The Marshmallow Test: Understanding The Reward For Our Obedience

In 1972, Stanford did a study on delayed gratification in what is known as the Stanford marshmallow experiment. Kids were asked to sit in front of a marshmallow while the researcher left the room. Before the researcher left, the kids were told they could eat the marshmallow now, or if they waited until the researcher returned, they would be given another marshmallow – eat one marshmallow now, or eat two marshmallows later.

Isn’t this how we view this earth and the afterlife? Disobey God, have fun now, and go to hell, or obey God, don’t have fun now, and go to heaven.

As much as I intellectually reject this view, my emotions reveal how I feel. At times I can be generous with my time and money, and when I see someone acting selfishly with their time and money, I can get jealous. I’ll tell God, “I better be rewarded for my generosity.” But what reward do I want? I want time and money that I can be selfish with! All I’m doing is trying to maximize the number of marshmallows I get. I’m obeying now and denying what I want so God will leave me alone and I can get more of what I want later.

Jesus addressed this in what’s arguably the most famous of his parables. The parable of the prodigal son starts like this:

A man had two sons. The younger son asked his father for his inheritance now, and when the father gave it to him, he went away and wasted it on reckless living. After realizing that he wasted his money, he goes back to his dad and apologizes with the hopes of working for him as a servant. When the father sees the son coming back, he doesn’t lecture him, but instead forgives him and throws a huge party celebrating his return.

We’ll pick up here with the older brother’s response after he heard what happened.

But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” Luke 15: 28-32

Despite being referred to as the prodigal son, this parable is less about the younger (prodigal) brother and more about the older brother. We know this because of the context of the parable. At the start of chapter 15, we see the religious elite grumbling that Jesus was eating and hanging out with sinners. Jesus responds with this as the last of three parables. In the parable, the father represents God, the younger brother represents repentant sinners, and the older brother represents the self-righteous, religious elite.

The older brother was seeking delayed gratification, and the father challenges him, but the father isn’t challenging the idea of delayed gratification, but rather he is challenging what gratification the brother is looking for.

“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

The older son thought his obedience would earn him two marshmallows, but the father is telling his son that the reward is a relationship with him!

When I am generous with my time and money, my reward is a better relationship with our God who is generous. When I forgive someone who has hurt me, my reward is a better relationship with our God who forgives. When I sacrifice for someone who may not deserve it, my reward is a better relationship with our God who made the ultimate sacrifice to reconcile me back to him when I didn’t deserve it.

Jesus is our reward.

3 thoughts on “The Marshmallow Test: Understanding The Reward For Our Obedience”

  1. I love how Jesus ends the parable without saying what the older brother eventually did. It’s like he looked up at the Pharisees afterwards with a questioning look in His eyes: “… Well, and …?”

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