It was the week before Christmas and the retail park where I'd come to do my last minute shopping was typically packed and teeming with shoppers. I was five months pregnant with my first child and was trying to work out how to afford Christmas and still manage to buy all that I would need for my new baby. While returning to my car I looked down and there it was: a clear, plastic bank bag, full of twenty pound notes. I gingerly picked it up and guiltily looked around; part of me imagining that Dom Joly or someone similar would yank the bag out of my hand with a fishing rod. I didn't count it; I didn't have to. There were clearly many hundreds of pounds in the bag, possibly more.
What do you do?
The money would have made a huge difference to me. I could have bought much of what I needed for my new baby, which was actually a real worry at the time. But what of the stranger who had dropped it? I immediately imagined the sort of person who deals in cash, an elderly person perhaps or someone self-employed. They were probably frantic. They might have saved the money, bit by bit. Of that though, I knew nothing, and ultimately it didn't really matter what the money meant to them, or indeed how they themselves had come by it. It wasn't mine, case closed. I went into the shop nearest to where I found it and handed it in to the manager who assured me that they would hand it in to the Head of Security.
Pay it forward
As I drove away from the retail park I felt a warm glow of pride for having done what I knew to be the right thing. I hoped that the person who it belonged to came back to claim it. More than that though, being of a sentimental disposition and with some half-baked notions of fate and karma, part of me really thought that something good might come of it, for me. I had done a good deed; I had acted unselfishly and therefore I might, in some small way, and not necessarily in a financial way, be rewarded. Not really the definition of unselfish, huh?
How it really works
The following year was the worst of my life. All manner of personal tragedies struck me, and much, much later, I remembered the little plastic money bag and I thought, well that's just charming isn't it? Looking back at this episode with Christian eyes, I want to laugh at the blatant self-interest I displayed and then I want to cry at my naïveté. To think that anything we do in this life somehow stores up cosmic brownie points, or increases our currency with God, at best represents a simplistic idea of how He works, and at worst shows really suspect motivation for doing anything good.
The Story of the Lost Son
This story, sometimes called the Story of the Prodigal Son, best sums up for me the idea of doing something good..and then expecting something good in return. I've always struggled with this story and felt a huge sense of injustice on behalf of the son who is left at home. Possibly because I have a brother who lives overeseas, whose visits back home are greeted by my mother with all the anticipation and ceremony of a visiting dignitary, whereas I, who can be seen any day of the week, never elicit such excitement. But I digress into bitter rantings...back to the story of that other prodigal: He returns home after a prolonged absence, during which time he has frittered away his father's money, lived what Luke calls " a wild life," and then has to ignominiously return home, cap in hand. Instead of being castigated for his monumental screw-up, the son is generously and lavishly welcomed home; his dad throws a party for him! It can't only be me who identifies with the other son's sense of betrayal: He complains to his dad in Luke 15:29 - "all these years I've slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me!" He feels hard done by; he's been faithful and hard-working and he obviously expected something in return for his efforts: He bleats bitterly in Luke 15:29' "and yet in all that time you never even gave me one goat for a feast with my friends!"
(Ok, so the goat thing might be a distraction; think house party and a keg of beer instead.) Kind of like me with the money bag, this son has done what he thinks is the right thing, but he expects some kind of special reward for doing it. He's completely missed the point...just as I did.
"His father said to him, 'Look dear son, you have always stayed by me and everything I have is yours.'"
I suppose it's counter-intuitive (and counter- cultural too!) to do something without reference to your own self-interests but shouldn't that be the very essence of the Christian spirit? Isn't that why it's so hard? This is what the son has to grapple with; he had his dad's love the whole time, he didn't have to earn it. And of course the opposite is true, as shown by the other son; there is nothing you can do to cause God to take that love away.
Do our actions matter at all then?
This was my question: if God loves me anyway, and I can't make Him love me more, and I can't make Him love me less, what is the point in trying to be good? In other words, I should have taken that wretched money! The "Anyway" prayer, often attributed to Mother Teresa and reportedly written on the wall of her room in Calcutta, is the best and simplest answer to this question. Take a look:
People are often illogical, unreasonable and self centred. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful you will win some false friends and true enemies. Be successful anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway.
What you spend years building someone may destroy overnight. Build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today people will forget tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have and it may still never be enough. Give the best you've got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.