As a young father, Canadian theologian Douglas Hall heard two of his children arguing with each other on the beach. “God knows that you are not kind!” declared daughter Kate to Christopher, her little brother. “Well,” replied Christopher, “Jesus is annoyed with you!”
It is not only children but adults as well who wish for punishment to fall upon those who do us harm. But what about acts of kindness? If we feel that bad deeds should be punished, does that mean that good deeds are to be rewarded?
Last year in Winnipeg, a server at Tim Hortons stuck his head out the drive-through window. After handing the customer his sandwich, he told the driver that the lunch was free because the person ahead had paid for it. “I don’t understand,” said the driver. “What do I do now?” The server laughed. “Pay for the guy behind you?” he suggested. The driver did. Local newspapers reported that as a result of this random act of kindness, a wave of generosity began to roll through Winnipeg. This good deed had its own built-in reward. It made those who “paid it forward” feel good. Was such behaviour lasting? Highly unlikely.
Would that life always unfolded with good deeds being rewarded and bad deeds being punished. We know this is not so. Last year, Malala Yousafzai, the courageous 14-year-old Pakistani girl who dedicated her life to improving the lot of women in her home country, was shot in the head. In 1901, a German scientist named Richard Fiedler invented a horrific weapon of war called the flamethrower. Although some would have wished punishment to fall upon his head, Fiedler instead gained fame and fortune. Bad things do happen to people who perform good deeds. And good things can still fall upon those who cause indescribable suffering.
There is another claim upon our lives that seeks to be heard: the biblical call “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). This call to make a difference in the world can be considered the ultimate good deed. But if rewards are not forthcoming, what will keep us on such a demanding journey?
A helpful clue to the deepest reasons for doing good can be found in the opening chapter of Genesis. There, humankind is depicted as being created “in the image of God.” The implication is that, in the midst of creation, the Creator has set into being one who bears a striking resemblance to God’s self. Just as God was not content to be God for God alone, but for another, so we are called to reflect that relationship. Thus, the very intent of our creation is to enter deeply into the existence of others. If we choose to engage in a style of living that doesn’t bring us into caring relationship with others and our world, then we will be denying our intended creation. That which is of utmost importance has to do with how we relate.
An additional story of creation is handed down to us from one of the earliest books of Jewish mysticism. Called Sepher Yetzirah, or the Book of Creation, it too sheds light on our human condition. The making of the world is described in this way: In the beginning, there was only God whose light filled all that was. Because God was everywhere, there was no place to create the world. So, in order to do so, God had to make a space where there was no God. In that space, the heavens and the earth and all that is were formed. But this meant that in all of heaven and earth, there was no God. So God let some of the divine light into the space. Special containers called vessels were prepared to hold the light.
But something went wrong. There was a cosmic accident. The vessels broke. The result? The universe was filled with sparks of God’s light and useless broken pieces of the vessels. Human beings are left to figure out which is which. Told in this way, our task becomes gathering the sparks of God’s light in order to repair the world and bring creation to its long-intended unity. What an awesome responsibility. Indeed, one might rightly argue that there is no greater reward than knowing we can become God’s partner in completing creation.
Rev. Wayne Hilliker lives in Kingston, Ont.
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