In his book, "The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What's So Good About the Good News?," Peter J. Gomes examines the radical nature of Jesus' teachings. In this excerpt, the theologian and Harvard professor explores God's generosity, and how that influences his thoughts on heaven.
When I am asked if people who are not Christian get into heaven, and if they can expect a joyful future, I reply with a question: is God just God of the Christian, and is the only way to God the way that we know? Some of my Christian friends are horrified by the notion that God is not a Christian and is God and Lord of everybody, but if God is the author of the universe, God of everything and everybody, then how can anyone say that some people are outside of God’s providence? When a Christian says, as a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention once said, that “God does not hear the prayer of Jews,” then I know that, at the least, that person has an inadequate doctrine of God. As J. B. Phillips famously said, “Your God is too small.” Such a God is parochial, provincial, and unworthy of the praises directed toward him; only God, who does provide for everybody, even in ways unknown or unclear to Christians, is a God who deserves the title “Creator of the World.” Just because you and I cannot account for the religions of other people does not mean that the God whom we worship cannot.
Within the teachings of Jesus we have case after case of Jesus pointing to a God who is larger than the conventional wisdom, who is not downsized by the petty pieties of those who would constrain him by their own limited knowledge and experience. In my youth I used to hear of the competing songs from the Methodist and Baptist churches on opposite street corners on a Sunday evening. The Methodists would lustily sing the hymn “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?” and the Baptists would sing one of their favorite songs, “No, Not One.” Each church thought itself alone, not in the universe but in God’s favor, although Jesus constantly points out that God’s generosity is greater than ours. How fortunate it is that God is in charge, and not simply Christians.
In Matthew 20, Jesus makes the point of God’s generosity in one of his most controversial parables. Whenever I preach on this parable of the workers in the field, with its irritating last verse, “The last shall be first, and the first, last,” I sense an almost instant hostility in the congregation. It is a wickedly delicious text to preach in college chapels, where everybody is obsessed with academic rank and position, and to reverse those ranks by making the first last and the last first is to introduce chaos and confusion into what is intended to be a place of order and dependability.
The story, simply put, is that those who arrive late to work are paid exactly the same as those who have worked all day. Those who worked all day did so for a set wage, and because they were faithful and responsible hard workers, and in light of the owner’s generosity to the late-coming workers, they not only expected the agreed upon wage but possibly a bonus. They therefore regarded the owner’s treatment as basically unfair, for why should those who did less than they receive exactly what they did? This to them was an act of capriciousness on the owner’s part.
Jesus has the owner confront the angry workers as follows: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? So the last shall be first, and the first, last.” At first glance this looks like an assertion of power: I am in charge here, the money is mine, the field belongs to me and, for their cost, so too do the workers. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” The rights of the owner are held up for all to see, along with his liberty to exercise his rights. Capitalists find this much totally agreeable.
Then we discover that the parable is really not about power but about generosity. There is perceived in the owner’s compensation theory a dangerous profligacy: what will happen in the order of things if people either don’t get what they deserve, or, in this case, get more than they deserve?
An English bishop and dear friend of mine not long ago sat for his portrait. Friends said to him, “I hope the artist does you justice,” to which the bishop replied, “At my age and at this stage, I ask for mercy, not justice.” Strict economic justice may well be what was called for in Jesus’ story, but the owner demonstrated generosity and mercy.
Now, when Jesus tells one of these stories it is usually to disturb rather than to console, for those to whom he tells it are the people who think they already know the answer. Jesus, in effect, says to them, “Wait a minute. You do not know the mind of God, you cannot even begin to imagine how the mind of God works with what is his, and since everything is his, everything is subject to the generosity as well as to the judgment and mercy of God.” We know this about God, for we have encountered him before
We should be aware of the dangerous temptation, when speaking of a God larger than our own limited imaginations, to argue that “my God is bigger than your God.” I know how tempting it is to use that argument as a clincher in a theological debate, but if we do, we should make the argument about us and not about God. Karl Barth, the great German theologian of the twentieth century, reminds us of not only the greatness of God but also the “otherness” of God, which means that when we presume to speak about God at all we should do so at a distance and with the realization that we cannot speak of God as simply an immense version of ourselves. To do so would be like our attempt, so familiar to contemporary Americans, to communicate with non-English-speaking people by speaking English loudly and slowly, as if by so doing we make them understand. What we know of God we know because we have seen the divine in action in the human Jesus and heard of intimations of God from our predecessors in the faith. When we speak of God we do not speak boastfully or competitively, or in the sense that we know all we need to know, but we can speak hopefully—that is, full of hope—and in faith that the amplitude of God is greater than our capacity to imagine or experience. This is something of which John Calvin speaks when he refers to the sovereignty of God, and it is also what is meant when we speak of the mystery and majesty of God: there is something both elusive and intimate in conceiving of language in which we can dare to think and speak of God at all.
When I think of the future, when I think of heaven, when I think of the end of the age as we know it, I think of the loving, gracious, generous God in whose hands it all rests, and I am glad, even delighted, that this God is far more generous than many of his most ardent worshipers and preachers. We Christians, especially those of us who share a Protestant and an evangelical faith, need a bigger God that goes against the conventional wisdom of our little faith. With such a God we need fear nothing the future has to offer, and before that time comes and ends, we might emulate that generosity of God in the conduct of our own affairs, for as that great reformed theologian Matthew Henry wrote, “Our duty as Christians is always to keep heaven in our eye and earth under our feet.”