Today’s Reading: Matthew 20
Inevitably when someone well known dies, I get asked, “Do you think that person is in heaven?” Before I respond, I always think of John Newton, the eighteenth-century former slave ship captain who became an abolitionist and clergyman. He said, “If I ever reach heaven I expect to find three wonders there: first, to meet some I had not thought to see there; second, to miss some I had expected to see there; and third, the greatest wonder of all, to find myself there.”
With that thought in mind, I tell the person a story:
“Let’s say you knew a guy named Rudy who was from the worst part of town. Rudy grew up with no father and no discipline in the home, and from an early age he got in trouble with the law. As a kid, he stole candy; by the time he was a teenager, he’d worked up to stealing cars. Into his early adulthood, he broke into people’s homes. During one break-in, he discovered the residents at home and he killed them. He got convicted and sentenced to death. You also knew the people he killed, so you attended the execution. You saw him enter the room, then walk behind a curtain for his execution. Question: Does that thief who killed those people go to heaven?”
The person always responds, “Of course not. I knew him till the end. He didn’t repent.”
But then I add a twist and change the scenario.
“Okay,” I tell the person. “On that day three executions were scheduled simultaneously in that room. Rudy and one other man were thieves. The third was a deranged man who claimed He was God. Just before Rudy died, he had a conversation with the so-called deranged man, in which he heard something about paradise and he accepted the man at His word. Did he go to heaven?”
The person typically knows the “right” answer: that Rudy went to heaven. But I can see the confusion and frustration on the person’s face, especially because of the sins Rudy committed. Inevitably, the person is grappling with the fairness of it all.
Surely, he can’t be in heaven, the person thinks. He was a thief and a murderer. How is that fair?
And yet this twist in the story is not made up. It happened at Calvary. A life of sin and selfishness was altered in seconds—all because the thief talked to the Middle Man.
Jesus is our middle man—the one whose sacrifice made a way for us to go to heaven. No matter who the person is or what they have done, on the day they die, they enter heaven and walk on streets of gold.
Before that scene at Calvary even happened, Jesus prepared us for the reality of salvation with this parable, what we call a little story with a big meaning, which comes from today’s reading, in Matthew 20:1–16.
Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a vineyard owner who hired workers early in the morning and agreed to pay them a certain amount of money, a denarius, for their day’s wages.
Around midmorning, the vineyard owner caught sight of some others who were loitering in the marketplace, so he offered them work and set wages to tend to his vineyard. He rounded up more workers at noon, at midafternoon, and in the early evening, offering the same work for a set wage.
At quitting time, the owner directed his foreman to summon the workers, starting with the last group, and to pay them their wages. Each group received a denarius. By the time the foreman summoned the first group who had worked all day, they believed they should receive more wages because they had worked longer. And yet the foreman handed each person a denarius.
The men in the first group complained to the owner, saying it wasn’t fair that the last group of men, who only worked a brief time, received the same amount they received. “We worked harder and longer. We dealt with the heat of the day! How is this fair?”
But the owner explained that he wasn’t being unfair. They had agreed to work for the set amount. “I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Jesus ended his parable by saying, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (see Matthew 20:1-16).
I was born again at a very young age, so I am part of that first group of workers Jesus talked about. And one day my payment will be heaven and eternal life.
Others are part of the last group, what I call the eleventh-hour person. They won’t work as long as I and others in the earlier groups have worked. But here’s their payment: heaven and eternal life. They will receive that payment even if they repent of their sins and accept Jesus mere moments before they take their final breath. They receive exactly the same payment.
How is that fair? You may think. You’ve worked hard, lived a good life, followed all the rules, so how is it fair that some guy who lived a terrible life gets the same reward when he seeks forgiveness within moments of his death?
Jesus explains that the reward is given because God is generous.
So, if you are wondering about the eternal destination of a friend whom you knew to be hardened toward God for all of his life, wait to pass that judgment. You don’t know what happened in the eleventh hour, you don’t know if the Holy Spirit got through to him. Remember that a thief got into heaven in the eleventh hour. Your friend may have that same experience. All because of God’s amazing generosity.