October 13, 2014

Heart and Soul: Theology

Those who travel very frequently by air receive preferential treatment from airlines. They have access to special airport lounges. They can choose the best seats on the plane. They can board the plane first. And, on many occasions, they can fly business class for the price of an economy ticket. Sometimes those who pass them by on their way to the back of the airbus may wonder if that’s fair.

What about those faithful to God? Do believers receive preferential treatment? They are, after all, frequent, loyal members of the kingdom of God. So does heaven have a rewards program? And would it be a fair one?

Heaven’s Rewards Program

When Peter, who was not afraid of speaking his mind, asked, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (Matt. 19:27), the Master gave him a sneak peek of what was to come. Jesus said that those who followed Him would be granted a seat on 12 thrones, but He didn’t stop there. He added that those who have left family behind would “receive a hundred times” more than what they previously had and eternal life (verses 28, 29). Heaven’s rewards program is not bad,
is it? But is it fair?

If you grew up in the Adventist Church, you have probably heard many stories of miraculous deliverance. If a faithful believer loses his or her job, he or she will end up with a better one. If the exam is scheduled for Sabbath, it will mysteriously be changed. If a natural disaster destroys an entire area, the Adventist church alone will be saved.

Does this mean that we are preferred by the Father? The Bible does say that those who obey God are His “treasured possession” (Ex. 19:5) and the “apple of his eye” (Deut. 32:10). Believers clearly have a special place in God’s heart, and it would appear that God is good to them all the time. Fair or unfair?

But what about all the other stories that challenge this idea? Elisha, a faithful prophet of God, resurrected the son of the woman from Shunem and cleansed Naaman from his leprosy, but died from a long sickness (2 Kings 13:14). John the Baptist, described by Jesus as the greatest “among those born of women” (Matt. 11:11), perished alone in a dungeon. Certainly you’ve seen it: the lifelong vegan who struggles with high cholesterol and then has to fight cancer.

“Dear God, You shouldn’t choose our little planet for Your throne!”

In March 2012 Antonio Monteiro, a missionary to the West African state of Togo, was arrested and imprisoned with others on charges of conspiracy to commit murder. Pastor Monteiro would languish in prison without a trial for the next 22 months. For him the miracle was delayed for a long time. And even when he was released, it was with the pain of knowing that his faithful fellow Adventist Bruno Amah had been left behind to continue in prison, perhaps for another 25 years. What kind of rewards program is that? Fair or unfair?

More Faith, More Blessings?

For many people the explanation lies in faith. The Bible clearly states that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6). So does God answer prayers according to our faith? And does greater faith earn preferential treatment? Is that the fairness element? You believed more, so . . .

Often enough the answer seems to be yes. According to Dale Galusha, president of the Pacific Press Publishing Association, the publishing house receives many requests for contact information on authors who have written famous books on miraculous responses to their prayers. People seem to believe that the authors have greater faith than they do, so if the author prays for them, the prayer will be answered.

The Bible does show that faith is not always the determining factor. Malchus was one of those who came to arrest Jesus. After Peter cut off his ear, Jesus healed him without requiring faith (John 18:10).

Then there is the case of the father with the demon-possessed child. He begs Jesus, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us” (Mark 9:22). Instead of immediately healing the boy, Jesus replies, “ ‘If you can’? Everything is possible for one who believes” (see verse 23). It is only after the father says that he does believe and asks Jesus to help him overcome disbelief that Jesus drives the spirit out of the boy (verses 24-26).

Not a Merit

Why does Jesus require faith in this case and not in the other? The question seems difficult because our premise is wrong. Faith is not a merit. Faith does not give us a greater claim to God’s blessings. It prepares us to receive God’s greater blessings.

God is desperate to bless us, but in order to do that, He needs to empower us to do things that may in some cases seem totally unreasonable or impossible. For these kinds of things we need faith.

Faith, then, enables me to receive the greater blessings. Faith prepares me to hear God, but it does not entitle me to receive what I want. It is essential but is not a merit.

