There is an old aphorism that says, “Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die.” The aphorism is intentionally facetious but summarizes accurately the aspirations of those who believe in an eternal reward for the just. The humble criminal who repented in today’s Gospel reading is an apt illustration of the fact that heaven is a choice while death is not. As it is unlikely that the repentant criminal wanted to die, his appeal to Jesus for mercy was a response to the nature of his life rather than the nature of his death.
Today’s second reading addresses the topic of eternal reward, as well. The author of the letter to the Colossians wrote, “Brothers and sisters: Let us give thanks to the Father, who has made you fit to share in the inheritance of the holy ones in light. He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Col. 1:12-14) Apparently, entry into paradise requires more than mere desire.
The letter to the Colossians says that redemption is the result of God’s act of transferring a person “into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” The letter goes on to say that entrance into the kingdom of blessedness is the result of being changed into the image of Christ, that is, choosing to pattern one’s life on the example of Jesus who gave his life to accomplish God’s plan of salvation.
Although today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel recounts only briefly the repentance of the humble criminal, the Gospel provides quite a bit of detail about what is required of those who would pattern their lives after Jesus’ life. Early in the Gospel, the author narrates Jesus’ instruction to those who wished to be his disciples. He said, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic. Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. . . Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.” (Lk 6: 27-31, 37)
According to the Scriptures, then, eternal reward is assured to those who imitate Jesus’ fidelity and mercy in every aspect of their lives. This is not to be taken lightly. The “kingdom” to which God calls all people is the assembly of those who imitate the forgiveness, magnanimity, generosity, and mercy that Jesus showed indiscriminately toward all people. Entrance into the kingdom of heaven, then, requires one to live a heavenly life while in this world. If the expected date of your entrance into paradise seems farther away than it did a moment ago, take heart. The Scriptures describe in precise detail what one must do in order to be considered eligible for entry into God’s kingdom.
Our entry into God’s kingdom will be exactly the same as Jesus’ entry into God’s kingdom. He died granting forgiveness to a sinner. When choosing a final act before death, Jesus could have chosen from among many options. He could have chosen to be angry about being unjustly condemned. He could have chosen to be afraid of his impending death. He could have chosen to get even with his enemies. He could have chosen to despair of God’s help. From all the available options, Jesus chose to die in the same way he lived, namely, being the healing presence of God for a sinner.
When we describe Jesus as a “king,” we are referring to his crucifixion and the circumstances of his death. He is king, but not in any conventional sense. He is not a political leader or a conquering hero who crushes foreign nations under his feet. Jesus is king in the sense of being the one who sets a pattern for others to emulate. Throughout his life, up to the very moment of his death, he was the presence of God’s merciful will to redeem all creatures.
It is a daunting task to try to imitate Jesus. Fortunately, we have our entire lifetimes to practice forgiveness, patience, compassion, and generosity. I recommend, therefore, that you start now, and work on that project every day of your life, knowing that your daily efforts to imitate Jesus move you ever closer to the fullness of God’s kingdom.
Just as the old aphorism says, you should wait as long as possible before entering finally and fully into God’s kingdom, but do not delay for a moment to do what is required to enter that kingdom, that is, following the example of Christ our King.