Peter Rollins: The Orthodox Heretic and the Reward of a Good Life
I love this story from Peter Rollins’ wonderful little book of parables The Orthodox Heretic:
Two brothers embraced faith together at an early age. One of the brothers took his commitment very seriously and wrestled diligently with the Scriptures. When he became a man he gave up all of his worldly possessions and went to live in the poorest and most dangerous area of the city. Many friends deserted him, and, because of his uncompromising dedication to the oppressed, he lost the one woman he truly loved, forsaking the possibility of marriage for the sake of his work.
The pain of this separation haunted him all his days. And because of the conditions in which he lived, he was frequently ill. When he died, no one was present, and only a handful of people showed up for his funeral.
In contrast, the other brother never took his faith seriously at all. As a man he became very settled, satisfied, and influential. He married the woman he loved, had many children, and lived in a beautiful home. As his satisfaction grew, his thoughts of God dissolved to nothing. He gave little to charity, unless it was prudent to do so for the sake of his reputation, and paid little heed to those who suffered around him. After a long, happy, and successful life, he died in the arms of his loving wife with his children surrounding him.
In heaven God called the two brothers before him, embraced them both warmly, and to each gave an equal share of the kingdom.
As one might expect, the brother who had been faithful all his years was surprised—he had given up everything to live what turned out to be a torturous life of hardship.
However, his surprise was a joyous one. He turned to his brother, smiled deeply, and said, “Today my joy is finally complete, for we are together again. Come, let us break bread together.” In response, his brother said nothing, but began to weep over the wasted life that he led.”
If you want to read Peter’s great interpretation of his parable, you should buy the book. Really, you should buy the book. It’s fascinating. I’m going to give you some of my reflections, and then I’d love to read any reflections you have.
The biggest controversy in Christianity today is the debate of universalism. Does everyone get into heaven, or are some (or, even worse, are the majority of people who have ever lived) banished to hell? What surprises many is that this controversy is not new; as I wrote in this
article, this debate has lasted for nearly 2,000 years.
We seem to really want to know who is in and who is out.
For many, it’s a justice issue. We think we have lived a good and faithful life, so we deserve heaven. Others haven’t been good and faithful, so they deserve hell. That’s Cosmic Justice.
After studying mimetic theory for a few years now, I can’t help but wonder if the question, “Who is in and who is out of heaven and hell?” is the ultimate in
scapegoating. If God is the “Cosmic Judge” who sends people to hell for an infinite amount of time for committing finite sins, does that make God out to be the “Cosmic Scapegoater.”
I think it would.
But I know what you are thinking. Contra Matthew 25, where the king invites the sheep who have cared for the “least of these” to inherit the kingdom and then he sends the goats who haven’t cared for the “least of these” to eternal punishment, you are thinking something like, “God doesn’t send people to hell. People send themselves to hell. Because God is love, God gives us the freedom to choose separation from God, which is hell.”
That makes a lot of sense to me, but it leads me to some question. As
mimetic theory teaches us, we are products of our environment – of our culture. In other words, we are what others have given to us. This is true biologically and it is true culturally. We don’t have the freedom to pick and choose our genes – we don’t even have the freedom to choose to be born! I didn’t have the freedom to choose the white, middle class, American Christian culture in which I was raised. It is because of that culture that I accepted Christ at age 14. So, is our eternal destination based on luck? Is it based on chance? Or predestination? (Which is Cosmic Scapegoating, unless everyone is predestined for salvation.)
And then there’s this question: When it finally comes down to it, would I choose God? Do I really take my faith seriously? One of the biggest messages in our culture is individualism. We are told that we are deficient if we need help. This message infects me – and it infects my relationship with God.
That’s why I resonate with “The Reward of a Good Life.” I’m a pastor, but I’m more like the second brother than the first. I live a very comfortable life. I often push God away. Yeah, I’m concerned about the poor and the sick, the homeless and the hungry, but I don’t do much to change their situation. Liberals tend to like Matthew 25 because it doesn’t emphasize faith in Jesus as the only way to heaven; it claims salvation is based on how we treat those who are scapegoated. I appreciate the social justice behind groups like the “Matthew 25 Ministries.” And yet when I read that passage it seems to portray God as the Cosmic Scapegoater who scapegoats the scapegoaters.
It often feels like I’m about to cripple under the burden of that passage. Still, I do hold out hope that, like the other brother, I will weep over receiving the grace from God that I didn’t deserve. It’s possible. I’d say even probable, because that’s what grace is. Grace is not about justice, reward, or punishment; it’s not about what we deserve. Grace is necessarily about receiving what we don’t deserve in the first place. I think anyone can receive God’s grace and salvation – so, when the time comes, we shouldn’t be surprised or resentful to see those we call our enemies in heaven. Indeed, hopefully we can be like the first brother and celebrate that our enemies are with us in heaven. Why do I think all of this is possible? Because in another passage from Matthew, Jesus is asked by his disciples, “Then who can be saved?” He responds, saying, “For mortals it is impossible. But for God all things are possible” (19:25-26).
So I hope that when we see each other in heaven, our joy will be complete, and we will break bread together.