Ordinary religion says that we all meet a fork in the road; one way goes to hell, the other to heaven. Follow the rules (whatever they happen to be, whatever it is you are meant to believe) and you go to heaven, don't follow the rules and the way to hell opens up. Its religion as law, and there is plenty of it about. It is ultimately about remaining in control within our relationship with God. The recluse in the story below is a member of ordinary religion.
When God walked into heaven and found that everyone was there, he wasn't pleased at all. He owed it to his justice, did he not, to carry out his threats. So everyone was summoned to his throne and the Angel asked to read the ten commandments. The first commandment was announced. Said God, 'All who have broken this commandment will now betake themselves to hell'. And so it was done. The same was done with each of the other commandments. By the time the Angel came to read the Seventh, no one was left in heaven except a recluse - smug and self-complacent. God looked up and thought: 'Only one person left in heaven? That makes it very lonesome." So he shouted out, 'Come back, everyone!' When the recluse heard that everyone was forgive, he yelled in rage, 'This is unjust! Why didn't you tell me this before?' (Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, pp138-139.)
The recluse did his part of the bargain, and when God 'changed' the rules, he lost control. Personal interest does not take us all that far down the road to God. (It can take us a little way, as it turns out, but becomes a dead end if we can't jump tracks. More on that in a future post on the four degrees of love.)
Contrast this to the gospel. The gospel is not about control, but about grace. The gospel still holds out the possibility of damantion, but does not conceive of two equally wieghted roads. The road to salvation in Christ is heavily weighted in our favour, with the possibility of damnation remaining. In God's kingdom the rules of ordinary religion do not apply so neatly.
The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” 7They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” 13But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’ (Matthew 20:1-16)
What is the antidote to ordinary religion? The gospel of Jesus, of course. But how do we enter the upside down world of the gospel? Here are a couple of clues:
- This is not popular at the moment, but start with your own failure, and your moral equivalence (in failure) with every other human being. Then remember grace.
- But more importantly, love God. The grace of God gives us the gift of responding to God, and the response we are given is love of God. The more we love God the less we begrudge God's grace shown to others, and, sometimes only eventually, we come to see the grace that is at the beginning and end of our response of love.
Jesus began to teach in parables. He said: the Kingdom of God is like two brotheres who were called by God to give up all they had and serve humanity.
The older responded to the call though he had to tear himself away from his fiancee and his family and go off to a distant land to spend himself in the service of the poor. Years later he was imprisoned for his work, tortured and pt to death.
And the Lord said, 'Well done my good and faithful servant! You gave me a thousand measures of service. I shall now give you a thousand million measures of beatitude. Enter into the joy of your Lord.
The younger boy ignored the call. He married the girl he loved and prospered in his business. He was kind to his wife and children and gave an occasional alms to the poor.
And when he came to die, the Lord said, 'Well done my good and faithful servant! You gave me twenty measures of service. I shall now give you a thousand million measures of beatitude. Enter into the joy of your Lord.'
When the older boy was told that his brother was to get the same reward as he, he was surprised. And he rejoiced. 'Lord,' he said, 'had I known this at the time you called me I know I would have done exactly what I did for love of you.' (Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, pp. 134-135.)
[Pentecost 19(A) September 21, 2008]