The Problem with Extra Credit

Prof. Jonathan L. WaltonSermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications


“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Matthew 23:12

This week marked the 500th anniversary of a world-changing event. On October 31, 1517, a German professor named Martin Luther challenged the Christian Church. The issue for Luther was what he saw as clergy abuse. The problem for Luther was religious exploitation. Priests were selling what were known as indulgences. Indulgences were certificates of forgiveness. Religious authorities could confer indulgences to those who sought repentance for sins. People who feared that they might end up trapped in purgatory for misdeeds in this world, or people who feared a family member might be trapped in the underworld for an evil act could go to the priest, purchase an indulgence, and, they believed, receive divine forgiveness. For those who fell behind in life, it was a way to purchase a little extra credit, if you will.

But Martin Luther wasn’t having it. In what is now known as his Ninety-Five Theses, this professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg made a clear and compelling counter-argument.

For one, Luther viewed sincere repentance as an inward orientation. True remorse and contrition have to flow from the inside out, not from the outside in. Repentance and humility are not accoutrements to be worn like jewelry. But rather these are inner spiritual habits that develop over time.

Secondly, not only does God judge our inner faith, God is just and fair. Luther argued that God does not dole out forgiveness to those who can pay the most. Nor does God want people giving their money to subsidize overly lavish religious structures when it can be better spent helping those in need. Indulgences were just another way to reward the most privileged while exploiting the most vulnerable.

And as legend has it on the eve of All Souls Day, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the All Saints Church. In the process, he commenced what we now refer to as the Protestant Reformation—an ecclesiastical protest and reform movement that changed the face of global Christianity.

Luther’s contention with the Christian Church is captured in today’s gospel lesson. Jesus is teaching his disciples about the Kingdom of God. And, as is quite often the case, he contrasts the values of the heavenly kingdom from the prevailing values of our worldly kingdom. So he tells his disciples to be wary of those who proclaim, “do as I say, not as I do.” For their authority is cheap. It comes from their mouths, not from their deeds. It’s easy to talk a good game. But it’s important to always remember that well done is better than well said.

But then Jesus turns to the point that bothered Martin Luther. The problem with indulgences was the way it allowed people to pay to play. People could purchase piety. Religion became like a garment to possess, rather than spiritual character to pursue. Faith was akin to something we might robe ourselves in like Louis Vuitton, Gucci, or Hermès. It acts as a mark of distinction from everyone else. That’s why Jesus gives the example of those who would elongate their ritual phylacteries and fringes. He is referring to the leather straps that would hold small boxes containing sacred scripture. Jesus is referring to the fringes that hung from their prayer shawls. Jesus is not critiquing their use in general, but rather those who would exaggerate and embellish for others to see. “They do all their deeds to be seen by others.”

Jesus critiques those who always wanted the most prominent seat. They love to hear the sound of their own name. They want to model all of the markers of success. But Jesus has a message for his disciples. You can seek public affirmation and adulation from the outside in order to make you feel good on the inside. Yet God is calling you to live a life of faith and honor from the inside and don’t worry about the outside. Don’t worry about the trappings of success.

Let me see if I can explain this in a way you might understand. Most of you are students or recent graduates? How many of you like extra credit? I am not a fan of extra credit. Let me tell you why.

As a professor, I consider it my job to encourage certain virtues and character traits. Intellectual virtues, moral virtues, and habits of mind and body all constitute a well-rounded citizen. It’s what the Greeks called paideia. Broad-based and deep learning. I want students to fall in love with knowledge for knowledge’s sake; I want students to take pride in their writing; I want students to view learning as a lifelong endeavor. Education is not just about credentialization and professionalization. Education is more than having a degree on the wall. As my mother likes to say, “If you take a fool and give a fool a degree, then all you have is a fool with a degree.” Education, though, is an inward orientation toward life that focuses on the process, not the destination.

This is why I am not a fan of extra credit. Because when a student asks me about extra credit it means that they are already more worried about the end result than they are their inner orientation. They are worried about the symbols of success, and not the requisite skills that bring about success. Grades are the fruit. I’m more concerned with the root. Grades, statistics, win-loss records, and accolades are external outcomes. These are indulgences. You and I must learn to privilege inner character.

It’s been said that character is how we act when others are not watching. In other words, character is what we do when we are not seeking credit. Character is the culmination of our daily habits. What do we do with our time when the big assignment is not due? How do we treat people who we don’t believe can do anything for us? How do we approach our jobs when we are not in charge? How do we practice when we are not the featured player?

Fortunately, Jesus left us this valuable lesson. In God’s kingdom, the greatest among you is the one who serves all of you. The most respected is the most responsible. The most acclaimed is the most accountable. Service. Responsibility. Accountability. Not tomorrow, but today. Not when you arrive, get accepted, or when your number is called, but right now. For it is our willingness to develop these inner habits of virtue when the pressure is not on us, that will enable you and me to live lives that honor God when the pressure unfolds.

 Service. Responsibility. Accountability. These are not just leadership buzzwords. These are the qualities that separate good success from fleeting fame. So many of us look at so-called successful people and think, “That’s what I want! I want my life to be just like that. I want that job. I want to be a winner!” It’s easy to feel that way when we look at the outer trappings and seeming benefits that success brings. 

But this is part of the problem. Too many think that as we gain power and position, people ought to serve us more. When the truth is, leadership is just the opposite. The more prominent the position, the more people we must serve. The higher the profile, the greater the responsibility. The bigger the platform, the greater our accountability to others.

Is this why we see so many talented people crack under pressure? Is this why we see so many prominent personalities resort to self-preservation at all costs? Just ask our president. If your only goal is to win, you may achieve your goal. But your success will be short-lived. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled. But if you want good, long-lasting success, learn how to serve and help somebody else. For those who humble themselves will be exalted.

In the words of the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” 

This is Jesus’s lesson to his disciples. This might be Jesus’s lesson for us today. Our wealth, prominence, winning scores, and reputations are meaningless in the eyes of the Lord. There’s no need to ask God for extra credit. For when we look at the outside, God can see who we are on the inside. This is why Jesus’s message is clear. Sit down. Be humble.