universalism

Unfair!

Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard lets us thoroughly explore a subject we just barely began to touch upon last week. God’s grace can seem strange to us—perhaps even unfair.

There is no trick to interpreting what Jesus means in this parable. It’s just that confronting the plain meaning can be troublesome. Would you want to work all day in a field, see other workers arrive in the last hour and work alongside you, and then watch them receive the same pay as you? Any of us would be indignant.

Let’s explore that sense of injustice a little further. As is pointed out in the parable, the workers who bore “the burden of the day and the scorching heat” really don’t have a sound economic argument to make. They receive a fair wage, one clearly prearranged before they began work. They have not been cheated in any way.

No, their anger, their desire to cry “unfair,” seems rooted more in the simple fact that no one wants to feel like a fool.  They see what has happened and think to themselves, “I could have waited in the marketplace day labor camp until almost evening, done hardly any work at all, and gotten exactly the same amount of money.” Stupid, stupid, stupid!

There is a parallel in the Christian life. Some will receive God’s grace early, devoting their lives to Christ in the process. Some will come to Christ later. Some will come so late, perhaps on their deathbeds or in a last fleeting moment, that they leave little evidence in this life of their conversions. The reward is the same, however, eternal life with God.

And again, it is not hard for those who come to Christ early to perhaps feel a little indignant, deserving of something more, although it’s difficult to imagine what “eternal life with God plus more” might look like. The convenience store robber who pleads to Christ for salvation as he bleeds out from a bullet in his chest—he is equal in God’s eyes to Mother Teresa? Really?

When I was in seminary, a teacher illustrated this well, turning a mid-term exam into a lesson about God’s grace and the importance of not resenting what is given to others. Grace is a gift; it cannot be earned, only accepted.

If you study today’s parable and other texts illustrating the magnitude of God’s grace, the situation can become even more perplexing, particularly if you immerse yourself in a centuries-old argument. Is God’s grace so great that everyone will be saved?

Does God create some path, some sort of opportunity in this life or beyond, for everyone to see the work of Christ clearly and say yes to what is seen? One controversial early church father, Origen, built an elaborate argument that all creatures—even Judas, even the devil—ultimately will be restored to God.

I think no pastor can preach such an idea as biblically true. As attractive as the notion is, I cannot be a universalist. Now, I should acknowledge there are biblical texts that talk about the full and complete restoration of creation.   Romans 5:18, 1 Corinthians 15:22, Philippians 2:10-11 and Colossians 1:19-20 are sometimes cited as examples. But there also are many texts about hell and eternal separation from God for nonbelievers, some of those warnings in the same gospel where we find the parable of the laborers. The subject simply cannot be resolved in a clear enough way to establish doctrine.

The concept of salvation for all can shape our hopes, however. Can we sincerely desire eternal life for the worst people we can think of, perhaps the people who have wounded us most grievously?

Such questions serve as a litmus test for Christians, a way of determining if we’re able to reflect God’s love for all. Essentially, we’re trying to emulate the mind that makes possible John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

If you carry such hope in your heart, God bless you. You are a remarkable person. The rest of us may find we need to sink deeper into God’s incredible grace.

*****

To give credit where credit is due, my introduction to the idea of  of salvation for all as a matter of hope came from an article by Father Richard John Neuhaus in the August 2001 issue of the journal First Things, titled, “Will All Be Saved?

All Eyes on Christ

Even Christians who practice the season of Advent sometimes have trouble explaining exactly what Advent is.

It is not the Christmas season, despite what Kmart, Walmart and all the other retailers would have you believe. In the church, Christmas season begins on Christmas Eve, and stretches through Epiphany on Jan. 6. Thus, the song “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

I realize I’m probably fighting a losing battle on the issue of when the Christmas season begins. Commercialism has overwhelmed the church calendar, and by the time Dec. 25 arrives, most people want to say, “I’m done.” I’m just concerned that Advent gets squashed in all of this.

Advent by itself is a special time, one where we reflect on anticipation and promises. We do think and talk a lot about the birth of Christ. His birth was, after all, the fulfillment of thousands of years of hopeful waiting by the Jews for a deliverer, a reconnection to God. So Advent does appropriately lead to Christmas.

It leads somewhere else, however. During Advent, we consider our present-day anticipation, our own desire for Christ’s return. Once we take on the moniker “Christian,” the concepts surrounding Advent should be one of the key drivers in how we live our lives.

Along with the declarations about Jesus we make in the Easter season, the Advent season has embedded in it the concepts that make us obnoxious to people of other faiths and nonbelievers. If you really understand the biblical texts around Advent and their related texts, it’s hard to be a universalist—to say that basic goodness or the underlying concepts found in all religions somehow restore us to God.

In the Old Testament, the prophets spoke of a time when God would re-establish control over all creation. In the New Testament, we understand Jesus as the path to this event. By going to the cross as a sinless man, Jesus broke the power of sin so we can stand with God and, appropriately, bow before our creator and worship in holiness, just as we were originally made to do. We understand Jesus to be God among us, at work even today through the Holy Spirit, another manifestation of God.

A handful of Christians try to make negotiable this idea of belief in Jesus as the only way to salvation, but most do not. I certainly do not. Again and again, the Bible gives us images of Jesus as the ultimate focus for creation. In the end, all eyes are upon him; every knee bows in his direction.

This concept becomes a driver for our lives because the Bible also describes the arrival of Christ as sudden and complete. The timing is a complete mystery; “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father,” we are told in Matthew 24:36.

Don’t believe it when people tell you certain events have to occur before Christ’s return. Such ideas lull us into a dangerous complacency. We should live as if Christ could return before you finish reading this column.

When we live in such a way, we live as people filled with excitement. This is joyous anticipation! As believers, we do not cringe in fear of a smiting—we await the one who saves us, the giver of grace, the one who frees us from pain, death and all the other shackles of sin.

Rejoice that Advent is here, and that for all we know, the risen Christ may arrive even before the Christmas season.