It is a provocative question. “Am I going to Heaven?” It scares us, annoys us, angers us, or sends us away trembling with fright. However there are some of us who believe we are good people so of course we’re going.
What does it mean to “go to Heaven”? Is it earned? Are we invited? Can we crash it? Might we just sneak in unnoticed?
The Prodigal Son Parable
One of my favorite and most theologically sound parables that Jesus gave to us is the prodigal son. In this simple parable is the story of a father and his two sons. It captures much of who God is and how He nurtures relationships. In the story is captured two different personality types. Some of us relate to the younger son, who asks the father for his share of the estate. He then takes off to live his life to the fullest – selfishly. Others relate to the elder son, who stays with his father. He works his fingers to the bone out of obligation and righteousness. Yet, neither of these two sons really love or know their father.
When the younger son loses everything he comes back to the father. However, it is more or less out of sheer need. He does seem to have a contrite heart and makes amends with his father. The father, who by the way, receives him with open arms, doesn’t even let him finish confessing his wrongdoing. The elder son, who is jealous and resentful at the behavior of the father towards the younger son, feels cheated. His younger brother might horn in again on his inheritance after he worked and slaved for the father. Again, this elder son is not thinking of the father only his own selfish needs. Yet, the father again comes out to invite his elder son into the house. He wishes that he share in everything that the father has including his happiness and joy.
So, what is the father asking of his children? It really isn’t so much about the work on the farm. However, it is everything to do with the relationship that each of these children could have with their father. So, to answer the first question: no, we cannot earn our way into Heaven. We can go to Church every day, spend thousands of hours in prayer, and give countless of dollars in charity. However it will all be for naught if we do not know and love our Father.
We cannot crash the Heavenly wedding feast because well it’s God’s house. He’s not about to let in the riff-raff who do not have contrite hearts and seek only to better themselves. Nor can we sneak in unnoticed, climbing through some back window. Our Father has counted every hair on our heads and knows each of us intimately. Do you think you can go unnoticed? There are placards at every seat at His table.
Our Father does invite us to have a relationship with Him. He loves each of us and wishes that we love Him as well. This is really what it is all about. The question is really a trick question. Heaven is not the goal. Heaven is just the place where our Father lives. The real question is do we know our Father well enough and do we love our Father deeply enough that we want to be with Him wherever that may be.
If you can sincerely answer “yes” to this question, then you are already in Heaven, so do not worry; be at peace.
If you cannot sincerely answer “yes” to that question, then maybe it’s time you get to know our Father. After all, your seat at the table is waiting for you to accept it.
“No. Come. Since you couldn’t rely on faith, you will meet him face-to-face.”
Saul followed Sister as they made their way through some sort of tree grove. The area was filled with large olive trees, which seemed to be growing on a hillside. There was a sweet smell of olive wood all around. Underfoot, the grass or moss (indiscernible in the darkness) was somewhat slick from the evening dew as they walked across it. Every so often, a large rock ledge hung out from the side of the hill, forming a grayish shadow along the path. The entangled trunks of some of the trees were quite impressively large and old. Saul could not fathom what he was seeing and thought that either he was dead or it was a dream. He could still be on that rock ledge or perhaps passed out from dehydration. Of course, that’s it! He was suffering the effects of hypovolemic shock and the trail was merely a hallucination.
They continued on through the tree grove. As they neared a particular area of a widening between the trees, Saul could see a great many people lying about upon the ground. “Sister, are they…dead?”
“No, they are asleep. These are the people who have fallen asleep in their faith. As our Lord anguishes for them unceasingly without rest, they could not stay awake for even one hour. Come, we are close.”
Walking amongst the bodies lying in all different positions upon the ground was difficult. Saul moved slowly, stepping over them and making sure not to disturb them. He could not believe his eyes. They were everywhere; hundreds if not thousands of people all just lying there asleep. He felt a deep sadness for them. They appeared to have no life in them. Perhaps it would be better if they had been dead. At least they would have moved on to whatever awaited them after death. What purpose did their lives serve to just sleep the better parts of it away?
They pressed on, further into the grove.
Saul saw a sort of soft light a short distance away, with the silhouette of a man bent over one of the large rocks jutting up from the olive grove. He had his hands folded tightly together and pressed against his bowed forehead.
“We have entered Gethsemane,” Sister whispered. “Kneel before our Lord.”
They knelt down just to the side of where the man was also kneeling against the large rock. Saul was fifteen or twenty feet from him, but he could see that he was in deep anguish. His body seemed to be beset with pain and misery. The man looked up towards the heavens and said, “Father, if this cup cannot pass away except that I drink it, your will be done.”
“Look at his forehead and face; he’s sweating blood!” Saul said to Sister. “We have to help him.” Saul started to get up, but Sister pulled him back.
