Matt. 6:1-18

THE REWARD MOTIVE IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE

Matt. 6:1-18

When we study the opening verses of Matt. 6, we are immediately confronted with one most important question– What is the place of the reward motive in the Christian life? Three times in this section Jesus speaks of God rewarding those who have given to him the kind of service which he desires (Matt. 6:4,6; Matt. 6:18). This question is so important that we will do well to pause to examine it before we go on to study the chapter in detail.

It is very often stated that the reward motive has no place whatsoever in the Christian life. It is held that we must be good for the sake of being good, that virtue is its own reward, and that the whole conception of reward must be banished from the Christian life. There was an old saint who used to say that he would wish to quench all the fires of hell with water, and to bum up all the joys of heaven with fire, in order that men seek for goodness nor nothing but goodness’ sake, and in order that the idea of reward and punishment might be totally eliminated from life.

On the face of it that point of view is very fine and noble; but it is not the point of view which Jesus held. We have already seen that three times in this passage Jesus speaks about reward. The right kind of almsgiving, the right kind of prayer, and the right kind of fasting will all have their reward.

Nor is this an isolated instance of the idea of reward in the teaching of Jesus. He says of those who loyally bear persecution, who suffer insult without bitterness, that their reward will be great in heaven (Matt. 5:12). He says that whoever gives to one of these little ones a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple will not lose his reward (Matt. 10:42). At least part of the teaching of the parable of the talents is that faithful service will receive its reward (Matt. 25:14-30). In the parable of the last judgment the plain teaching is that there is reward and punishment in accordance with our reaction to the needs of our fellow-men (Matt. 25:31-46). It is abundantly clear that Jesus did not hesitate to speak in terms of rewards and punishments. And it may well be that we ought to be careful that we do not try to be more spiritual than Jesus was in our thinking about this matter of reward. There are certain obvious facts which we must note.

(i) It is an obvious rule of life that any action which achieves nothing is futile and meaningless. A goodness which achieves no end would be a meaningless goodness. As has been very truly said: “Unless a thing is good for something, it is good for nothing.” Unless the Christian life has an aim and a goal which it is a joy to obtain, it becomes largely without meaning. He who believes in the Christian way and the Christian promise cannot believe that goodness can have no result beyond itself

(ii) To banish all rewards and punishments from the idea of religion is in effect to say that injustice has the last word. It cannot reasonably be held that the end of the good man and the end of the bad man are one and the same. That would simply mean that God does not care whether men are good or not. It would mean, to put it crudely and bluntly, that there is no point in being good, and no special reason why a man should live one kind of life instead of another. To eliminate all rewards and punishments is really to say that in God there is neither justice nor love.

Rewards and punishments are necessary in order to make sense of life. A. E. Housman wrote:

Yonder, on the morning blink, The sun is up, and so must 1, To wash and dress and eat and drink And look at things and talk and think And work, and God knows why. And often have I washed and dressed, And what’s to show for all my pain? Let me lie abed and rest; Ten thousand times I’ve done my best, And all’s to do again.”

If there are no rewards and no punishments, then that poem’s view of life is true. Action is meaningless and all effort goes unavailingly whistling down the wind.

(i) The Christian Idea of Reward

But having gone this length with the idea of reward in the Christian life, there are certain things about which we must be clear.

(i) When Jesus spoke of reward, he was very definitely not thinking in terms of material reward. It is quite true that in the Old Testament the idea of goodness and prosperity are closely connected. If a man prospered, if his fields were fertile and his harvest great, if his children were many and his fortune large, it was taken as a proof that he was a good man.

That is precisely the problem at the back of the Book of Job. Job is in misfortune; his friends come to him to argue that that misfortune must be the result of his own sin; and Job most vehemently denies that charge. “Think now,” said Eliphaz, “who that was innocent ever perished?” (Jb.4:7) “If you are pure and upright,” said Bildad, “surely then he would rouse himself for you and reward you with a rightful habitation” (Jb.8:6). “For you say, My doctrine is pure, and I am clean in God’s eyes,” said Zophar, “but oh that God would speak and open his lips to you” (Jb.11:4). The very idea that the Book of Job was written to contradict is that goodness and material prosperity go hand in hand.

“I have been young, and now am old,” said the Psalmist, “yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, or his children begging bread” (Ps.37:25). “A thousand may fall at your side,” said the Psalmist, “and ten thousand at your right hand; but it will not come near you. You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked. Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your habitation, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent” (Ps.91:7-10). These are things that Jesus could never have said. It was certainly not material prosperity which Jesus promised his disciples. He in fact promised them trial and tribulation, suffering, persecution and death. Quite certainly Jesus did not think in terms of material rewards.

(ii) The second thing which it is necessary to remember is that the highest reward never comes to him who is seeking it. If a man is always seeking reward, always reckoning up that which he believes himself to be earning, then he will in fact miss the reward for which he is seeking. And he will miss it because he is looking at God and looking at life in the wrong way. A man who is always calculating his reward is thinking of God in terms of a judge or an accountant, and above all he is thinking of life in terms of law. He is thinking of doing so much and earning so much. He is thinking of life in terms of a credit and debit balance sheet. He is thinking of presenting an account to God and of saying, “I have done so much. Now I claim my reward.”

