“I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion…” – Isaiah 1:14 The Message
“It will be an ill day for us if what most humans mean by ‘religion’ ever vanishes from the Earth. It can still send us the truly delicious sins. The fine flower of unholiness can grow only in the close neighborhood of the Holy. Nowhere do we tempt so successfully as on the very steps of the altar.” – Senior “devil” Screwtape in a speech at the “Annual Dinner of the Tempter’s Training College for Young Devils” (from C.S. Lewis’ popular parody, The Screwtape Letters)
One of my favorite stories is about a big city mafia thug whose notorious gangster brother died. When he met with the local priest to discuss the funeral service he insisted, “Father, I have one very important request. When you refer to my brother, you must tell everyone he was a saint!”
“But, how can I?,” the troubled priest asked. “Your brother did some terrible things. You know he did not have the best reputation,” the priest countered.
“I don’t care about that,” the brother demanded rising to his feet and leaning over the table. “You will refer to him as a saint, or else. You got that, Father?!”
The anxious priest had lived around this character and his notorious bunch long enough to know what the “or else” could mean. He struggled since he knew the deceased brother had killed several people throughout his years and had beaten up dozens of others.
So, when the day of the funeral arrived, the brother sat on the front row steely-eyed and awaiting the much-anticipated eulogy. Hundreds of people filled the church. A train of black limousines lined the front entrance. Halfway through the ceremony, the priest came to the pulpit and began his comments this way: “The man who lies before you today was . . . a cheat, . . . a murderer, . . . a liar, . . . a womanizer, . . . and a brute. He stole, . . . he sinned, and . . . he strayed. In fact, he was one of the worst characters I have ever met in my life . . . but . . .compared to his brother . . .he was a SAINT!”
I love that story. It strikes a chord, does it not?
We love to compare ourselves to others, don’t we? If someone we know about is found to be really bad, then maybe we’re not all “that bad,” we think. If a respected leader fails at marriage or in business, our chests have a tendency to swell just a bit. Why is that? Why do we so often compare ourselves to others?
Many people, when asked whether they think they will make it to heaven, will respond by saying, “Well, I think I’m a good person” or “I think I’ve done more good works than bad over the years.” It seems that many in our world, if not most, believe that “good” people go to heaven and “bad” people go to hell. It’s as simple as that, right?
One thing bothers me. This particular belief does not mesh with Jesus’ teachings; not at all. Not with the things he said, nor with the relationships he had. Consider this:
If all “good” people get to go to heaven . . . then why were the religious people of Jesus’ day some of his biggest enemies?
If all “good” people get to go to heaven . . . then why did Jesus tell a convicted thief, “this day you will be with me in Paradise”(Luke 23:43)?
If all “good” people get to go to heaven . . . why did Jesus associate so much with “sinners” (Matt. 11:19)?
If all “good” people get to go to heaven . . . why did Jesus even need to come to the planet in the first place?
If all “good” people get to go to heaven . . . why did Jesus tell us that there is only “one who is truly good” (Mt. 19:17b)?