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Sermons

No Rewards

January 22, 2012

Bible Reading

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

(Deuteronomy 30:11-20)


“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

(Matthew 25:31-46)

Reading from Swedenborg

There are many kinds of punishment in the world of spirits, and there is no respect of rank, for whether someone was a king or a servant in the world. Every evil brings its own punishment with it. They are united; so whoever is involved in something evil is involved in the punishment of the evil as well. Still, no one suffers any punishment for evil things done in the world, only for current evil deeds. It boils down to the same thing, though, and makes no difference whether you say that we suffer punishments because of our evil deeds in the world or that we suffer punishments because of our evil deeds in the other life, because after death we all return to our life, which means that we are involved in the same kinds of evil. This is because our nature is determined by the kind of physical life we led.

(Heaven and Hell 509)

Sermon

When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Matthew 25:31-33

This is a familiar and typical image of divine judgment, and it would be idle to pretend that it is not a useful one. There is a difference between heaven and hell, and it applies to us. As is often the case, though, its use is a limited one. We are taught very clearly that, to stay within the image of our text, it is we ourselves who voluntarily move to the right hand or the left. The Lord calls everyone to the right side and sends no one to the left.

A different image might help. Picture a road that comes to fork because of a huge, impassable obstacle. Some travelers choose to go one way, some the other. From one point of view, it is the obstacle that separates them. So we could say that the absolute, uncompromising perfection of the Lord separates the sheep from the goats by leaving us no choice but to choose. It is the Lord’s life constantly flowing in us that keeps us moving. It is we who choose the direction of that motion, but this is the result of our divinely given freedom.

One radical consequence of this thought is given voice in our third reading: the thought that after death we will not suffer punishment for evil deeds done in this world. Rather, the cumulative effect of evil deeds is that they become habitual. We do not leave them in the past, so to speak, but bring them with us into the present.

By any theory of retributive justice, the thought that we are not punished for past sins seems unfair. Accounts must be settled. You did wrong, you must pay the price. There is a very logical way of looking at this, though, in which it is retributive justice that is unfair, and grossly so. It is grossly unfair, that is, to hold people accountable for anything over which they have no control. We have no control whatever over the past. We are absolutely powerless to undo what we have done or to unsay what we have said. There is no way the victim of murder can be “unmurdered.”

However, that is not the end of the story. Our past actions have both external and internal effects. We may not be able to undo the action or unsay the words, but we can try to repair the harm they have done. That is not changing the past; it is changing the present, so to speak. That is where we can make things different, so that is where our responsibility lies. It may well be that circumstances will limit how much we can do, that some forms of reparation may be beyond our capabilities, but that is no excuse for not doing what we can.

So much, very briefly, for the external effects of past actions. The internal ones are at least as important. For example, if we make reparations simply to escape more painful consequences, our distorted value system is reinforced rather than changed. We will in fact be looking for ways to commit the same sin without getting caught. If we want to live a successful life of crime, it probably makes sense to spend some time in prison and learn from the pros—at the state’s expense. We’ll probably also make some very useful professional connections and have some promising openings waiting for us when our term is up. We’ll also have a clean slate as far as the accounting system goes.

Turning to the other side of the ledger, the asset side, the accounting mentality all too readily gives rise to self-righteousness. Look at all the good things I’ve done. Don’t I deserve a few privileges? Haven’t I earned the right to a few little sins? I’ve stuck to my diet all week—surely I deserve some junk food. Sorry, but the same law about not being punished for past misdeeds inevitably implies not being rewarded for past good deeds. After all, they too are in the past, completely beyond our control. The only question that really matters, that matters forever, is what we have brought from them into the present. Has this kind of behavior become habitual? Does it feel right and natural to us? Do we enjoy it?

The thought that good deeds pile up merit points so that we can indulge ourselves in little sins betrays a truly alarming fact, namely that the little sins are what we really enjoy. Evil is the reward we claim for having done good? When you put it that way, its absurdity becomes obvious.

Again, though, why then is there so much in the Bible that speaks the accounting language? The familiar belief in a vicarious atonement is the belief that by his death on the cross, Jesus “paid the price” for our sins. The very word “redemption” comes from a Latin word that means “to buy back”—which, incidentally makes it strange that the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery is referred to as a redemption. Nothing in that story suggests that God paid Pharaoh for the release. If we superimpose the vicarious atonement story on the Egyptian story, then God the Father plays the role of the Pharaoh, the merciless tyrant from whom we must be redeemed.

