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D'varim/Deuteronomy 6:25 And it will be merit for us if we take care to do all this command before the L-rd our G-d as He commanded us.
So do we, or do we not, win brownie points by obeying G-d? Do we earn a reward for keeping the commandments? This text might seem to indicate that we do. Gunther Plaut points out that is "a word usually denoting 'right' or 'just' action, but occasionally meaning 'merit'. Those who acknowledge G-d are counted as being 'right' in their relationship with the Divine." Plaut points to two other texts where this occurs: firstly the one where Avraham trustsHaShem, "because he put his trust in the L-RD, He reckoned it to his merit" (B'resheet 15:6, JPS); and secondly where returning for the night a cloak or a cloth being used as a pledge against a loan by a poor man, "will be to your merit before the L-RD your G-d" (D'varim 24:13, JPS). Jeffrey Tigay adds another, which refers to Pinchas' act of zeal among the Israelites: "It was reckoned to his merit for all generations, to eternity" (Psalm 106:31, JPS).
TheRamban explains that "He will give us good reward for observing all these commandments. The verse refers to the reward for the commandments as 'righteousness' [in the sense of charity] for the bondsman who was bought by his master and is obliged to serve him [and has no claim to payment for his service]. If the master gives him payment for his service, he does an act of righteousness with him." Rabbi Hirsch disagrees, suggesting that "It is our righteous duty, we can only discharge the mission of our life if we keep the Torah as mitzvah, all, without exception as the 'command of G-d', as 'direction to the post of our lives', carefully, unstinted and unaltered, completely according to its contents and in the prescribed manner as He has commanded us. We have no right either to abrogate anything nor to reform anything." Ibn Ezra supports this idea: "Some read this as an allusion to reward for the commandments in the World to Come. But the straightforward sense of the phrase is simply that obeying the commandments is 'righteous' behaviour. We are obligate to follow His will, for He is our Lord. Personally, I think the phrase also points to the fact that we will appear righteous and meritorious to all the other nations if we observe G-d's laws and rules, which are themselves righteous and meritorious." Rav Sha'ul agrees with the last point: "So the Torah is holy; that is, the commandment is holy, just and good" (Romans 7:12, CJB).
The early sages - some of whose sayings can be dated to Yeshua's time, before the destruction of the Second Temple - are firm in their opinion that obedience is rewarded both in this world and the next. The Mishnah offers, "These are the things the benefit of which a person enjoys in this world, while the principal remains for him in the world to come: [deeds in] honour of father and mother, [performance of] righteous deeds, and [acts which] bring peace between a man and his fellow. But the study of Torah is as important as all of them together" (m. Pe'ah 1:1) and the Tosefta adds a supporting text: "Doing good creates a principal [for the world to come] and bears interest [in this world] as it is stated [in Scripture], 'Tell the righteous that it shall be well with them, for they shall eat the fruit of their deeds' (Isaiah 3:10, ESV)" (t. Pe'ah 1:2). Every morning, near the beginning of the Shacharit service, we also read out loud together: "These are the things whose fruits we eat in this world but whose full reward awaits us in the World to Come: honouring parents, acts of kindness, arriving early at the house of study morning and evening, hospitality to strangers, visiting the sick, helping the needy bride, attending to the dead, devotion in prayer and bringing peace between people - but the study of Torah is equal to them all" (b. Shabbat 127a).
Yeshua seems to support something of this during Sermon on the Mount, when He teaches the crowds, "Do not store up for yourselves wealth here on earth, where moths and rust destroy, and burglars break in and steal. Instead, store up for yourselves wealth in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and burglars do not break in or steal. For where your wealth is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:19-21, CJB). The idea of creating riches in heaven comes up again when He tells to the rich young ruler, "If you are serious about reaching the goal, go and sell your possessions, give to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven. Then come, follow me!" (19:21 CJB) - words preserved in all three synoptic gospels (see Mark 10:21 and Luke 18:22). David Instone-Brewer1 suggests that Yeshua criticises the practice of trying to draw down the fruit of righteousness in this life: "Be careful not to parade your acts of tzedakah in front of people in order to be seen by them! If you do, you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So, when you do tzedakah, don't announce it with trumpets to win people's praise, like the hypocrites in the synagogues and on the streets. Yes! I tell you, they have their reward already! But you, when you do tzedakah, don't even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Then your tzedakah will be in secret; and your Father, who sees what you do in secret, will reward you" (Matthew 6:1-4, CJB).
