Passports to Heaven
Matthew 7.16-17 Since when do people pick
grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles? Every healthy tree produces
choice fruit, but the rotten tree produces spoiled fruit.
There is a natural tendency for
all living things to take the path of least resistance. Why spend the
effort if there is an easier way? Human beings sometimes prefer the hard
way - but generally it's easy live and quiet die.
Christians are no exception. From early times many
have looked for an easy way to heaven. And so the Church has devised
passports to get them there. Though it may prove uncomfortable, take a
look at what the Church demands of its members before they can get the
First, they must be "born again" - by which is meant a
mental and emotional about-turn towards Jesus of Nazareth. But an
official baptism ceremony will do the trick just as well, regardless.
Second, they must "go to church" to worship God. For
the majority of Christians, mandatory worship consists primarily of
frequent attendance at the Eucharist. Prayer and Bible reading a highly
desirable optional extras. Come seldom or never and you could be frozen
out of the fellowship.
Third, their morals must conform to certain standards.
If they are divorced, or heretical, or sexually deviant, their passports
may be withdrawn until their behaviour once again conforms.
There have been times in the Church's history when other passports
have been on offer. For many centuries a man or woman who chose the
religious life of a monk or nun was thought to have a carte blanche
for heaven. Only a few hundred or so years ago, a passport to heaven
could be bought in the form of indulgences. Even today, some churches
teach that confession to a priest will revalidate a passport to get a
person through the control point to heaven.
But there is a problem. Nothing in the known words or actions of
Jesus backs up this sort of teaching. Just the opposite is the case. The
issuing of passports is up to God, not us.
Indeed, Jesus warns against those who tout passports to heaven: "Be
on the lookout for phony prophets, who make their pitch disguised as
sheep." A passport to heaven may look genuine - but what about the
person offering it? Is a crook likely to give you a valid passport? Just
as a tree or plant can yield only its own kind of fruit, says Jesus, so
also with people. A thistle does not yield grapes.
In today's language, Jesus is pointing out that a prerequisite for
trustworthiness is congruence between words and behaviour. If what we
say doesn't match what we do, then what we say is of little or no
account. We must first evaluate those who ask for our trust. Question
before you take up a quick-fix, easy-come-easy-go passport to heaven.
Check that the priest who preaches the love of others treats people
with great respect. Does the dedicated pro-lifer kill doctors who give
abortions? Does the bishop who upholds God's forgiveness also persecute
a fellow-priest for heresy? Is the Church's baptism a token of change or
a barrier to fellowship? Do worshipping Christians live out in life the
prayers they pray in church?
The author of Matthew's Gospel sums it up. Perhaps echoing a sermon
he once heard, he writes what he imagines Jesus might have said: "Not
everyone who addresses me as 'Master, master' will get into heaven ..."