Conversely, if we transfer the Exodus definition of redemption to the incarnation, we come out with something much more like our own view of things, namely that the Lord redeemed us by defeating the forces that were enslaving us, and the hells play the role of Pharaoh. The accounting word, “redemption,” may be retained, but the accounting image simply vanishes.

Why, then, do we run across the accounting image so often in the Bible? Actually, it has its obvious uses. They rest in the fact, welcome or not, that this is a language we understand. For many if not most people, the other language is bewildering. The thought that we are not to be punished for past sins or rewarded for past good deeds strikes us as terribly unfair. We are thoroughly used to the system of rewards and punishments. What would happen to our economy if we weren’t paid for good work and penalized for bad? We have laws about things like that, and we have those laws because experience has taught us that we need them. We may complain about government regulation, but the plain fact is that most laws are prompted by things that have gone wrong. To take an extreme case, if there were no murders, we would not need laws forbidding them.

In the overall system of our theology, such laws function as “external restraints” that keep us from doing too much harm while we are, it is to be hoped, developing internal restraints. There is a very clear and simple description of Secrets of Heaven 81 to the effect that worldly-minded people are kept in line by fears—fears of the law, of loss of life, profit, and reputation, all of which are outside ourselves. Spiritually minded people are guided from within, by the inner restraints of conscience, while heavenlyminded people are guided by their own feeling for what is good and true and have no sense of restraint whatever. If we put this together with the familiar teaching that we are all born worldly-minded and designed to become spiritual and even heavenly, we have here a concise picture of a genuine need for external restraints and an equally genuine need to outgrow them.

To illustrate this, we might look at the phenomenon of retirement. Given an adequate retirement income, we are no longer paid for what we do. Rather, our income enables us to do what we want to do. If the only reason we have worked was for pay, then we no longer have any reason to work. If we have come to find worth in our work and to love being useful, then we will find ways to be useful simply because we want to. People who have looked forward to retirement solely as an escape from responsibility are likely to find their lives meaningless. They will have been kept active solely by “external restraints,” and with the disappearance of those restraints, they will have neither chart nor compass to guide them.

So it is truly a blessing to be told that heaven is “a kingdom of uses” (Heaven and Hell 112); and it was a particular delight to find in a recent issue of New Church Life excerpts from a little story to this effect by none other than Mark Twain. It tells of a tough old sea captain who arrives in heaven and is given “a harp and a hymn-book and a cloud-bank” and figures that this is sure enough heaven. After playing his harp and singing the only tune he really knows for a few hours, he gets pretty tired, hands his harp and hymnbook to some enthusiastic newcomers, and meets an old friend who has been there a while. The old friend tells him, “Nothing that is harmless and reasonable is refused a body here, if he asks it in the right spirit. So they are outfitted with these things without a word. They go and sing and play just about one day, and that’s the last you’ll see of them in the choir. They don’t need anybody to tell them that that sort of thing wouldn’t make a heaven—at least not a heaven that a sane man could stand a week and remain sane. The cloud-bank is placed where the noise can’t disturb the old inhabitants, and so there ain’t any harm in letting everybody get up there and cure himself as soon as he comes. Now, you just remember this—heaven is as blissful and lovely as it can be; but it is just the busiest place you ever heard of…. Eternal Rest sounds comforting from the pulpit, too. Well, try it once, and see how heavy time will hang on your hands.”

The key question, then, is simply, “What do I love to do?” Some of the clearest evidence we have to go on is how we feel about what we have done. One of the greatest problems with the accounting mentality is that it so readily fosters the feeling that once the accounts are settled the slate has been wiped clean, so we can forget about the past. This is out-and-out disastrous. The past is immensely useful, if we use it well. As far as learning from experience is concerned, it is all we have to learn from. The philosopher George Santayana had a remarkable gift for one-liners, and one of his best is “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In order to learn from it, though, we have to stand outside it and look at it. If we remain emotionally mired in it, we cannot really see it for what it is. The first step in the regeneration process is repentance, which includes self-examination. Repentance must ask, “What have I done?” Self-examination asks, “What kind of person am I?” Together they point to what we are to do and why we are to do it.

Our theology, then, is telling us to live in the present and learn from the past. Easier said than done, perhaps, but surely well worth the effort. Amen.

Rev. Dr. George F. Dole