rev-joaquin-willis_web.jpgOphra Winfrey, in her life’s documentary called Master Class, shares an “Ahha” moment with the world.  She tells how her talk show grew in fame and in fortune, stressing none was by traditional commercial standards or competitive genius or complaining about racism. It seems she wasn’t driven by the “What’s-in-it for-me?” syndrome.

Jesus, in Matthew 20:1-16, tells the parable of “The Workers Paid Equally.” Hiring some at 6 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., 5 p.m. and at the workday end at 6 p.m., paying them each one denarius.  Of course the last to be hired got a lot for one hour’s work; it was the same as those who worked for 12 hours. The early workers were paid what was promised, one denarius but, as they received their pay, they grumbled, “This isn’t fair.”

Gary Ingrid, author of The Parables – Understanding What Jesus Meant, shares a quote from Psychology Today (May 1981) on the influence of money on people’s lives: “One of its conclusions was that people who are the most money conscious are less likely to be involved in a satisfactory love relationship and tend to be troubled by constant worry, anxiety and loneliness.”

Most of us are ashamed to admit it but we too suffer from the “What’s-in-it-for-me” syndrome. Even in church, we suffer from it, looking for churches to provide what we are looking for, instead of seeking churches where we can serve. In church, we sing songs of sacrifice, justice and peace, all laced with Christian values, faith and belief. But even while singing, we wonder, ‘What’s-in-it-for-me?’

When we examine ourselves, we find our actions reveal the motives of our hearts in doing what we do. Do you know why you serve the Lord? Truthfully, what’s behind many of our motives is simply to be rich, to beat the other guy and become famous. Sometimes we even cheat to do it, thinking there’s nothing wrong in that, as long as we don’t get caught.

It seems one of the lessons of the Parable of the Workers Paid Equally is that God’s rewards are granted by His grace. It also seems He teaches us life isn’t fair. Neither merit nor effort nor the world’s standards mean much to God.
In the parable, Christ raises the question in Matthew 20:15,  as if speaking for God, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?,” implying what is wrong with being generous? He closes the lesson reminding the grumbling workers, “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”

“What’s-in-it-for-me?” is a dangerous question. Sadly, Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott raises the question regarding public schools, of which I am a proud graduate. Despite contributions of countless graduates of public schools to this community and nation, even those of his own family, he refuses to support them.

Teachers, janitors, social workers, counselors, many of whom never worked for just money, never asking “What’s-in-it-for-me?” but, instead, dedicated themselves to the education of our children and the betterment of our communities. Sure, there are those who are in it for a paycheck but, in my opinion, they are the exception, not the rule. 
Inrig points out three dangers in the question,“What’s-in-it-for-me?,” that block true discipleship.

First: “Don’t fall for the danger of the commercial spirit.” Why? Because kingdom economics differs from worldly economics. As Oprah points out, “Listen to the small voice of the Spirit, before it becomes a brick or a wall that falls upon you to get your attention.” That voice leads where God wants you to  go.

Second: “Don’t fall for the danger of the competitive spirit.” Why? Because God charges us to be our best self, seeking to improve who we are and to become our best and most “authentic self.” In other words, focus not on beating the competition but being the best you can be. Oprah said, “I wasn’t to compete with Phil Donahue, or Ricky Lakes, I was to be Oprah.”

Third: “Don’t fall for the danger of the complaining spirit.” Why? Because God and Jesus both become angry at that. God grew angry in the wilderness (Numbers 21:6) when the Israelites complained and Jesus grew angry when the workers grumbled (Matthew 20:15) when paid the agreed upon wage.

When we feel unappreciated or under-compensated, when we feel tempted to quit, and inclined to ask the question, “What’s–in-it-for-me?” it would be better to stop and check our motives in serving, by asking, “Why am I serving?” The better question might be the one that reveals our true motive: “What’s-in-it-for-God?”   

The Rev. Dr. R. Joaquin Willis is pastor of the Church of the Open Door at 6001 NW 8th Ave., Miami.  He may be reached at