By Pastor Glenn Pease
A 16th century German monk discovered the power of religious bribery. The children showed great reluctance in learning their prayers. Scolding and punishing them did not improve things, and so he tried offering them a reward. Tradition has it that he took thin strips of dough and twisted them into a knot. This was suggestive of the folded arms of a person at prayer. He would bake these little cakes and give them to the children who learned their prayers. Spurred on by this reward, his students learned so much more rapidly that other monks followed his example. The novel little tidbits came to be called pretzels from a medieval Latin term that some feel was pretiola, which means a little reward. They became popular in England, and in the 19th century they became popular in the United States the pretzel is good symbol of the subject we are looking at, for it is the complex and often twisted subject of rewards.
We know rewards are the key to animal training and scientific experiments. No self-respecting rat is going to bother to figure out how to get through a maze just for the sake of pure knowledge. It doesn't care a fig about scientific progress, and couldn't care less if there is a way through the thing or not, unless there is a reward in it, and namely something to eat.
Truffles are a great delicacy in Europe. They are an underground mushroom that grow by several species of trees in the forest. They bring a high price as gourmet food, and so hunting them is very profitable. Hogs love the odor of them, and they will root them out of the ground. Hogs became the main tool for finding and digging up this delicacy. They owners would muzzle the swine to keep them from eating up all the profits. They soon learned, however, that unless the hogs got a chance to eat some of them they lost all interest in the pursuit, and they quit rooting for them. They didn't carry signs, but it was clear that they were on strike, and they were saying, no reward-no rooting.
We could conclude that rats and hogs need rewards to function, but this would not be so for humans. This would be to hasty a conclusion, however, for Jesus clearly appeals to our love of reward to get us to go God's way in the practice of our faith. Love of reward is also that which is motivating the Pharisees to go their self-centered way, and so we have another paradox of life. Reward can be good or bad, and it can be ratty or righteous, and hoggish or heavenly. The evil man out of God's will, and the righteous center of God's will may both be motivated by the love of reward. It is obviously a subject then that needs to be seen from both the vicious and the virtuous side.
I. THE VICIOUS SIDE OF REWARD.
There is a double paradox here in the case of the Pharisees because their deviate, defective, and depraved love of reward was evil precisely because they were satisfied with too little. They did not want a great enough reward. They were content to have the praise of men, and so they stopped short of seeking the praise of God. Wanting reward is bad when you do not want enough, but if you want God's best, then it is good.
You can miss the mark by aiming too low as well as by aiming too high, and that is what they did. This is the major folly of man that he strives to attain rewards that are so puny and passing, and they give up the rewards that are so powerful and permanent. They aim for the passing pleasure of a sexual encounter, and give up the permanent joy of a lifetime commitment. They aim for the temporary escape of guilt through alcohol, and they give up the permanent joy of sin forgiven. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the desire of men for peace, joy, contentment, and happiness. These are worthy rewards every man should seek, but when these rewards are pushed aside, and cheap substitutes and shoddy counterfeits are put in their place, the reward motive becomes a vice. Anything that motivate a man to aim too low is a vice.
The man who marries a woman for her money is considered evil. The man who marries her for love is considered good. Both are motivated by reward, but one seeks a reward that is too low, but the other seeks the highest reward, which is love. The reason bounty hunters were despised, even though all they did was shoot outlaws who were wanted, just the same as the sheriff would do, is because they did it for the reward of money. The sheriff did it for justice, and the protection of the innocent. He was also rewarded by being loved and appreciated. The mercenary soldier is not held in high esteem, for he fights a war for anybody, and kills for money. The regular soldier fights for his country and his freedom, and he is respected.
There are numerous illustrations of two people doing the same things where one is despised and the other admired, and the difference is in the value of the reward they seek. It is not the seeking of reward that is wrong, but the fact that the reward they seek is too small and unworthy. This is why there is a negative side to rewards. They can motivate us to do the right thing for the wrong reason. They can make us aim too low. In the case of the Pharisees, they sought the benefits of popularity with men. This is a reward that has its place, but when it is made the supreme reward over and above that of pleasing God it becomes a vicious motive leading to idolatry, hypocrisy, and every other folly known to man.
II. THE VIRTUOUS SIDE OF REWARD.
The study of man reveals that the reward motive is built into him by God just as it is built into the animal kingdom. I got out an old text book from my college days which was titled What Education Has To Learn From Psychology. One chapter begins, "Learning takes place only when the act that is performed is reinforced or rewarded." In other words, rats and hogs are not so dumb after all. They are motivated by the same thing that motivates people. Neal Miller goes on in his book to say, "Without rewards, people fail to learn." I didn't have to bother to check with the latest text books to see if this theory is still current, for Jesus makes it clear in the Sermon on the Mount that it is a universal and perpetual truth.
If Jesus appeals to the reward motive to get His followers to give, to pray, and to fast in a way that is pleasing to God, then we have a key to all teaching. Jesus was the master teacher, and He used the reward motive constantly to teach the highest truths. Deny the validity of the reward motive, and you reject the methods of the Master. He made us so that we learn faster by being rewarded for good behavior than by being punished for bad behavior. The beauty of what Jesus is teaching is that we see Jesus practicing the wisdom of balance. The tendency of all teachers of righteousness is to ignore the balance and go to extremes. Many will say, "The Pharisees seek for reward, and so I say unto you that seeking for reward is evil. Never do anything for reward." This is still a very common practice. You over react to folly, and you throw out the baby with the bath water.
