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A Passport to Heaven?

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Twenty-Fifth Sunday of the Year. Fr Gordian Marshall preaches on the confidence of St Paul that springs from the generosity of God.

Paul is very confident about life beyond death, and that it is going to be something he will enjoy -- so much so that he gives the impression that he can't wait to get on to the next stage. If there's anything useful he can do, he'll wait around but otherwise he's a man in a hurry, he's anxious to move on.

His confidence is verging on arrogance. He is convinced he is ready for heaven. It is not just that he is sure of the wellbeing that lies ahead. He is sure he is going to have a share in it.

But Paul's certainty is not the starting point of the Gospel story about people who are called to work in a vineyard. The story was circulating in many forms around the time of Jesus and of the Gospel writers. Matthew's version of it is concerned with people who have come late to any kind of commitment to what is seen as good. They have had the "freedom" of a pagan lifestyle while others have been trying to conform to the Jewish law or to the ideals of Christ's teaching. Do the newcomers really deserve the same reward as those who have borne the demands of religious ideals or the heat of persecutions?

I don't suggest that many people spend much time trying to work out whether others deserve to get into heaven -- at least I hope they don't. But probably most of us wonder at times if heaven exists and, if it does, will we be there. It would be nice to have that overwhelming confidence about both that Paul appears to have but things don't usually seem to be so clear cut.

But the message that comes through Matthew's parable is quite reassuring. There is no question in that story of measuring what anyone deserves. The question of payment or rewards handed out to the workers is simply a question of how generous the landowner is.

The Gospels are full of stories of generosity: the loaves and fishes feeding thousands of people, the absurdly large quantities of wine provided at the marriage at Cana, the indication that forgiveness should be almost without limit (seventy times seven times) and so on. Here the workers' payment seems totally independent of what they can claim to have done.

And that is probably the basis for Paul's apparent confidence. He is so convinced of God's generosity that he can't see any other possibility. He believes that what Jesus achieved when he died and rose from the dead was so great that nothing could block its effects.

He doesn't necessarily think that he has never done anything wrong. On the contrary he believes that what Jesus has done is so great that it can overcome any of his faults. If you think about it that is a strong message coming across from the teaching and actions of Jesus through the Gospel stories. He doesn't send people away because they are sinners.

In fact after reading the Gospels one person I know came away with the impression that if you weren't a sinner you didn't stand a chance of getting near Jesus!

But isn't there a danger that we might be letting ourselves off too lightly. Do we just say that it doesn't matter what we do because God will overlook everything? Aren't there any basic standards that we are expected to live up to? The best place I can think of that would give some guidance is when Jesus is talking about coming in judgement. He says,

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. (Matt 25:35-36)

These are things that people do out of their own generosity, out of the depth of their humanity and their concern for others. It has nothing to do with whether they have turned to religion early or late or even at all. It is more about whether their own lives reflect the generosity of the landowner; whether they see needs in others and are moved by their own concern to respond.

That, I think, is why Paul could feel so confident about his future. He was intensely concerned about the people he worked with. He was very often extremely tactless and insensitive in the way he went about trying to help them. In some ways he probably made more mistakes than most of us could ever manage. But mistakes are not what matters: what matters is the generosity and love that provoke our responses to others, however clumsy they might be.

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Readings

Isa 55:6-9
Phil 1:20-24,27
Matt 20:1-16

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