Below is the written text for Deacon Pat Hessel’s homily at Holy Trinity Parish on the weekend of August 6-7, 2016 – on our motivation for living our life of faith.
Some people speak about reward and punishment in terms of “the carrot and the stick.” They talk about it in relation to motivating people. It comes from the image of a person sitting on a cart pulled by a mule. The driver dangles a carrot in front of the mule. The mule wants the carrot, so it moves forward. But the driver also holds a stick, and if the mule stops or doesn’t move fast enough, the driver hits the mule with the stick. In the business world, carrots and sticks are used all the time to encourage productivity. The top salesperson might get a special bonus at the end of the month – a carrot. On the other hand, the worker who doesn’t perform well or who misses work often, risks being fired – a stick.
Many of us view our faith life in terms of carrots and sticks. Our ultimate carrot is, of course, heaven, and our ultimate stick is hell. Carrots and sticks sound manipulative, but they work. “If you get your homework done before supper, you can have ice cream for dessert.” “If you don’t do your chores, you’re going to lose your telephone for two days.” All of us as parents have used carrots and sticks with our kids. They work – most of the time.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus was using carrots and sticks. The servants who were ready for their master to return from the wedding banquet would be invited to come into the house to eat, and the master would serve them himself – a carrot. And then on the other side we heard about the servant who thought the master was delayed and started eating and drinking and mistreating the other workers. The master would give this servant a severe beating – a stick – literally! Jesus was reminding us that we don’t know how long we will be here on this earth, and so we should live our lives in such a way that we are always ready for our final judgment – the final carrot, or the final stick.
Jesus spoke to the people in ways they could understand. Reward and punishment made sense to them and they make sense to us. Eternal life in heaven is certainly a reward that we need to keep in mind. Eternal suffering in hell is certainly a punishment that we need to keep in mind. But reward and punishment should not be our only motivators.
Think about the grandmother who knits a sweater for her grandchild. Is she motivated by some sort of carrot? No, she’s not looking for a reward. Is she motivated by a stick? No. No one is going to punish a grandmother because she doesn’t knit a sweater. The grandmother is motivated by love. Carrots and sticks mean nothing to her – only love.
Jesus spoke to the people of his day about reward and punishment to reinforce their need to take their relationship with God seriously. He tried to instill some sense of urgency. Following the will of the Father isn’t something that we can continually postpone, because at some time – maybe sooner than we expect – we will be called to account for our actions, and we would rather have a carrot waiting for us than a stick. So carrots and sticks are helpful motivators, but grandma reminds us that there is something more.
When I was a teacher, I had the rare student who didn’t study because they were afraid to fail the class – didn’t study so they could get an A. They just studied because they loved learning. And, as you would expect, they did exceptionally well. They were in love with the process, so the outcome took care of itself.
Sometimes a fixation on the outcome destroys the process. Like the golfer who’s leading the tournament in the late stages and starts thinking so much about winning that they make silly mistakes, eventually losing because they were so focused on the end that they forgot what was right in front of them.
Would you be satisfied if all your relationships were based on trying to gain some sort of reward from the other person, or avoid punishment? Of course not. Imagine a husband and wife living that kind of life. It would be hard for them to enjoy the spontaneity of their love. They would always be thinking about something beyond – carefully weighing their words and actions – and missing the present moment.
Now think about your most important relationship – your relationship with God. If we only view God as the judge, we run the danger of seeing our faith lives only as a way of getting to heaven and avoiding hell. We want to keep God happy. We certainly don’t want to make God angry. We think that if we do the right things, God will love us – take us to heaven. And if we do the wrong things, God’s waiting there with a big stick, ready to send us to hell. Well God already loves us. God can’t help but love us. And God loves us even in our sinfulness. And the last thing God wants is to be separated from us – certainly doesn’t want to send us to hell.
But if the carrot of heaven and the stick of hell keep you on the straight-and-narrow, I don’t want to mess things up for you. And clearly, Jesus held out the carrot and the stick today in the Gospel. But do you remember Jesus telling his disciples: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love…I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”
Jesus spoke over and over about doing the will of the Father. He never told his friends that he was afraid of the Father. He never said the he HAD to do the will of the Father so the Father would love him. He told us: “The Father and I are one, and I want you to be one with us.” No carrot – no stick – just a loving unity that we are all called to share – now and always. As we learned from Abraham in the second reading today, faith is its own reward.
Our relationship with God should be about more than striving for reward and avoiding punishment – as important as those are. Our faith life should not be based solely on external reward or punishment, but on internal transformation. Like Abraham, our lives should give evidence of an intimate encounter with God. It has been said that: “Christian life is a commitment to love, to give birth to God in one’s own life and to become midwives of divinity in this evolving world. Then we can deliver God’s love to the world.” Think about yourself as a midwife, delivering God’s love to the world! This image of the midwife also reinforces the reality that our salvation – our ultimate carrot – is not just about ourselves. It must reach out to others with love. That’s the only way it works.
Today Jesus entices us with the carrot of eternal life and warns us with the stick of harsh punishment. But we know that he is inviting us to a relationship that goes beyond carrots and sticks. We are invited to participate in the love of God – a love that is its own reward. We are called to give glory to God by the way we live our lives – by the way we deal with the things that are right in front of us – every day.
At the end of Mass we hear: “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” Do that!