The Salary of Preference

After Jesus told Peter that the reward for those who sacrificed all for Him would be great, Peter must have been glad he’d registered for heaven’s rewards program. Commenting on the great blessings God promises to His faithful people to multiply them and confirm His covenant with them (Lev. 26:9), ancient Jewish wisdom provides the following rabbinic midrash in Sifra Behuqotai262: “To what is the matter comparable? It is to be compared to the case of a king who hired a large work force, and there was there a certain worker, who did work for him over a long period of time. The workers came to collect their wages, and that worker came with them. The king said to him, ‘My son, I shall turn to you [and pay you special attention]. These young workers who have worked for me have done a fair amount of work, so I shall give them a modest wage, but to you I am going to make a substantial settlement.’ So the Israelites are in this world.”1

The Salary of Survival

Jesus introduces a similar yet very different story in Matthew 20:1-16. In it a landowner goes out to hire laborers to work in his vineyard early in the morning, then goes back four times for more laborers. Bear in mind that in the Middle East, hiring, leading, and paying workers were tasks beneath the honor of a landowner. This was the work for the foreman, and the parable clearly mentions that there was a foreman. So why would this landowner be in the marketplace in the morning looking for workers?

Jesus’ landowner does not represent the detachment or aloofness that is typical of landowners. This one is actually interested in the people in the marketplace. He goes early one morning to hire workers and gets all that he needs. At 9:00 a.m. he goes again to the marketplace. There is no insinuation that he has miscalculated on the amount of workers he needs for the job, or that there is some other reason for his late hiring. Not unlikely, it is his concern for the people that takes him back to the marketplace to hire more men.

As the hours of the morning pass, anxiety grows in the minds of the workers in the marketplace. These are poor people who need the work to feed their families. Then the caring master returns at noon and hires more men.

In the marketplaces of the Middle East nobody remains after noon. It is useless and humiliating. Many leave the marketplace to avoid the torment of waiting in public for a job that may not come despite desperate need. Some workers refuse to give up hope, however. And they are still around when the master returns at 3:00 p.m. to hire them.

Finally, about 5:00 p.m. he makes his way to the public square one last time. Again, there is no indication that he needs more men. But there are men there who have been there since he first showed up at 6:00 a.m. His tone is chastising, but they know they can answer him. The events of the day have given them insight into his true character and his feelings toward them: “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?” (verse 6). Understanding his soul of mercy, they retort, “Because no one has hired us” (verse 7). He hires them all.

The day does end, and the time of the payment comes: “Call the workers and pay them their wages,” the master says to his steward (verse 8). So the ones hired at 6:00 a.m. come first, all sweaty and tired, but it is not their turn yet. We may imagine the master explaining, “Friends, wait a little bit; I will pay attention to you at the end.” And you know the end of the story, don’t you? They thought they were going to receive more, but the landowner gave them the same as those who had worked only one hour! God sometimes does strange things. The landowner gives those last arrived a full day’s salary, not because they deserve it, but because they need it. He wants them to have what they need for their families. It is the salary of survival.

Fair or Unfair?

So it is in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus does operate a vast rewards program. But it will never be according to what sinners deserve. Jesus’ r
ewards program works according to what we need. This is what He did for the human race. God treated us not according to what we deserved, but according to what we needed. And He doesn’t stop there. God will not only give us what we need, but will also rejoice in giving us exceedingly more than we imagine (Eph. 3:20).

But let us try to imagine. Imagine that this little unworthy planet will receive that greatest honor of all—becoming the place for God’s throne. And I imagine that soon after the establishment of God’s throne on this earth a great irony will transpire. A human delegation will humbly go to God and say to Him: “Dear God, You shouldn’t choose our little planet for Your throne. It is too much honor. It is unfair. Take the capital of Your universal kingdom to one of those glorious worlds that never failed. We are happy to be the least.” Then they will put their crowns down at His feet.

But God will answer with the words of the generous landowner of the parable, “[Friends,] take your pay and go” (Matt. 20:14). And perhaps He’ll conclude, “Am I not permitted to do what I want with what belongs to me?” (Matt. 20:15, NET).2

  1. Cited in Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), p. 365.
  2. Scripture quotations credited to NET are from the New English Translation Bible, copyright © 1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, LLC. All rights reserved.