Wednesday, December 19, 2012 — Week of 3 Advent, Year 1

Lillian Trasher, Missionary in Egypt, 1961

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 938)

Psalms 119:49-72 (morning) // 49, [53] (evening)

Isaiah 9:8-17

2 Peter 2:1-10a

Mark 1:1-8

How does God motivate us? What is the best way to motivate human beings to be good?

There seems to be a great conversation in scripture. There’s a similar conversation in our society. It’s also something families disagree over: Are people most effectively motivated by reward and punishment, or by encouragement and love?

Psalm 119 is a love song about God’s law. Verse 64 jumps out: “The earth, O God, is full of your love; instruct me in your statutes.” The psalmist’s commitment to the statutes and ordinances is rooted in his love for them as a manifestation of God’s will. His motivation to obey is his love for God.

The anonymous author of 2 Peter, on the other hand, emphasizes that “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from their trials, and how to keep the unrighteous for punishment on the Judgment Day.” (2:9b, CEB) The writer warns the reader to look at what God did to the rebellious angels and the world of Noah and to Sodom and Gomorrah. If you don’t want to receive the same judgment, you’d better behave.

Isaiah sounds a similar theme. The pride and political intrigue of the northern kingdom (Ephraim) provoked God’s repeated wrath, says Isaiah. “Even then God’s anger didn’t turn away; God’s hand was still extended.” (9:21b)

The opening of Mark’s gospel presents this dichotomy more personally. “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son” is the ministry of John the Baptist, preparing the way. He’s a rewards and punishment guy. “I baptize you with water; but [the Messiah] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In other gospels John’s expectation is clearer. He is certain that Jesus will sift the good from the bad, gathering the poor for reward and punishing the bad like fire burning through stubble.

So comes Jesus. How does he motivate?

He heals. He touches the unclean. He dines with sinners. He accepts the outcast. He preaches beatitude to the meek and lowly. He argues with the proud. He goes to the houses of the wealthy and tells them to invite the poor. He freely offers forgiveness. He scolds the self-righteous. He urges generosity. He gets angry at economic exploitation. He crosses cultural boundaries to engage outsiders. He suffers victimization rather than defending himself. He receives violence rather than dishing it out.

Jesus is all love. You don’t see much reward and punishment stuff in Jesus. That confused John. It caused others to reject him. They expected a Messiah who would do the judgment thing.

Despite the evidence of Jesus’ life, the post-resurrection church from Biblical days until now is still drawn to the reward and punishment paradigm. It’s pretty evident in 2 Peter. Revelation feasts upon it. It’s tasty stuff.

But what if God is like Jesus? What if God is not into reward and judgment?

P.S. (A bit of reinforcement from science. Research into childhood development is pretty compelling. Children who are raised in nurturing environments where parents try to teach children the underlying reasons for good behavior, where parents avoid corporal punishment in favor of motivating through love and example — those children score better on personality tests that measure basic levels of happiness, maturity and competence. Children who are raised in families with strict, objective codes of behavior enforced by parental authority of reward and punishment show more signs of psychological disorder and less evidence of competency.)

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