do that!”
It isn’t wrong to be moved by reward. Even people who claim they want nothing in return for their love and service to others always get something out of it, regardless (don’t we say things like—‘Oh, it was nothing—really, I got a lot more than I gave…’?). So why not just step up, be transparent, and want it? Like Paul, why not reach for it? Like Peter, why not expect it? Like Abraham, why not get up and go into the unknown, spurred on into the night of unknowing by the sights and sounds of all the wonders that are in it for you?