Texts: Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16
A lovely Methodist woman after a great and long life died and went up to heaven. Outside the pearly gates, St. Peter met with her, greeted her warmly, and gave her welcoming instructions. “You’ll be staying at the 4th house on the right. We hope you have a pleasant stay,” he said, “and, oh, please be very quiet as you pass the second house on the left.” The woman smiled and headed toward her new home, being careful to be follow St. Peter’s instructions.
Not long after the Methodist woman left, a Catholic man arrived at the gates. St. Peter greeted him with a smile and told him where he’d be staying – the 177th house on the left. He also gave this man the same instructions as he had given the Methodist woman – be very quiet as you pass the second house on the left.”
Not long after the Catholic man had made his way to his new house, a Pentecostal man arrived for instructions. After being told where to go and to be quiet when walking past that particular house, the Pentecostal paused and gave St. Peter a curious look.
“Now, I know you’re the Rock and everything, and you’ve been doing this forever, but I don’t quite get it. What’s with that house? Shouldn’t we be laughing and singing and praising God everywhere in heaven? Who’s there?”
St. Peter sighed—those Pentecostals always had to ask. “That house happens to be where we keep the Presbyterians and you have to be quiet because they think they’re the only ones up here.”
Now perhaps you’ve heard that one before; it’s an old joke that still has something to say about our understanding of how this salvation thing works. We Presbyterians are known by others for our doctrine of predestination – even if we Presbyterians don’t talk about it much anymore. While we may jokingly refer to ourselves as the “Frozen Chosen,” we usually focus on the frozen—not the chosen—part. Being chosen, being one of the elect, being saved by the grace of God and that grace only, is not something we go on and on about.
Perhaps because we don’t talk about it, this doctrine often gets confused with the concept of predetermination or fate; the idea that things that happen in your daily life were meant to happen by some higher power. Ever hear someone jokingly—or not so jokingly—say “You were predestined to get that job, to miss that bus, to make friends with that person.”? People hear “predestination” and think you mean that the trivial and momentous events in our life are planned out by God from the beginning of time and we but follow this plan.
But that’s not what predestination is about. This doctrine—in it’s true form—does not deny free will like this common misunderstanding would suggest; when we talk about predestination, we aren’t talking about jobs or friends or what you chose to eat for breakfast this morning: the only thing we’re talking about is salvation.
Predestination is the understanding that the God who is sovereign has chosen out of love to redeem human beings, to “save” them. God chooses and we respond. God is the first and foremost actor, not us. If we are able to love God and choose to live for God, it is because God first loved and chose us.
While predestination is suppose to be good news, suppose to help those of us who have come to love God be assured about our everlasting destiny, it doesn’t always reach a favorable audience. Even though this way of thinking about is more palatable to our free will loving selves than the predetermination, it still often rubs us the wrong way—which is perhaps why we don’t talk about it all that much. What if God doesn’t choose to love someone, to save someone? Does that mean nothing they can do or believe will help them?
Different people have responded to this question in different ways over the years. Some folks have been comfortable saying that yes, God in God’s wisdom for God’s glory has chosen some to be saved and some not. Others have said that no, in fact God has chosen all to be saved and none to be left behind. Still, others have said that God has set it so that all who come to know Jesus as Lord will be saved—and that is how God chooses to save.
Each of these understandings of predestination has strengths and weaknesses and while we could discuss and debate the merits of each, let us instead focus on what they have in common. Each interpretation of predestination begins and ends with the one who is the Alpha and Omega. God—as revealed in the person of Christ Jesus—is the beginning of our salvation. God is the first actor, the originator, the chooser
As my seminary classmate Patrick Marshall says, when we talk about predestination we shouldn’t be focused on “who is saved and who is not.” That’s not what predestination is about. It’s about “who does the saving.”
While our focus should be on God, we often instead focus on who’s in and who’s out. We’re a bit like the field workers in Matthew’s parable. The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who calls workers at different times of the day to come and work in the fields. At the end of the day, all those who worked receive the same wage—the going rate for a day’s worth of work. Those who worked a full day complain about this treatment—whine that even though they received the wage they had agreed to, it’s unfair. But in this parable—in the kingdom of heaven—you aren’t doled out your wage or grace based on how many hours you put in. The parable of the generous landowner reminds us that it is not what we do that earns God’s grace—what we do never is enough for to “earn” the love of the creator of the cosmos.
The parable also reminds us not to try and limit God as the first workers try to limit the landowner. When the landowner gives all workers the same wage, they are most upset. Perhaps they, like the Israelites in the wilderness, are not sure they will be provided for. That if the landowner gives so much today, tomorrow he won’t be able to call anyone to work for him. Perhaps they think there really never is enough to go around and so they need to make sure they get as much as possible before the money, the manna, the grace is all gone.
Whatever the reason, the field workers are chastised for trying to limit the generosity of the landowner. We too would be chastised for trying to limit the grace of God. Cannot the landowner give what the landowner chooses to give to those to whom he chooses to give? Cannot God choose who to grace? Isn’t that God’s business? Why should we worry if God is generous? If God chooses to grace those who come to God on their deathbeds after a lifetime of depravity, who are we to complain? If God should choose to save those who live well but never call Christ Lord, who are we to question God’s grace? If God should choose to work beyond our understanding, to shake up the world we think we know so that the first shall be last and the last first, who are we to doubt God’s wisdom?
Calvin, the theologian to whom we Presbyterians owe much of our heritage, said that this doctrine of predestination meant we shouldn’t worry. We shouldn’t worry if we’d done enough, or loved God enough, or confessed Christ enough, to be saved. Our salvation is God’s business, under God’s care, and we should not worry for the God who is our judge is the same God who came so that the world might be saved, the same God who died on the cross for our sins.
We should not worry, brothers and sisters, that there may not be enough grace to go around. We should not worry about our eternal fate. We should live, honor, glorify God not to earn some sort of spot in the heavenly kingdom, but to bring the kingdom of heaven here on earth out of thanksgiving to God.
Just as we should not worry about our salvation, we must not worry about whether or not other people are saved, sit around judging them. That is God’s business. It certainly doesn’t mean we keep quiet about the Good News – we’re chosen not for our own sake’s but to live as witnesses to God’s saving power. We proclaim with great fervor that Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord at the same time that we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of God. “Grace, love, and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine.”
Grace belongs to God, not to us: this is what we mean when we talk about predestination—this is wonderful, not worrisome news. This is news that brings us hope, hope for you, hope for me, hope for all. For the God who hands out our wages at the end of the day is the same God who asks “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Let us not be envious, brothers and sisters, but let us rejoice that we serve and love a generous God. Amen.