The parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-15) underscores the truth that God’s love can be received by people extremely late in life. Many a pastor has seen death-bed conversions; they are possible and do sincerely occur.
The reality of facing the end of one’s life and where one will spend eternity frequently causes people to re-consider God and His offer of grace. It is truly amazing that someone can spend their entire life away from God and then come to faith. God’s love is powerful and His grace is sufficient for even the worst of sinners.
Peter Moore of Trinity Seminary once asked parishioners questions about their faith. One question was, “Have you ever committed an unforgiveable sin?” For Christians, who know that God’s blood is sufficient to atone for all sin, this is a softball question. Nearly one-third of respondents said they had committed an unforgiveable sin. They didn’t quite get it. They appeared to have higher standards than God. They’d written themselves off from salvation, yet were still attending church, possibly “just in case.” And worse.
Sometimes, we write other people off from salvation. We feel they’ve wandered too far from God. Or perhaps, according to our standards, we may think that others have sinned too greatly. Fortunately, God doesn’t see things that way. As long as a person has one breath left, the offer of eternal life is given to all people.
On occasion, I have been asked if this is fair. That is, is it fair that a person could be a notorious sinner his or her entire life, accept Christ on their death bed, and receive the gift of eternal life — enjoying the same heaven as the person who was a saint his or her entire life?
To that, I suppose my response is two-fold: First, God’s economy is not our economy. His ways are simply not ours and we must get to a point where we are accepting of — if not in complete awe of — that mystery. And second, the notorious sinner did miss out on so much joy — the joy of living his or her life for God and the inner peace that comes with that. Often, the notorious sinner sinned precisely because he or she never found that peace.
If you still feel we should in some way look down on those who finally come to Christ at their last moment, recall the thief on the cross next to Jesus. After this man rebuked his partner in crime for mocking Jesus and asked the Master to remember him when he came into His kingdom, Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Today. Paradise. For the first-century Jew, paradise was a place where the righteous gathered after death. So, consider this: The very first person, but not the last person, who would be admitted to paradise not because they were righteous in their own right, but because Christ’s death had made them righteous, was a criminal.
The Rev. Dr. Bob LeFavi, installed member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, is pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church, Springfield.