Jesus does not do this. He says, "Look at the mistake of the Pharisees. They seek reward, and they get just what they want, which is the acclaim of men. Don't you aim so low when you seek reward. Aim higher by seeking the acclaim of God." He does not throw out the reward motive just because it is abused. That is the folly of over reaction. TV is used for promoting evil, therefore, do not use it at all is what they say who over react. The balance Christian says that though TV is used for evil, I will use it for good. Reward seeking is done for evil, but I will seek reward for the glory of God, for the benefit of others, and for the good of my own self-esteem. The point is, the Christian never gives up anything that can be used in a God pleasing way just because it is abused and misused by those who care only about their own will.
Can you imagine the generals in the Pentagon deciding that since the enemy already has developed a larger gun that we should, therefore, not bother. We don't want to have and use the same kind of weapons they do. You would hear no such thing. They would command the research to be speeded up, for they want the same superior weapon. You not only want the same weapon as your enemy, but you also want to learn how to use it better. Jesus says that Satan can use the reward motive to entice people into being obsessed with low goals to aim for. Rewards can be used to lead men into idolatry and self-centeredness. But Jesus did not say to scrap all interest in the reward motive. On the contrary, He said to develop this weapon to its highest power, for what Satan can use to glorify self, you can use to glorify God, and reap the highest rewards. Don't reject anything just because evil forces use it. Perfect it and use it the way God intended it to be used.
Scientists use the reward motive very effectively some years ago when a shower of meteors fell in North Central Mexico. Freshly falling meteorites are valuable to astronomers, and so the team of scientists drove to the scene and set up a soft drink stand on the edge of town. They offered the Indian children a free drink for every meteorite they brought in. It was a swift and effective plan, and they soon had all they needed. You can just imagine those kids scampering all over the countryside with enthusiasm. That is the way God wants us to live for Him-with the excitement and anticipation of being greatly rewarded. Heb. 11:6 says, "Without faith it is impossible to please Him. For whosoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him."
The reward motive is at the very heart of the Christian faith, for you cannot function properly for God at all unless you believe He is a giver of rewards. If you want to serve God for nothing, you are more of a Stoic than a Christian. A Christian wants what God delights to give, and He so delights to give that Jesus says that even a cup of cold water given in His name will not go unrewarded. There is no act of kindness so trivial that God does not record it for future reward. The whole emphasis of Jesus in Matt. 6 is on the fact that you do not have to fear if no one knows of your good works, and you never hear the applause of men for what you do for God. If only God knows, that is enough. In fact, it is even better, for then there is no danger of taking the lesser reward. If only God knows, you can be assured of God's reward in time and eternity, for Jesus says that God will reward openly that which is done in secret.
We need to recognize that the Gospel is good news. That means it is an offer of present and future reward. Jesus said, "Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." He did not say He would add another burden, but He would give rest, and that is just what is needed. There is no Gospel if there is no reward. Sinners need to experience forgiveness and release from guilt now to have any joy and peace. This is part of the appeal of the Gospel to motivate people by the promise of reward. It was the reward motive that enabled Jesus to stay on the cross and finish the plan of salvation. Heb. 12:2 says, "Who for the joy that was before Him endured the cross." If Jesus could not look ahead to eternity, and to the reward of everlasting joy with a multitude of redeemed sinners, He would not have had the motivation to endure the price He had to pay on the cross.
We have not covered a fraction of this vast subject, but we have seen enough to make it clear that there is a negative and a positive side to the issue of rewards. The important thing is that we prevent the loss of the best rewards by promotion of that which pleases God rather than that which pleases only men. Every day we have abundant opportunities to please God and add to our treasures in heaven. But we are so often like those knights who were traveling through unknown country. As they crossed an old dry river bed they heard a voice that said, "Take a handful of pebbles from the river bed and you will be both glad and sad." Each night scraped up a handful of the pebbles and road on. In the morning they looked in their pockets and saw in the blaze of sunlight that they had taken up diamonds, opals, rubies, and sapphires. They were glad they had taken so many, but sad that they had not taken more.
There is no doubt that all of us will feel the same way when we receive our rewards for what we have done in the body for our Lord. We will be glad for what we have done, but sad that we did not do more. Jesus is showing us how to close that gap so that we will have more to be glad about. The way is to seek the highest rewards by developing the inner life that lifts you closer to God. This leads to the now reward of enjoying more and more of the abundant life Jesus wants us to have in time. Those who learn to get alone with God and develop the inner life are like a ship in the lock. The gates close in front and behind. The engines cease to drive. It rests quietly, and no longer going anywhere. But as it rests the water is lifting it, and when the gate swings open the ship goes out for its journey on a higher level. This lifting of the Christian life to higher levels of activity is just the reward Jesus wants each of us to enjoy.
Jesus died that we might live forever and be free of sin, sorrow, suffering, and death. This is the greatest goal anyone can aim for, and the good news is that you do not have to earn this as a reward. It is a free gift that God gives to all who will put their trust in Jesus as their Savior. If you have never done so, ask Jesus to be your Lord and Savior now, and receive His greatest gift of salvation. Then you qualify to earn all of the rewards he offers for a life of obedience to Him. You need to receive the free gift first, and then live for His highest rewards that come by doing what pleases God.