Connections 09.03.2017: Participation Trophies

Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b; Matthew 16:21-28

Sometimes kids get participation trophies. You know—if you’re on the team, you get a trophy. If you come in last, you still get a trophy. Why? Because you participated.

The practice is controversial among some adults. Some folks argue that we shouldn’t teach our children that they’ll be rewarded for “only” participating or even for doing their best. They say it fosters a culture of entitlement. Other folks maintain that it’s fine to give a kid a trophy for being on the team. They say it teaches the value of teamwork and of doing your best even if you don’t come in first place.

Still, there’s participation and then there’s participation. One can be on the team but not of the team. One can be on the roster but not fully committed to the team.

Let’s think about it.

Imagine two reserve players on a baseball team. They ride the bench. One of them gets a start every once in a while, but more often they get into the game as a pinch-hitter, pinch-runner, or late innings defensive replacement. One of them works hard at the fundamentals. He practices base running, fielding, bunting, and hitting behind the runner. He is always preparing himself to be as ready as he can be to help the team. The other reserve player doesn’t practice particularly hard. In batting practice, he always swings for the fences, paying no attention to getting ready to perform as the situation calls for.

When the manager calls on our second reserve to pinch-hit, he swings with all his might, no matter the situation. When the manager calls on our first reserve to pinch-hit, he does what the situation calls for. If he needs to give himself up by hitting behind the runner, that’s what he does. One player plays for himself and never thinks of giving himself up. The other player plays for the team, and if he needs to sacrifice himself for the team’s sake, that’s what he does.

They both participate, but only one of them deserves a trophy.

Lots of people participate in the church. But what does it mean to really participate in the Christian life?

Jesus tells us. “Deny yourself.” “Lose your life.” “Take up your cross.” It means to give yourself over to the cross-centered, self-emptying, sacrificial, service-oriented life to which Jesus calls us. It means to respond to all that God has given us—especially his Son—by giving ourselves up.

Some folks say only winners should be honored.

In the church, the losers get the trophy.


1. What did God do for Israel that should have caused the people to praise the Lord?
2. What has God done for us that should inspire us to praise the Lord?
3. What is the connection between our praise of God in worship services and our service to God in our daily lives?
4. What does the way Jesus served show us about the way we should serve?
5. Why do you think Jesus responded so harshly to Peter’s words? Do we have any attitudes, perspectives, or practices that Jesus would respond to in a similar way?

Reference Shelf

The psalm is another of the historical hymns (closely related to Pss 78 and 106) that recapitulate the salvation-history of Israel. Commonly it is assumed that Ps 105 was composed for use at one of the major festivals, perhaps in connection with ceremonies of covenant renewal (see vv. 7-11). Verses 1-15 are quoted in 1 Chr 16 (together with Pss 96:1-13; 106:1; 47-48) in connection with the narration of David’s moving the ark to Zion.

With repeated imperatives, the fellowship is urged in vv. 1-6 to remember and to praise the wonderful works of Yahweh. Those who seek the Lord are encouraged. The term “seekers of Yahweh” suggests pilgrims who attend a festival or other ceremonies at a sanctuary, but should not be restricted to such people. They are exhorted to seek his presence continually, not only in periodic journeys to the sanctuary. The congregation is addressed as descendants of Abraham and Jacob, who were the recipients of the covenant and its promises (v. 6).

In vv. 7-25, the historical survey begins with the period of Israel’s ancestors and the Abrahamic covenant with its promise of Canaan as an inheritance. The life of the ancestors as seminomadic wanderers is described in vv. 12-15 and includes an account of joseph and the migration to Egypt (vv. 16-25). The details vary from the accounts in Genesis, but the general pattern is the same. The result of Jacob’s sojourn as a resident alien in Egypt was that God made his people to be exceedingly fruitful and “too numerous for their oppressors” (v. 24, Dahood 1968, 59).

Moses and the exodus from Egypt is the subject of vv. 26-42. Moses and Aaron were the leaders sent by Yahweh as the agents of the plagues on the Egyptians (vv. 26-36; cf. the plagues in Ps 78:43-51 and Exod 7-12). In a very emphatic way, the actions of deliverance are said to be the direct deeds of Yahweh (see the repeated he, referring to Yahweh, in vv. 28-42). Moses and Aaron disappear from the picture (and there is no account of the Sinai covenant). All these great deeds of deliverance were done because Yahweh remembered his holy promise [to] Abraham (v. 42, reading the and in RSV and NRSV as “to”). Verse 42 forms an inclusio with vv. 8-10 and frames all verses in between.

The closing section (vv. 43-45) refers to the triumphant exodus of the people from Egypt (v. 43) and to the gift of the land (cf. v. 11). The final verse states the covenantal obligation of obedience that all of this places upon the covenant people: salvation-history should lead to obedience and faithfulness.

Marvin E. Tate, “Psalms,” Mercer Commentary on the Bible (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1995), 502.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.


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