February 13, 2022, Carrot and Stick, Luke 6:17-26 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
There is a well-known motivational technique that we call the carrot-and-stick approach. The entity in a position of power, say person A, wants to motivate the entity, we’ll call them person B, to behave in a certain manner, presumably a manner that person A considers good. Using the carrot-and-stick approach, person A makes use of the promise of some kind of reward (that would be the carrot) to motivate person B to act in the desired way. If that doesn’t bring about the desired effect, then person A holds the threat of punishment over person B’s head. That’s the stick. One way or the other, the goal is for person A to “motivate” person B to do what person A wants them to do.
We see that played out in international politics all the time. A powerful nation – the US or Russia or China – dangles the carrot of free trade or military or financial assistance in front of a smaller, less-powerful nation in order to motivate that nation to agree to some demand. If the nation cooperates, well and good. If not, there is always the stick of military force or economic sanctions. In school settings, there is the ever-present carrot of grades and gold stars and academic advancement on the one side, and the stick of grades (grades work both ways) or the removal of privileges or, at the extreme end, expulsion, on the other. And the same in the corporate world, management motivates employees with the reward of salaries and benefits and moving up the corporate ladder, all the while brandishing the stick of pink slips and layoffs and downsizing. Unions sometimes manage to apply a little carrot-and-stick on their end as well.
It’s really the basic human method of exercising power – which isn’t to say it’s necessarily an evil thing. I’d be very surprised if anyone here raised their children without using a little carrot-and-stick motivation. Toilet training springs to mind. I have definitely given treats for potty successes. Even if a parent never uses spanking to motivate their child to good behavior, there are all kinds of lesser “sticks” – time out, or loss of privileges. Just the disappointment in a parent’s face or tone of voice can be a very effective stick sometimes, especially for a sensitive child.
But my point is this: God’s ways are not our ways. God never meant for us to live forever under a system of rewards and threats. God did make use of human carrot-and-stick methodology for a season, when he gave the law, because it was a motivation his people could understand. But that was never God’s end game. Paul explains in his letter to the Galatians that the Law was like a child’s guardian for a time. Under the Law, Paul says, the child is no better than a slave. But the Law was only in force until Jesus came, so that we could inherit the freedom that belongs to true children by faith. The end game, Paul says, was never meant to be Law, but freedom. The motivation, Paul says, was never meant to be bribery and punishment, but love. Even the Law itself, rightly understood, was meant to be informed and defined by love. And that is really important for us to understand if we want to understand what Jesus is talking about today, with all these blessings and woes.
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
If we didn’t know any better, we might think Jesus is using a little carrot-and-stick motivation here. Blessed are you who are poor and hungry and sad and hated, because things are going to get better. A lot better. Just you hang in there. On the other hand, cursed are you rich guys, with your big dinners and your big grins and your popularity. Watch out, because God is going to get you. Is this just Jesus’s version of the carrot and the stick? Follow me, you who are poor and neglected; you’ll be glad you did. Follow me, you who are rich and successful, or you’ll be sorry you didn’t.
And it wouldn’t be at all surprising if we made that assumption, because most of us have been raised in the Church with a lot of carrot-and-stick motivations. Right from our Sunday School days we’re rewarded for our good behavior and punished for our failures. We get stickers and candy and approval for perfect attendance and memory verses and correct answers. Punishment generally comes in the form of shame for failing to earn these rewards. And most of us have grown up with that same mindset. If something good happens to us, we feel like God is pleased with us. And if something bad happens to us, don’t we often think we must have done something bad to deserve it, even if we’re not sure what it was? We live our whole lives between the carrot and the stick, between needing approval and fearing punishment.
And we forget, or we never knew, or we just don’t understand yet, that Jesus didn’t come to force us into abundant life, or to scare us into abundant life, or to bribe us into abundant life. Jesus came to set us free for abundant life. And that means that there are no carrots in the abundant life. And especially, there are no sticks in the abundant life. When our Lord proclaims these states of blessing and woe, he isn’t trying to manipulate us. He isn’t trying to control us or scare us or shame us into being good. He is opening our eyes to see abundant life as it really is. And at first sight it looks completely upside-down and inside-out and backward.
