“Hope for a Reward”   May 25, 2010

Rev. Br. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP

            In a letter, St Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi wrote, “Please do not look at the labors, but at the rewards, which I tell you will be great. And may that which St Paul says always remain in your mind, namely, run so as to receive the prize.”   

I refer to this, not only because this Saint is the third optional memorial today, and might otherwise feel left out. I mention this because although this holy nun was concerned with a pure, disinterested love of God, she still saw a place for hoping for a reward.

            For, depending on how our ethical sensibilities are shaped, the Gospel could be a little surprising. Matthew’s account of the same story notes Peter’s motivation. Peter says to Jesus, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Peter seeks a reward. We might expect Jesus to rebuke such an idea. Is not following him out of pure love enough for Peter? Yet Jesus doesn’t do this. Rather he speaks of the hundredfold that his followers will receive, and most of all eternal life. Jesus seems to encourage them to hope and strive for a reward.

            To be clear, I certainly don’t want to disparage the ideal of a pure, disinterested love of God. The witness and writings of the Saints prevent this. But I do want to look a little more at the role of hoping for a reward in this context.

            Etienne Gilson, or as Monsignor Sokolowski likes to call him, Steve Gill-sin (it sort of cuts through the mystique). Gilson in his work on St Bernard gives us a helpful distinction. He says that for Bernard, a pure, disinterested love of God is a temporary experience and not a permanent habitual state, at least in this life. This separates Bernard from some later Quietists who proposed “pure love” as a constant habitual state, where one never acts with a view to his own benefit.

So it seems, then, that the ideal of a pure love of God is something we should strive for, but can’t always expect to enjoy. This is where a hope for a reward comes in. Granted, hope without love can become mercenary; but, on the other hand, love without hope can become cold.

  In this way, charity is kind of like a diesel engine. If the diesel engine is cold and does not fire up right away, there’s no shame in plugging in the heater to warm things up, or even giving the car a push and starting the engine as you are already moving. This is the function of hoping for a reward. When our charity is not firing up at a given moment, hope can get us moving until charity fully kicks in. 

When things are difficult or even just dull, this hope can get us out of the door with a little more spunk than we might have otherwise. It can motivate us to put up with a little discomfort, weariness, hunger, or struggle when it is necessary, or even just fitting.

A hope for an eternal reward amounts to a hope that, because of God, our efforts will not be in vain, either for ourselves or others. But that they will bear fruit that will abide forever. Our efforts in Christ will enable us to plunge more deeply into the life of the Trinity and help others do the same.

And after we’ve done something, there’s nothing to prevent us from taking Jesus’ advice in Luke 17, “When you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what we should have done.’”   But this is after the fact. Beforehand, there’s nothing wrong with being motivated by God’s promised reward. The Council of Trent makes this clear; it anathemizes those who say it entails sin.

And consider St Paul. He did not consider himself so advanced in charity not to say, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Or, “This slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” Or, “Run so as to receive the prize.”

To close, I just want to touch on briefly what underlies our hope for an eternal reward, namely God’s immense goodness which always goes before us. The situation is not like when our grandma offers us 20 bucks for mowing the lawn, and we can rightly say, “Oh, no thanks grandma, keep the money. Just leave me with my generosity.”   

No. The God who wants to reward us is the very source of the good works he wishes to reward. Grace is the principle of merit. God crowns his own gifts in crowning our works. So our reward is part of the work of grace that God has begun in us and wishes to bring to a glorious completion. Our meriting a reward is part of God’s saving work. And, in the end, who are we not to comply with God’s eternal designs and his immense goodness?    

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