That word, ‘reward’, shows up all too often in this short Gospel for my liking. Because, in our world, a reward is something we get in return for our hard work. Right? Relationships are thus formed in transaction. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
We, therefore, get what we deserve. If we’ve been good, if we’ve followed all the rules, if we have tried so hard in whatever we endeavour, then there is a pay-off. Or, should be.
And, if we’ve been bad, not only do our sins have natural consequences we must deal with, we try to understand it so that we are punished because of our sins. After all, bad things happen to those who don’t measure up in some way.
It is no wonder, then, that we frame our lives of faith in this language. And this transactional thinking saturates all our relationships, including our understanding of God and our relationship with God.
I like the children’s story about a couple of frogs who are best friends – Roger and Fergie. Roger meets someone else, however, who really impresses: This new friend is Bull, the frog.
Roger and Bull spend all their time together hanging out. Roger says that he and Bull are now bestfriends. Until one day Roger’s Mom tells him that Fergie showed up earlier looking for Roger.
“Fergie’s not my friend anymore,” Roger states, ignoring his old friend. And runs out to play with Bull again.
One day, Bull meets someone else and falls in love with them. Bull starts spending all hours of the day and night with this new interest, leaving Roger all alone. “I guess Bull isn’t my friend anymore.”
Mom suggests Roger ask Fergie to come over for supper and a sleep over, which Roger does. Roger gulps, “I hope Fergie will want to be my friend.” To Roger’s surprise, Fergie does not hesitate and is so glad to spend time with Roger again.
The two old friends play hide-and-seek until the moon rises. Then, as the two frogs snuggle into the mud, Roger says, “Thanks for coming over tonight. Sorry I was so dumb to waste my time with Bull Frog lately. Still friends?”
“Sure,” says Fergie. “I always knew you were dumb, Roger. That’s why you’re my best friend. Same old Roger.”
“Same old Fergie!” Roger says.
Jesus is like Fergie. The reward is that Jesus will always take us back, no matter what we have done. And we might have done terrible things that cause us shame and guilt. That’s the kind of friend Jesus is, one who takes us back even after we’ve let him down.
God is a friend who comes to share our joys, our pains, and our tears without expecting anything in return. God does not expect anything from us.
This is a difficult thing for us to accept, especially as we are bombarded by messages that say we must prove ourselves. We are bombarded by messages that say God wants us to perform to a certain level. Meet certain expectations.
But we’ve got that mixed up.
It’s not God wanting us to perform and achieve and accomplish in order to deserve something in return. It’s we who make that stuff up.
What would it be like once we free ourselves from this image of God who expects something from us? What would it be like, once we accept and receive the free gift of God’s love for us and for the world?
It is in the freedom of God’s unconditional, unmerited mercy that paves the way for genuine welcome of others. It is receiving God’s grace that we become authentically in touch with ‘these little ones’ of which Jesus speaks in the Gospel– the little one within ourselves, the little one in church and in our circles of family and friends, and with those who are stranger to us.
May we swim in the waters of that grace, and at the end of the day snuggle into God’s warm embrace.
Adapted from Nancy Cocks, “Friends of the Lord” in Wild Goose Big Book of Liturgies (Iona Community UK, 2018), p.203-205