“Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.”—Matthew 21:31b (ESV)
The chief priests and the elders of the temple, like many of us, ‘publically confessed’ a faith which they privately fought. In the eyes of the people, these were guys who spoke and taught God’s word but their hearts were darkened by rebellion. Then there were also prostitutes and tax collectors who had sank deep into sin but found the Gospel compelling, very good and true.
The greatest enemy to the Christian Gospel is never their bad works but yours (and my) damnable good ones! The good works that we, the good people, flaunt before others in our church groups. Those are very dangerous.
The problem is that we have come to believe that we are what we do, so those who do good stuff are good people while those who do bad stuff are bad people. The reason we do this is that we are prone to locate our identity, and ultimately our salvation in the things we do. One time when I had gone to meet a client, a certain guy looked at my hair and called me a muyaaye (lumpen, or an urban riff-raff, whatever you prefer).
On the one hand, this guy had come to identify whoever has too much hair on their head (like mine) as a lumpen. On the other hand, I was pissed and felt utterly disrespected because—I thought I was a good guy since I don’t steal or smoke pot—I do good stuff, don’t you see? But we were both wrong: locating ours and other people’s identity in ours or their performance is a disastrous love affair which has never ended well.
People who think that they are fairly good will feel disgraced when they are called lumpens (like me). To counter this, they will prove that they are not lumpens. It’s disastrous because this is exactly what the Gospel does. It calls us beggars who don’t seek after God. And to counter that, we try to prove the gospel wrong. Which is what the good people (chief priests and elders) do—prove Jesus wrong by asking Him twisted theological questions.
The people who reject the gospel (most of whom being church people) do so because they have settled for their own little gospels where they feature as messiahs themselves. They pray fervently, fast, tithe, lead worship, take readings, lead study groups etc. I don’t care if you think that I am downplaying spiritual disciplines (because it may be the case) and its beside the point here: people who like to talk about “living their lives for Jesus” (whatever that means) do so for the sole reason of squeezing justification and salvation from their own work instead of in Jesus’s work for them. Hell exists for these kinds of people because they deny the simple Christian Gospel that locates our salvation outside of us and work in Jesus and His perfect life lived for us.
Chumps who think that they are good will always have a hard time accepting that they need someone else’s life in justification (they can’t imagine trashing their catalogue of goodness titled “The Good Good Christian and his Very Good Works: A Memoir, part one of Sixty-seven.”) While prostitutes and tax collectors who have no goodness at all will jump to it like it’s the oxygen they breathe.
It is easier for a bad person to believe that a Good Person’s life, death and resurrection makes everything okay for them than it is to convince a ‘good person’ of the same. This is why hell will be filled with so many ‘good people’.
This Lifeline is most certainly true, AMEN.