Yeshua addresses the issue of reward again when urging the disciples to be ready for the kingdom of G-d to come: "Happy the slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes! Yes! I tell you he will put on his work clothes, seat them at the table, and come serve them himself!" (Luke 12:37, CJB). Perhaps this is the original for the Ramban's suggestions above? Another well known example is the Parable of the Talents from Matthew's gospel. A man leaves home for a while, leaving his affairs in the hands of his servants; portions of five, two and one talent being entrusted to three particular servants. When the man returns, so Yeshua's story goes, "The one who had received five talents came forward bringing the other five and said, 'Sir, you gave me five talents; here, I have made five more.' His master said to him, 'Excellent! You are a good and trustworthy servant. You have been faithful with a small amount, so I will put you in charge of a large amount. Come and join in your master's happiness!'" (Matthew 25:20-21, CJB). Here is very specific reward for obedience, diligence in service contrasted sharply against the servant who simply gave his one talent back having done absolutely nothing with it. It is not grace, something simply given though undeserved, but a reward given for work well done - it has been earned by the faithful servant and not earned by the unfaithful servant.
Rav Sha'ul too gives a signal about our lives in this world and the world to come: "Using the grace G-d gave me, I laid a foundation, like a skilled master-builder; and another man is building on it. But let each one be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Yeshua the Messiah. Some will use gold, silver or precious stones in building on this foundation; while others will use wood, grass or straw. But each one's work will be shown for what it is; the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire - the fire will test the quality of each one's work. If the work someone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward; if it is burned up, he will have to bear the loss: he will still escape with his life, but it will be like escaping through a fire" (1 Corinthians 3:10-15, CJB). The foundation is and has to be Yeshua, but each person builds on that foundation and the quality of the building and the materials used will be tested. If, Sha'ul asserts, the building survives then there is a reward. Again, this is not grace - unmerited favour - but an earned reward. Notice too the risk involved and carried by each person: if no building remains, although the individual themselves will be preserved, there will be no reward.
Perhaps this, then, allows us to take a fresh look at a verse that has puzzled a number of commentators over the years: "I tell you that unless your righteousness is far greater than that of the Torah-teachers and P'rushim, you will certainly not enter the Kingdom of Heaven!" (Matthew 5:20, CJB). It's all too easy to simply say, "Oh yes, it's those pesky scribes and Pharisees again, the legal beagles who were always making trouble for Yeshua; no real heart righteousness there." Actually, in spite of their tendency to over-egg the pudding in a number of ways, the Pharisees were in general a pious, serious-minded, faith-full and obedient crowd; they certainly acknowledged HaShem and believed in the Scriptures, the coming of Messiah and the end-of-days resurrection. To exceed their righteousness requires both a committed level of engagement with Scripture, so that we know which commands apply to us, and then a dogged determination to be obedient within those areas, listening carefully to the voice of the Spirit so that we don't lean upon our own understanding or lose kingdom flexibility. Are you up for the challenge?
1. - David Instone-Brewer, Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament, Vol 1, Prayer and Agriculture, Eerdmans, 2004, page 127
Further Study: 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Philippians 3:12-15; 2 Timothy 4:6-8
Application: How do you rate your obedience and reward? Are you just trusting in grace, leaving everything to G-d, or are you working with Him to work up some credit that you can both be proud of? How about speaking with your Personal Trainer today?
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
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