Do you know what a Skinner Box is? Psychologist and Behaviorist B.F. Skinner invented this device. It’s a box with a little lever that’s connected to a chute that’s connected to a box of food pellets. You put a rat in the box, and show the rat that pressing the lever makes a food pellet drop down the chute. Press the lever, get a pellet. Press the lever, get a pellet. Before long the rat figures out the connection, and pretty soon you’ve got a big fat lab rat, who’ll sit in the box all day, pounding away on the lever.
And once the rat’s conditioned, even when the food pellets run out, the rat will still keep plugging away on the lever, expecting to get a pellet.
There’s a danger in drawing too close a parallel between rat behavior and human—in most cases. Just ask B. F. Skinner’s daughter, who had a big box all her own. True story! Still, it’s amazing what we will do for some perceived reward.
Rewards of one sort or another are terrific motivators. They encourage us to do something that we might otherwise not do. A reward for the return of a lost wallet might get someone to turn it in, even though we all know they ought to do so anyway. The IRS offers a reward for people who turn in tax cheats. And then there’s frequent flyer miles. How do you choose your airline?
Problems arise when rewards become entitlements. All the airlines would love to end their frequent flyer programs, but they can’t. People expect them now, and won’t fly on a carrier that doesn’t reward them.
Which brings us, in a round-about way, to the parable in today’s Gospel. After herding sheep or plowing fields all day, these servants might think that they deserve a nice relaxing supper, with their employer to wait on them. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works, is it? A servant is a servant.
This parable, in the context of the preceding request, “Increase our faith,” makes it pretty clear that simply getting that increase in faith isn’t going to change the disciples’ status. The faith they receive isn’t a package deal that means they are entitled to heaven. That’s not what their salvation rests on. However much faith they have, they must remain servants.
This is not to condemn them to a life of servitude. That’s not the point. The point is that they can’t be complacent, thinking that since they are people of faith, their work is done. The gift of faith isn’t something that’s given as a status symbol, or as some kind of ornamentation. Faith—even a little faith—is supposed to do something. Even a tiny bit can accomplish the seemingly impossible, like tossing that sycamore into the sea.
The disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. He responds by saying that they’re not making use of the faith they already have.
That’s pretty challenging! How often in your own life have you prayed for something you thought you needed, instead of digging in and working with what you have? If I only had more faith! If I only had more patience! God give me the strength. If God doesn’t deliver, does that give you an excuse for not doing what you can, with what you have?
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t pray for what we need, and ask God to equip us for the tasks he’s given us. But this Gospel is a reminder that disciples are people with a mission, and people on a journey. We shouldn’t expect that we’re going to reach a point where we can simply rest on our laurels, expecting that God’s going to deliver the big reward. God is calling us to a deeper faith than that.
Because what we’re talking about here is a relationship with the Lord. And a relationship has to be more than a quid pro quo. We’re motivated by love of God, and the desire to share that love with the world. We’re not rodents in a Skinner Box, hitting the lever to get the next pellet. There’s no room for us to be complacent, and no reason to expect that we’re entitled. We’re not entitled, we’re loved, and that’s a whole different thing.