Blessed is the dirty homeless kid standing on the side of the road, carrying her few belongings in a garbage bag.
But woe to the popular, successful pastor, sitting down with his beautiful family to an excellent dinner in his newly-remodeled home.
Really? If Jesus is describing the abundant life for us, what are we missing?
The first secret of the abundant life, maybe, has to do with foundations. What is it that you’re depending on, where does your trust really rest? We read the words of Jeremiah today: “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord…” We are cursed when we begin to rely on human strength, on the wealth we have earned, on the comforts we have accumulated, on the trophies we have won, on the friends we have made. We are cursed, not because God will smite us for our high and lofty status, but because all of those things are going to fall out from under us, sooner or later. When our lives look golden and enviable in the eyes of the whole world, we are cursed, because we are hanging by the merest thread and we don’t have any idea what is going to happen to us, poor fools that we are. Woe unto us, because the foundation we are building for ourselves will inevitably turn to dust and ashes.
It is possible, of course, to be a wealthy, successful person who puts their whole trust in God. But Jesus warned how very, very difficult a proposition that is. “It’s easier for a camel to squish through the eye of a needle (which, to be clear, is impossible),” he said, “than for a rich man to get into heaven.” And he warned that we can’t hedge our bets, either. “You can’t serve two masters. You either hate one and love the other, or you will be devoted to one and despise the other.” And just to make sure we were clear what he was talking about, he added, “You can’t serve both God and money.” Make no mistake, wealth and success and comfort are not the way to the abundant life, says Jesus. Far from it.
But why are the poor and the hungry and the sad and the despised, why are they blessed? As hard as it is for us to understand, it is a blessed state when you have nothing left in the whole world to rely on, when you’ve hit rock bottom, because then, whether you know it or not, you are resting solidly on the only foundation that is of any worth. It is a blessed state when the world has turned against you, because then the only face that is turned toward you is the loving face of the Father. It is a blessed state when you have given up on every worldly hope, because then you are just one step from recognizing the only real hope there is. The poor are blessed because they have come to the end of all human joys and the only thing left is the infinite joy of the beloved children of God.
As people who are not poor and hungry and without hope in the world, though, it would be downright wicked for us to hear that blessing without also remembering that Jesus commands us to love our needy neighbor, to feed the hungry, to comfort those who mourn, to show mercy to the sick and lonely, to share what we have with those who have less. But even as we show compassion to the poor, we should remember to honor them as well, because Jesus has revealed that they are blessed. The last and the least, they are the beloved brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. They are nearest and dearest to the heart of God.
The blessings and woes of Jesus Christ reveal the upside-down, inside-out, backward condition of our world – and the distorted lenses through which it has made us see our lives. The world would have us believe that abundance lies in comfort and wealth and success and popularity. The powers of this world are wielding every carrot and every stick in their very considerable arsenal to seduce us, or, failing that, to terrify us, into following their agenda. But the truth is that the more things we acquire, the more influence we hold, the more walls of security we build around ourselves to insulate ourselves from the suffering of this world – in short, the richer we become in the eyes of the world – the poorer and more wretched we are.
The bottom line is: every blessing and every woe that Jesus pronounces is a word of love, revealing to God’s children the way of abundant life. It has everything to do with God’s gracious love and mercy. It has nothing to do with earning rewards, and certainly nothing at all to do with fear of punishment. No carrot. No stick. Just love, and abundant life. John wrote: “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. Because fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” And lest that last bit awaken our anxious little guilt molecules, John added, “We love because he loved us first.” It is done. We are the beloved children of God. No matter how poor we are, we are rich in him. No matter how hungry we are, he will fill us. No matter how overwhelming our grief is, our Lord weeps with us, and he will comfort us. No matter who hates us, why should we worry? What can mere mortals do to us? And what do they have to offer us?
Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.
Blessed are the poor, for the whole kingdom of heaven belongs to those who have nothing else.+
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