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Wonder Woman, Ambiguous Rewards, and an Ethic of Identity

When given the choice, “super hero” is not usually my favorite genre of movie. (It’s just a personal preference thing – no judgement for those who like super hero flicks.) Despite this preference, I had heard good things about Wonder Woman. So, when my Mom offered to watch the kids so that my husband and I could have a date night last weekend, I agreed to see the film.

It was great! I am going to try not to give away too many spoilers for those who have not seen it yet, but there is one central element of the story that I need to explain, because it is such a helpful illustration for understanding this week’s gospel:

When Diana, the Wonder Woman character, is preparing to leave her Utopian island in order to try to save humanity, her mother tells her, in reference to humans “they don’t deserve you.” This question of deserving becomes the central moral question of the movie: does humanity deserve to be saved?

This theme of deserving kept bubbling up in my consciousness as I studied the gospel lesson this week, because in three short verses this lesson raises the promise of reward three times, and the concept of reward is generally associated with a benefit that has been earned, something that is deserved.

My Oxford Desk Dictionary gives these definitions for the noun “reward”:

  1. A return, or recompense for service or merit.

  2. A prize, award, (or) tribute

  3. (just) deserts.

  4. (and also, interestingly) retribution

The other Biblical uses of the Greek word (misthos), translated here as reward, have a similar tone. When this word is not translated as reward, it is translated as “hire” or “wages;” – in other words, earned payment. And the use of this word in the New Testament includes both positive and negative applications.

By these definitions, reward is about what you deserve, what you have earned. When you do good, you deserve good rewards; when you do evil, you deserve evil rewards.

It’s a fairly accepted ethical principle. I imagine we have all heard it expressed at one point or another in our daily lives. But… it’s not very gospel, is it?

Aren’t we saved by grace through faith? And isn’t this salvation a gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast?[1]

(Both Luther, and St. Paul, have both made that point pretty strongly.)

I suppose we could argue that the whole grace through faith thing only applies to salvation, and there are other rewards to be had… but that raises the question of what rewards are actually being promised in this passage:

The first mention of reward comes in verse 41: “whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.

So, what is a prophet’s reward?

The best place to look for that answer is clearly the accounts of the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures, since those are the prophets who would have been most familiar to Jesus and his disciples…. And those accounts are…. distressing, to say the least.

The story of Elijah, the archetypal Hebrew prophet, ends well with him being caught up into heaven… but he is also subjected to serious persecution and death threats by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. At one point, Elijah is so sick of his life as a prophet that he begs God to kill him. Not exactly a reward I am longing to receive…

The other prophets did not have it that well either.

Isaiah sees his councils rejected, leading to the downfall of God’s people;

Ezekiel is forbidden to mourn the death of his beloved wife;

Hosea has to marry an unfaithful woman, and then buy her back when she abandons him;

And all are ridiculed in various ways.

And then there’s Jeremiah - the author of Lamentations and the prophet we heard from in today’s first reading. Jeremiah’s task, in the text we heard today, is to prophecy 70 years of exile in Babylon, in contrast to Hananiah who is prophesying just 2 years of exile, before the kindship will be restored and the people will be vindicated.

In his response to this false prophesy, Jeremiah reveals the IRONY of the prophet’s reward. Jeremiah essentially says that he would be thrilled if Hananiah’s prophesy would prove to be true, but he will believe it when he sees it. And, of course, history proved Jeremiah to be the one who was the true prophet. His “prophet’s reward” for being faithful in proclaiming a hard truth, was to be proved right… with the result that his people were exiled to Babylon for three generations!

Are we all excited about earning a prophet’s reward yet?

Well, what about the second reward? “whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.”

If we go to the Psalms and Proverbs for the interpretation of this promise, the prospect looks a bit rosier. Wisdom literature is full of proclamations about people getting what they deserve – the evil getting punished, and the righteous getting rewarded.

But, that’s not the whole story. In the third chapter of Romans Paul quotes from Psalm 14 [2] in proclaiming: “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God.(Romans 3:10b-11)

When it comes down to it, there is only one human being who can claim the title of righteous person: Jesus… and he gets betrayed, abandoned, and crucified. Of course, he also rises from the dead, but that doesn’t erase everything that happened before.

The truth is, the reward that society gave him for living the life of a righteous person – a life that actually fulfilled the law of righteousness: loving God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength and truly living out his love for his neighbor – the earthly reward for living that kind of life was death by execution.

So, what about the third promise of reward in this passage: “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

The kind of reward in this promise is not specified. Rather, it is the action for which reward is promised that gets the elaboration: giving a cup of cold water to one of these little ones.

It is a simple thing to do. Water is a fairly plentiful resource, and the amount being offered is not significant. Just a cup. Done in a moment with almost no cost to the giver.

What seems more significant is the receiver of this kindness, “one of these little ones.” We do not know for sure to whom Jesus was referring.

Perhaps children (who are referenced this way elsewhere in the gospel, and who were on the bottom rungs of first century society).

Perhaps disciples, but ones who were apparently without social status or power.

The key characteristic is that they are “little”… unimportant, unable to return the favor.

Which brings me back to Wonder Woman, and the question of deserving help.

Within a merit-based system, you have to earn everything you get… whether that thing is a cup of cold water, or a reward, or the intervention of a super hero to end an evil war. A merit-based system is the foundation of the moral challenge facing Wonder Woman. Do humans deserve her help?

But, in the end, she rejects this merit-based system. When the moment comes for her to decide, she makes this profound gospel proclamation:

“It’s not about what you deserve; it’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.”

In contrast to a system of earned rewards, she presents an ethic of identity. She acts for the good of humanity because of WHO SHE IS, not because of what the broken, blame-worthy humans she meets deserve.

I think this ethic of identity offers a key to understanding the gospel content of this proclamation of Jesus to his disciples, which seemingly focuses on such ambiguous rewards, but which also includes that strange, repeated phrase “in the name of…”:

The reward Jesus is promising is the not a reward of circumstances, or a payment of earned wages for good work… Rather, Jesus is promising a reward of identity.

Whoever welcomes a prophet, in the name of a prophet, is identified with the prophet – with the insight and trust in God that exemplifies the true prophet.

Whoever welcomes a righteous person, in the name of a righteous person, is identified with the Righteous Person – they share in the right standing before God that can only be received through Christ.

Whoever gives the smallest thing to those unable to return the favor, in the name of a disciple, is identified with the disciples – with those who learn from and seek to follow Jesus.

In offering welcome we experience the identity of those who know and follow Jesus. And that identity is its own reward. In the transformed life of the disciple, it’s the only reward that makes sense. We don’t follow Jesus because we have done a cost benefit analysis and decided the rewards are worth the risks – no one would look at the lives of prophets, and disciples, and Jesus himself and say: “that’s looks like a solid career decision.”

But gospel reward is not about the circumstances of our lives – good or bad, both will doubtless happen. What transforms our lives is the identity that changes how we experience those circumstances.

Gospel reward is about knowing who and whose we are.

As Wonder Woman says, it’s not about what you deserve, it’s about what you believe. Do you believe in Love?

[1] Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

[2] Psalm 14:3.

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