Working your way to heaven? - Susan Bennett

Good preachers usually start by telling a joke, don't they? So in honor of that tradition, here's my joke for today:

A good man died and went to heaven, and St. Peter met him outside the pearly gates. (It's a JOKE! That St. Peter stuff is NOT in the Bible!) St. Peter said to the man, "Welcome. I'll open the gates and let you through, if you can tell me enough good things you've done to earn 100 points."

Well, the man was pretty happy about this. It sounded easy! So he said, "I'm a faithful churchgoer, taught Sunday School for 37 years, gave 20 percent of my income instead of 10 percent, cut the church grass every summer, and visited the sick so much that the hospital nurses thought I worked there."

And St. Peter said, "Great! One point."

The man couldn't believe it! So he said, "I've been a faithful and loving husband to the same woman for 46 years, a dedicated father, took in foster children, supported orphanages in Third World countries, and RESCUED ABANDONED PUPPIES!"

And St. Peter said, "Wow! That's another point."

The man was astounded! Finally, he said, "Well, if this is how it is, I won't get into heaven except by the grace of God!"

And St. Peter said, "Congratulations, 100 points!"

Thank you for that polite laughter.

In the gospel of Luke, a Pharisee has nothing but criticism for the sinful woman who enters the room during their meal and begins to weep, anointing Jesus' feet and even kissing them in her grief. The Pharisee says, "If this man were really a prophet, he'd know what kind of woman this is who's touching him - that she is a sinner."

Quite an indictment! This Pharisee is so filled with self-righteousness and pride that he feels assured he's fine, just on the basis of his good life and his good works. How well I remember many well-meaning people saying to me, "You'd better be good! Don't you want to go to heaven?" It's all about "being good," earning our way into God's favor. We may not be as prideful as the Pharisee, but somehow, it's still all up to us ...

Sometimes, being such good people, being so nice, going to church (at least on Christmas and Easter) ... avoiding jail time! ... all of that can actually turn out to be a disadvantage. Because if we can't keep a realistic picture of ourselves as sinners in need of a Savior, we may actually begin believing that we really can be good enough to get ourselves into heaven. And then, sadly, we're standing in front of St. Peter (as the joke says) and discovering that without grace, all our good works won't get us through the gate.

The sinful woman in the Luke passage was probably a prostitute, so well-known that even the Pharisee recognized her right away. She KNOWS she's a sinner. She feels it deep in her heart, she's wretched with knowing it, she's desperate for forgiveness, and a new start. She has a clear sense of her own weakness and sinfulness. And she wants to change. She needs, and wants, grace.

What do good people do about the idea that we're sinners who are just as sinful as the woman who washed Jesus' feet? I know you've probably never robbed a bank or even stolen from the collection plate - but you know what goes on in your heart, in your thoughts. I know MY inner workings are usually nothing to brag about.

Like the Pharisee, we may look good on the outside. But the point system doesn't work. The prostitute had nothing to offer but her sorrow and her repentance. And like her, we need Jesus' forgiveness, his grace, and the lifelong process of the Holy Spirit working in our lives. We need a Savior. We'll NEVER earn enough points on our own.

The good news? Later, Jesus says, "The one who is forgiven much, loves much." I'll be the sinful woman instead of the Pharisee any day! Because the more we need and love Jesus, the more of him we get. The more we can receive his forgiveness and grace, the more forgiving and grace-filled we can be with ourselves and others.

And do you know what happens then?

Peace of mind - no more pretending. We're accepted and loved, with all our faults and weaknesses. And when the time comes -100 points! What a relief! The grace of God!

Rev. Susan Bennett is pastor of Stockbridge Presbyterian Church. She and her husband live in Stockbridge with two giant Rottweilers and a 15-pound rescue dog who is the boss of everybody.