First time through this gospel I found myself saying “Wait a minute!  What do you mean no rewards?  The R word is used a lot in the gospels.  I had the distinct impression joining Jesus’ team had some benefits.  What about the reward of knowing God’s plan for my life?  What about answered prayer?  What about the reward of eternal life for crying out loud?”

We are in a section of Luke’s gospel where Jesus is contrasting true discipleship with the patterns of the Pharisees.  One major theme in this section is the pattern of the Pharisees to use religion to create a system of reward and punishment and to give honor to the few, like the Pharisees.  In this context Jesus takes a shot at the whole notion of spirituality as a reward system.  It seems Jesus has a very different view of God than the Pharisees do.  Jesus is messing with their imaginations.  Let’s see if tonight Jesus can mess with ours.

Transactional vs. Love Relationships

Before being too hard on the Pharisees, there are certainly times in our life when we like, even need, spiritual reward systems.  There are several good models out there for the stages of spiritual development (Scott Peck is a good place to start).  Although they differ in details, these models all talk about a formative stage where we see God as a noun, separate from ourselves.  When we are in this stage God is the patriarchal father out there that needs to be found, that gives us gifts or discipline, that saves us from things.  This is a God of rewards and punishment, of heaven and hell, that is holy, separate and distinct.  At this stage we like to believe achievement is where it’s at and that consequences are important.  I have cycled through this stage more than once.  If this is where our spiritual head is at, today’s gospel will not make sense.  We are like the Pharisees only if stay stuck at this stage.

These models all say that if we are not stuck, we circle through another step in our spiritual development, where we begin to see God as more like a verb than a noun.  Here eternal life is not something you receive as a reward, rather it is something you start living.  Luke hints at this in the story of the Prodigal Son when the son returned and wanted a “transaction” whereby he would to live separate as a servant.  Instead the father exclaimed “all I have is yours.”  Of all the gospel writers John goes the deepest into these waters where Jesus prayed at the end “I in them, they in me, I in You, that they may be perfectly one.”  Here we see God “abiding in us” and the boundaries are fuzzy.  We begin to see that within us is something that is fully ourselves, fully human, yet at the same time fully divine – like the Christ was fully human and fully divine.  God no longer feels separate.

Our experience is like this.  At our best we do not keep score in our deepest relationships.  In fact, while mutuality in love relationships is healthy, we all know there are lots of times in life where we love with no return, with no reward.  When we dip our toe into unconditional love we know at a deep level that we are exercising an important spiritual muscle.  Why then would we want a relationship with God that is conditional, that keeps score, that is so transactional?

Similarly, when we consider those moments in our lives when we feel conscious and connected to God the feeling is not one of separation or performance.  When we feel momentarily awakened, for example, while watching children at play, the moment feels like a gift not a reward.  In these graced moments we feel “connected” and part of something greater than ourselves rather than aware of how separate we are from reality.

It’s Already Given!

I am reading a book called “The Grace of Dying” authored by a long time hospice nurse.  The author sees definite patterns in the hundreds of natural deaths she has witnessed and she sees death as “our final stage of growth.”  She reports that for many people the stages of spiritual development we have been talking about tonight occur in an accelerated fashion as death approaches.  Images of God carried for decades fall away as the ego falls away and for some God is finally experienced as Verb, as God connected within.  As the moment of death comes near God is not seen as foreign or separate.  No more deals.  No more performance.  Death is not “beam me up Scotty” to some separate place or ET’s friends sending a ship from a foreign home.  Rather it is more like something within us reaching out to embrace what has always been there.

Have you seen in your journey a movement from a transactional relationship with a separate God to one that is more like growing into what has already been given?  If we take part in this natural movement priorities we have been talking about here, like social justice and inclusion, will become second nature.  If we can imagine that nobody is separate, that everyone has been given this spark of the infinite, all of a sudden the dignity of all becomes necessary.  If God is no longer “out there” we can no longer treat others like they were “out there.” Nobody is more rewarded than another, nobody is closer to the infinite than another.

When we dare to believe in the connection with God already given, we can join in on Love freely given and seeking no reward.  When we do so we connect to an eternal movement that has been going on since God breathed over the waters of the earth.  May this movement shape our imagination this evening.


George von Stamwitz

Sts. Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Community

Liturgy for the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Saturday Evening, October 5, 2013

Focus Text – Luke 17: 5-10 


Photo by Amy Mathom on