St. John the Baptist Preaching (ca. 1650), Mattia Preti (1613-1699), Oil on canvas, 68 x 47 3/4 in., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
When I read scripture I try to look for the “rub”—things I find confusing, difficult, or surprising. It’s a way of allowing the familiar to become fresh. Using this approach I often see something I hadn’t seen before. In Matt. 3:1-12, the gospel reading for Sunday, John the Baptist preaches a fiery sermon on the need for repentance in light of coming judgment. For me the rub is not only John’s televangelist tactics but also his message of God’s wrath: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” His imagery is apocalyptic: wood is thrown into the flames; chaff is burned in “unquenchable fire.” The reference to hell is clear. John puts the fear of God into his hearers, literally. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed an act could not be morally praiseworthy if it was motivated by self-interest (like avoiding eternal damnation), but that’s exactly what John appeals to. It’s got me thinking about what motivates people to come to faith.
In his Confessions, St. Augustine says to God, “You made us for yourself and our heart is restless, until it rests in you.” St. Paul said it’s the goodness of God that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). What is it that draws people to God anyway? Is it fear of punishment (John the Baptist), a sense of restlessness (St. Augustine), or God’s goodness (St. Paul)?
Maybe there’s no one right answer. Perhaps God is a pragmatist who uses whatever works to draw us to himself. Maybe it takes a combination of carrots and sticks for most people. Unlike Kant, I’m not sure we can act with purely unselfish motives, even (or especially?) when it comes to matters of ultimate importance like faith. What do you think? And wherein lies the rub for you?