The mayor announces a picnic for all current and retired employees of the town. It’s a beautiful day; you know several of your friends are going to be there; there will be free food. You turn up at the entrance to the park. Why not? You may not have been on the payroll but you say to yourself, I’ve been a good citizen; I’ll just drop in.
From a distance you can see tables groaning with food of every kind. People you know are chatting under the trees, their children running about. Excitement is in the air.
The Mayor himself is greeting workers as they enter the park. But when your turn comes he looks at you blankly and says, “I don’t know you; never heard of you; there’s no place here for you.”
Imagine your shock. No matter how you try you can’t reverse his position. You assumed too much in hoping to be welcomed without proper credentials.
The consequences would be serious. But they would be immeasurably more serious for the persons in a story Jesus told about the entrance into the kingdom of heaven which only true believers will gain at the end of the age. (Matthew 7:21–23)
In the story some persons approach the entrance to the kingdom where the king himself stands; they expect to be welcomed. They believe they have every right to enter; they’ve been good people. But the king says, “I never knew you. Away from me you evildoers!”
But they stand and plead: “Did we not prophesy in your name?” They will insist they had preached real gospel sermons on his behalf.
Moreover, they will argue they had even cast out demons in his name, and anointed the sick and comforted the grieving. Casting out demons takes spiritual energy and courage.
Yet, according to Jesus’ story, even such daring labor, done in Jesus’ name, will not insure their entrance into the kingdom of heaven because something fundamental is lacking.
Jesus’ story is not for true believers who have a heartfelt love for the Lord, whose inward devotion to him, however gentle, is true blue. Their entrance is assured.
Rather, in these words Jesus makes his point: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” ( Matthew 7:21).
They had even done spectacular things in the open but they had not themselves been obedient to his will at the level of the heart. Their ‘service’ had likely been about some measure of personal gain — friendships, family approval, money, fame — more than about pleasing the Lord.
Heart-grounded obedience is the issue. To his true followers, those who obey him, Jesus promises welcome and a nurturing relationship with him: “If anyone loves me he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). As well, “I will receive you unto myself”.
What is lacking for these supplicants pleading for entrance is not merely a strong religious impulse. As Jesus’ story shows, they had lots of that. And they had an abundance of spirituality too. What they lacked was obedient hearts toward him that undergirded all their public professions.
It’s an urgent, perplexing word Jesus speaks through this story. To be turned aside from a community picnic would be bad enough. But to be denied entrance into the kingdom event of the ages because all our religiosity lacks the authentic note of heartfelt obedience to the gospel — that would be an irreversible disaster. That’s why our Lord tells the story so urgently.
And that is why the Scriptures repeatedly challenge us at this deepest level of our heart’s affections. In the word “Repent” they call us to a radical turnaround to correct our perilous journey. And that is why they invite us to a life of faith — a living faith in Jesus Christ.
Photo credit: Elliot Brown (via flickr.com)