The deathbed gospel

“Let’s say there’s a guy who’s lived a horrible life, a real jerk.  Selfish, egotistical, abusive.  He gets in a wreck and is badly injured; he doesn’t have much time left, and he knows it.  You’re telling me that if he says a Jesus prayer, right then and there, that’s it–he’s saved.  He goes to heaven, just like a person who’s lived a saintly life of self-sacrifice like Mother Teresa, someone who’s helped others instead of harming them, someone who’s made the world a better place.  Is that what you’re saying?  That’s what you call good news?  Sounds pretty unfair to me.”

Have you ever been asked that question, or one like it?  How would you respond?

To begin with, what’s being described is not the gospel, but a caricature of it.  The gospel isn’t that people–even those we think of as bad, reprehensible people!–get to go to heaven just by saying some magic Jesus formula.  Nor do I find the deathbed scenario itself particularly plausible: do people who have lived purely self-centered lives really give themselves in true repentance to Jesus in their final seconds?  It seems unlikely.

Admittedly, that may still leave too little room for the active call of God on a person’s life.  So, yes–as implausible as it might seem, if the most miserable of sinners truly repents, that person is saved, even if that moment of repentance comes with their dying breath.

But who, really, is this “most miserable sinner”?

Jesus once told his disciples the story of a landowner who went to the marketplace to hire laborers to help bring in his grape harvest (Matt 20:1-16).  He promised them each a Roman denarius, a typical day’s wage.  A few hours later, he again went to the marketplace, found more men standing around waiting for work, and hired them as well.  We should note that Jesus doesn’t say that they came to the landowner begging for a job; rather, the landowner himself took the initiative.

The scenario was repeated every few hours.  In the late afternoon–in the so-called “eleventh hour,” when there was only an hour of daylight left to work–he found still more men standing around, and asked them why they weren’t working.  Their answer sounds obvious: “No one hired us.”  But that answer also told the landowner that these men were not unwilling, just unwanted.  He hired them too.

When it came time to settle up, the ones who were hired last received a full day’s wages for an hour of work.  Those who were hired first naturally expected to be paid more.  But they received only the denarius that was originally promised.  At the beginning of the day, the prospect of that denarius would have seemed like a godsend.  Now, it was an offense, and they grumbled at the perceived injustice.  Tellingly, they complained that the owner had made the men who were hired last “equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day” (Matt 20:12, NIV).  “Equal to us”–the implication was that they saw themselves as more deserving, more meritorious.

The landowner was gracious but firm in his reply:  “I haven’t done wrong by you, friend.  You contracted for a denarius, and that’s what you got.  I just wanted to be generous to those who were hired last, and give them the same as I gave you.”  The implied question: “Why do you have a problem with that?”

Why indeed?  Because at some level, I do have a problem with that.  I know that if I had been in the first group of hires, I also would have grumbled, first in disappointment, then in resentment.  It’s not fair.

Businesses don’t run on grace.  They run on fair exchange and merit.  Employees expect to be paid fairly for their labor; employers expect a good day’s work.  Those who work harder or longer, or are more dedicated to their jobs, also hope to get noticed, and to be honored with a promotion and raise.  It doesn’t always work that way, of course; there are abuses of power, and disagreements about what’s fair.  But that doesn’t mean we want to abandon the very notions of fairness and merit themselves.  People who slave for a promotion don’t celebrate when the job is given to the boss’s incompetent nephew.

Jesus isn’t giving us a new strategy for running our corporations or schools.  As a professor, for example, I try to make my grading policies both clear and fair, and grades have to be earned.  I don’t give everyone an A just because I feel generous today (not many have accused me of being generous with grades).

Rather, Jesus is saying, “If you understand that, then understand this: the kingdom doesn’t work that way.”  A certain kind of merit and fairness may be fine for economic exchanges, or a religion of works.  But the kingdom of heaven is different: it’s about a gracious God who seeks the unwanted, and gives graciously to the undeserving.

Ultimately, the problem with the deathbed scenario is that it wants to divide the world up into good people and bad people.  Somehow, rewarding “bad” people with heaven seems like an insult to “good” people.  And of course, deep down, we want to believe that we’re in the category of “good people.”  If God lets us into heaven, it will be because in some way, shape, or form we deserve it.  It would be impolitic to say it out loud.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t believe it.

Here’s the bad news: if we believe that, we delude ourselves.  In the eyes of a holy God, we don’t merit a place in the kingdom of heaven.  Like it or not, every one of us is in the same position as the miserable sinner of the deathbed scenario.

Here’s the good news: if we belong to Jesus, then in the eyes of a gracious God, his merit is all we need.  When we really understand that, then our response will be gratitude and celebration.  We will rejoice in our own salvation, and we will rejoice in the salvation of others.

Even if–perhaps even especially if?–it comes in the eleventh hour.