The basic mistake of this point of view is that it thinks of life in terms of law, instead of love. If we love a person deeply and passionately, humbly and selflessly, we will be quite sure that if we give that person all we have to give, we will still be in default, that if we give that person the sun, the moon and the stars, we will still be in debt. He who is in love is always in debt; the last thing that enters his mind is that he has earned a reward. If a man has a legal view of life, he may think constantly in terms of reward that he has won; if a man has a loving view of life, the idea of reward will never enter his mind.

The great paradox of Christian reward is this–the person who looks for reward, and who calculates that it is due to him, does not receive it; the person whose only motive is love, and who never thinks that he has deserved any reward, does. in fact, receive it. The strange fact is that reward is at one and the same time the by-product and the ultimate end of the Christian life.

(ii) The Christian Reward

We must now go on to ask: What are the rewards of the Christian life?

(i) We begin by noting one basic and general truth. We have already seen that Jesus Christ does not think in terms of material reward at all. The rewards of the Christian life are rewards only to a spiritually minded person. To the materially minded person they would not be rewards at all. The Christian rewards are rewards only to a Christian.

(ii) The first of the Christian rewards is satisfaction. The doing of the right thing, obedience to Jesus Christ, the taking of his way, whatever else it may or may not bring, always brings satisfaction. It may well be that, if a man does the right thing, and obeys Jesus Christ, he may lose his fortune and his position, he may end in gaol or on the scaffold, he may finish up in unpopularity, loneliness and disrepute, but he will still possess that inner satisfaction, which is greater than all the rest put together. No price-ticket can be put upon this; this is not to be evaluated in terms of earthly currency, but there is nothing like it in all the world. It brings that contentment which is the crown of life.

The poet George Herbert was a member of a little group of friends who used to meet to play their musical instruments together like a little orchestra. Once he was on his way to a meeting of this group, when he passed a carter whose cart was stuck in the mud of the ditch. George Herbert laid aside his instrument and went to the help of the man. It was a long job to get the cart out, and lie finished covered with mud. When he arrived at the house of his friends, it was too late for music. He told them what had detained him on the way. One said: “You have missed all the music.” George Herbert smiled. “Yes,” he said. “but I will have songs at midnight.” He had the satisfaction of having done the Christlike thing.

Godfrey Winn tells of a man who was the greatest plastic surgeon in Britain. During the war, he gave up a private practice, which brought him in 10,000 British pounds per year, to devote all his time to remoulding the faces and the bodies of airmen who had been burned and mutilated in battle. Godfrey Winn said to him, “What’s your ambition, Mac?” Back came the answer, “I want to be a good craftsman.” The 10,000 British pounds per year was nothing compared with the satisfaction of a selfless job well done.

Once a woman stopped Dale of Birmingham on the street. “God bless you, Dr. Dale,” she said. She absolutely refused to give her name. She only thanked him and blessed him and passed on. Dale at the moment had been much depressed. ” But,” he said, “the mist broke, the sunlight came; I breathed the free air of the mountains of God.” In material things he was not one penny the richer, but in the deep satisfaction, which comes to the preacher who discovers he has helped someone, he had gained wealth untold.

The first Christian reward is the satisfaction which no money on earth can buy.

(iii) The second reward of the Christian life is still more work to do. It is the paradox of the Christian idea of reward that a task well done does not bring rest and comfort and ease; it brings still greater demands and still more strenuous endeavours. In the parable of the talents the reward of the faithful servants was still greater responsibility (Matt. 25:14-30). When a teacher gets a really brilliant and able scholar, he does not exempt him from work; he gives him harder work than is given to anyone else. The brilliant young musician is given, not easier, but harder music to master. The lad who has played well in the second eleven is not put into the third eleven, where he could walk through the game without breaking sweat; he is put into the first eleven where he has to play his heart out. The Jews had a curious saying. They said that a wise teacher will treat the pupil “like a young heifer whose burden is increased daily.” The Christian reward is the reverse of the world’s reward. The world’s reward would be an easier time; the reward of the Christian is that God lays still more and more upon a man to do for him and for his fellow-men. The harder the work we are given to do, the greater the reward.

(iv) The third, and the final, Christian reward is what men all through the ages have called the vision of God. For the worldly man, who has never given a thought to God, to be confronted with God will be a terror and not a joy. If a man takes his own way, he drifts farther and farther from God; the gulf between him and God becomes ever wider, until in the end God becomes a grim stranger, whom he only wishes to avoid. But, if a man all his life has sought to walk with God, if he has sought to obey his Lord, if goodness has been his quest through all his days, then all his life he has been growing closer and closer to God, until in the end he passes into God’s nearer presence, without fear and with radiant joy–and that is the greatest reward of all.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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