Sunday, June 16, 2013

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Beyond Carrot & Stick

Sisters and brothers, I think you’re familiar with the phrase carrot and stick, right? You know that it refers to a way of motivating people. A way of getting people to do what we want them to do. And to stop doing what we don’t want them to do. The technique is simple. For the things we want people to do, we wave a carrot in front of them. An incentive of some kind. Like money, for example. Or a promotion. Or a prize. For the things that we don’t want people to do, we apply the stick to discourage them. A disincentive of some kind. Like a monetary penalty. No littering. Fine, a thousand dollars. Or a restriction of privileges. If you don’t do your homework, no computer games for a week. Or even imprisonment.

Carrot and stick. Incentive and disincentive. We use this approach everywhere. At home. At work. And even in our spiritual life. In our relationship with God. Don't some of us, for example, come to Church faithfully every Sunday, just because we wish to avoid having to go to confession? Or how many of us are really anxious to find out the answer to the following question: Exactly how late can we show up at Mass before we have to come again for the next one? Or how many of us gauge our spiritual health only in terms of our own performance? Only by how well or how poorly we may be keeping the rules. And how many of us keep the rules mainly because we fear punishment? Or only because we expect some kind of reward? If not here in this world, then later, in the hereafter. How many of us, for example, become shocked and angry when bad things happen to us even though we may have done nothing seriously wrong. Even though we may have kept all the rules?

Carrot and stick. Incentive and disincentive. This approach can, of course, be very effective. Don’t many of us, for example, find ourselves buying many more things than we need, simply because they are on offer? Buy ten, get one free. But still, it’s important for us to remember that, as effective as it may be in certain situations, the carrot and stick approach does have its limitations. For one thing, it’s very task-oriented. It focuses mainly on performance. What it’s not so good at is building close relationships. This is because the technique is modelled on a particular kind of relationship. The relationship between a boss and a worker. A master and a slave. Or, what’s worse, between an animal and its owner. That is, after all, the image that the words carrot and stick bring to mind. Someone trying to get his or her mule to move by dangling a carrot in front of it. And by threatening to hit it with a stick if it doesn’t. In such a situation, even if the animal does obey. It’s not likely to have much love for the one wielding the carrot and the stick.

Carrot and stick. Incentive and disincentive. At first glance, this is also the kind of motivational technique that God seems to be using on King David in the first reading. What does God do after David commits adultery with a married woman and then kills her husband? It seems God reacts in two ways. First, by listing the incentives, the carrots, that God had dangled in front of David to gain his compliance: I anointed you king… I delivered you from Saul… I gave you the House of Israel and Judah... And, second, by brandishing a stick, a disincentive, for disobedience: So now the sword shall never be far from your House…

And yet, it also possible to read God’s reaction in a very different way. If we look more closely at the reading, it’s possible to see that God reacts to David’s sin, not so much as an angry Master, shaking a clenched fist. But more as a disappointed Friend, shedding tears of hurt and regret. I did all these things for you, God protests. I guided you. Showed you the way to peace and happiness. I treated you like my friend. But you have have rejected my help. You have spurned my friendship. And now you suffer the consequences of your wrongful actions. Angry Master? Or disappointed Friend? Which interpretation is the more accurate? At least one thing helps to convince us that it is friendship that is at work here. For instead of punishing David for his sin. Instead of applying the stick, as an angry master would. God forgives him. And the result? David’s relationship with God grows even deeper, even more intimate, than it was before. As we heard in the responsorial psalm, the one whom God forgives sees God no longer as a hard taskmaster, but as a safe refuge. A place in which to live the whole of one’s life. You are my hiding place, O Lord; you save me from distress. You surround me with cries of deliverance.

All of which should help us to understand a little better what is happening in each of the other two readings today. In the second reading, St. Paul tells us something rather shocking. He says that what makes a man righteous is not obedience to the Law, but faith in Jesus Christ. And what does the Law rely on, sisters and brothers, if not the approach of carrot and stick. The same approach that many of us rely on in the spiritual life. Whether we realise it or not. And yet, Paul is telling us that this is precisely the approach that does not work. For as Jesus himself says at the Last Supper, this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (Jn 17:3). Eternal life is intimate knowledge of God in Christ. If this is true, then it stands to reason that the approach of carrot and stick, of incentive and disincentive, cannot save us. Even if it may motivate us to keep the rules. It cannot bring us into close relationship with God. It cannot enable us to say what Paul is able to say:  I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me. But what does it mean then to have faith in Jesus Christ? What does it mean to live the life of Christ? How does one enter this life, if not by carrot and stick?

The gospel provides us with a useful illustration of what Paul means. Here we find a stark contrast between two ways of relating to Jesus. The first is the way of the Pharisee. The way of the Law. The way of carrot and stick. The Pharisee is, of course, an expert at keeping the Law. And yet, even though Jesus enters his home as his guest, Simon the Pharisee fails to show Jesus the proper hospitality. For all his knowledge of the Law, Simon remains distant from the Lord. Probably because he does not recognise the presence of God in him. After all, even though Jesus may work miracles and speak eloquently, he doesn’t seem careful enough about keeping all the rules.

In contrast, the unnamed woman–the one with the bad name, the intruder, the one who gatecrashes the party–somehow manages to enter into a shockingly intimate relationship with Jesus. She sheds tears over him. Cleans his feet with her hair. Kisses him with her lips. Anoints him with ointment. And, what is most important to notice, is that this intimacy does not come from the application of carrot and stick. It is not the product of a craving for reward. Or of the fear of punishment. It is born, instead, of the same things that we find in the relationship between David and God in the first reading, and between Paul and Christ in the second. Intimacy with God in Christ springs from mercy and gratitude. The mercy of God symbolised by the Cross of Christ. And the gratitude of the people of God, expressed most fully every time we gather, as we do now, to listen to the Word of God, and to share in the Bread of Life.

For us who are Christian, this is the true motivation. This is the sure way to life. This is the reliable path to peace. Not so much carrot and stick, as mercy and gratitude. Not so much our performance, as the Lord’s sacrifice. Not so much the keeping of rules and regulations, as intimate friendship with Christ. A friendship for us to enjoy. And to live. And to share with others.

Sisters and brothers, the Lord continues to extend to us his hand of Friendship. How ready are we to go beyond carrot and stick today?


  1. Happy Father's Day, Fr Chris!

  2. Yup, mercy and gratitude. I'm grateful for your blog and that you became a priest. Although I must admit that I was not used to seeing you in a cassock the first time, as I knew you as a student in T-shirt and jeans.

    Happy Father's Day!

  3. Perhaps for God who is LOVE personified, there is no need for HIM to use the carrot and stick method with us, His children whom He loves...

    yet, i suppose this would depend on our personal relationship with God and how we perceive God.

    O Lord of Love and Light, as YOU continue to extend YOUR HAND OF FRIENDSHIP to us, as YOU wait patiently for us to come to YOU, please lead and guide us back into your loving embrace as a child would run into the arms of his/her loving father.


  4. I believe the CARROT method is far more powerful and it is a much more life-giving option than the stick.

    How often are we motivated by the soft and gentle (LOVING) touch of God than otherwise?

    God is LOVE, and we humankind are made in HIS IMAGE and LIKENESS, hence perhaps only GOD's LOVE and WAYS are the only one that works ... everything else are man made and they have their limitations?

    How much do I/we allow ourselves to be LOVED by our God of LOVE today?

    Seeing Is Believing
    10 July 2013


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