Editor’s note: “Matters of faith” is a column that provides local religious leaders a place to write about how their respective faiths provide hope, courage and strength in these modern times.
I was thinking the other day how happy I am that it’s God who decides who goes to heaven. I’m glad it doesn’t require a two-thirds vote by some committee, or some lengthy final exam with a lot of trick questions like “Am I my brother’s keeper?” or “Who is my neighbor?”
I was reminded of an event recorded by the former tax collector Matthew. Jesus was in the temple courts teaching when some of the chief priests and elders began to hassle Him about the subject of authority.
He answered their question with a question that they didn’t want to answer, so Jesus gave them a parable to think about. Jesus told the story about a man who owned a vineyard and had two sons. He asked one of the sons to work in the vineyard and he refused but then did. The man asked the other son to go and work in the vineyard, and the second son said he would, but didn’t.
When Jesus asked the chief priest and elders who did what the father wanted, the religious guys couldn’t wait to answer. “The first,” they answered. But Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Matthew 21:31 NIV.
Matthew didn’t record or speculate what these religious people thought or mumbled to the person next to them; but it’s not hard to believe it was something like “Hold it, back up the chariot.”
Even if you’re only a little religious, it’s reasonable to wonder how can “bad” people get into heaven first, or at all, for that matter? For priests and elders at that time, the question of who was getting into the “kingdom of God” or “heaven,” was largely based I am a good person and I am a rule follower — so God has to love me more.
The idea of that comparison mindset did not die out with the chief priests. People often take the position that they are a “good person” because they can find someone who isn’t as “good” as they are. It’s easy to find fault with someone who doesn’t follow my template of what God wants. All the things they do or don’t do makes them instantly a little, or even a lot, inferior to us in the spiritual department.
Jesus, who no doubt knew what the religious guys were thinking, provided the basis for how heaven works. “For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” Matthew 21:32 NIV
Jesus said it’s not about doing; it’s about believing. As we look toward the season of the resurrection of Christ, it’s helpful to remember the way to heaven is not about who decides, but rather about who believes.
Bill Upton is chaplain of the Tooele City Police Department.