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Posted September 14, 2004

The Greatest Treason

From Say Yes To Life by Sidney Greenberg

The doctor examined the three-pack-a-day smoker and was distressed by the findings. “Look here,” the doctor said, “you say you’ve been a heavy smoker for forty-two years. You see that building across the street? If you had saved all that money you spent on cigarettes, you might own that building today.”

“Do you smoke, doctor?” the patient asked.

“No, never did.”

Do you own that building?”


“Well, I do.”

The doctor was correct in urging his patient to surrender a destructive habit, but instead of speaking to him about preserving his health and his life, he spoke about saving dollar bills. He spoke not with the medical authority of a physician, but with the prudence of a banker. He gave him good advice with a bad reason.

There are two lines by T.S. Elliot that the doctor would have done well to ponder:

“The last temptation is the greatest treason,
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

Eliot’s lines are addressed not only to the doctor. Many of us could profitably reflect on them.

How many of us pray for the wrong reasons! We have a “slot machine” approach to prayer. All we have to do is insert a prayer and out will come instant fulfillment, immediate gratification, regardless of whether what we are asking for is moral, ethical, or possible; regardless of whether or not it clashes with the needs and hopes of others.

When what we ask for is denied us, we often abandon prayer as an exercise in futility. We forget that prayer at its highest involves praise and thanksgiving and that its primary concern is not getting but becoming. Our prayers are answered when they enable us to grow toward the person we are capable of being, and live as God would have us live.

How many of us perform our small acts of charity and goodness for the wrong reasons. We expect a kind deed to be rewarded by a kind fate, to preserve us from trouble and misfortune. More than once have I heard this melancholy verdict: “When my mother died, I stopped believing in God. She was such a good person, how could God let this happen her?”

Goodness does not confer immunity to disease, disaster, or death. It does not guarantee a life without trouble or tragedy. These are the common lot of all of us.

Is there then no reward for living a life of rectitude and uprightness? There is, indeed. We are rewarded not for our good deeds but by our good deeds. The reward for doing good is becoming a better human being. The greatest compensation for any good deed is simply to have done it. It is inherent in the act itself. Moses Maimonides, the twelfth-century philosopher, gave us the right reason for doing the right deed: “It is not enough to serve God in the hope of future reward. A man must do right and avoid wrong because he is a man and owes it to his manhood to seek perfection.”

His words help us to avoid “the greatest treason.” They encourage us to do the right deed for the right reason.