“You cannot interfere with God’s will. You were given the grace to be here only as a witness; an observer to the truth with your own eyes, since your faith’s eye could not see it.”
Coming up the other side of the hill was a group of men, some of them dressed like soldiers or guard. They came into the grove carrying lit torches. At that moment, people started to awaken, especially those who were closest to the One. There was great commotion. Many, upon seeing the soldiers, started to flee from the grove. One of the men, who came with the guard, went directly to Jesus and kissed him on the cheek. The soldiers took hold of Jesus and roughly led him out of the grove. At this time, all of the people who had been sleeping, hundreds upon hundreds, awoke and fled out of the grove in all directions, fearing for their own lives. Sister and Saul were left standing alone.
Saul waved his hand toward the dispersing crowd. “Sister, what just happened? What is the meaning of all this?”
“This is the agony of the One. The son of God came to be human because he loves his people, but once again we betrayed him and then deserted him. It is the paradoxical mystery of our faith; God creates and loves Man, but out of pride and arrogance, Man refuses to believe he was created and ignores his creator. Yet, the Father continues to come after the ones he loves in the hope that they will turn back to him in love. God never tires in this battle of trying to win over his children and will go into the deepest pits of the Earth to call upon them in love.”
“You are telling me that we are back in the time of Jesus?”
“I am not telling you, Saul. I am guiding and showing you in the time of Jesus all that will happen. Come, I will take you to where they have taken our Lord; the house of Caiaphas.”
Saul could not believe what was happening to him. There was a part of him that just wanted to say this was all a dream; he was hallucinating on top of his cliff. But there was also that part of him that knew this was real and happening right now. His senses could smell the olives in the grove. He felt the earth beneath his feet as he walked. Holding his hands out from his side, he felt the branches brush past them as he walked behind Sister. This was no dream. They descended the hill and came to a stone road, which they took to the left.
Saul remained silent as they walked. After about three quarters of a mile, they came upon a large stone structure standing upon a hill. Sister started up the stone steps that led to a courtyard. There were many people in the courtyard keeping warm around fires. Saul and Sister walked past them all and went directly inside the house of the high priest, Caiaphas. Once inside, Saul saw Jesus standing before what appeared to be some type of judgment panel of elders. The elders seemed angry and questioned him harshly. Although they spoke in an unfamiliar language, Saul understood what was being said.
Men came forward and testified against Jesus, accusing him of various things, but their testimonies contradicted one another’s and often even contradicted their own words.
Jesus remained silent, which further irritated the high priest.
“Have you no response to these accusations?” he asked.
Jesus continued to remain silent, only further frustrating the priest.
“I put you on oath by the living God to tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God,” the high priest said angrily.
Jesus answered him, “It is you who say it. But I tell you that from this time onward, you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of Heaven.”
The high priest tore his clothing and shouted, “He has blasphemed. What need of witnesses have we now? What is your opinion?”
“He deserves to die!” they shouted.
At that moment, they began to spit in the face of Jesus. With closed fists they punched him repeatedly and mocked him. Jesus was pushed and fell to the floor as they continued to beat him.
Saul started to call out for them to stop, but his voice was muffled and fell silent against the loud cries of the mob. After they had finished beating Jesus, they tossed him into a deep pit in the ground. A strange stillness settled over the area. In the silence, Saul could hear a cockerel crow in the distance. Saul looked at Sister, who had tears streaming down her cheeks. Eeriness hung in the air like death. Though everything was silent, it was like the quiet before a violent and turbulent storm. He felt a chill go up his spine and was sick to his stomach. He wished now that he had walked across the shadow of the cross, as this place looked to be the far worse option.
The damp and cold of night hung over them, with two, maybe two and half hours yet to go before dawn. The One huddled alone, tossed into an abandoned well of some sort. A guard stood nearby, facing opposite the direction of Sister and Saul. They walked up without being spotted by the guard, who leaned against a pillar facing the other way. Sister knelt down beside the pit. Saul joined her. Staring down into the hole, he looked into the beaten and bloodied face of a man – the Son of Man, who gazed back at Saul with deep, sympathetic eyes. Although he was bound by his hands and feet, he struggled to his feet, raised his bound hands, and gave them a blessing.
Saul reached out to him, but the guard shouted at them. “Get away from there or you will be joining him!”
Saul, looking once more with tears in his eyes at the One King, held his hand out to him.
With heavy hearts, Sister and Saul left the courtyard of Caiaphas. “Why don’t his followers come to rescue him from this place?” he asked in angered frustration.
“They are all afraid. They have not yet let their faith come to full acknowledgement of the anointed One. Wanting to believe and believing is not the same thing. Faith is a decision, not a feeling or the uncovering of truth through calculation and facts, but a decision to trust no matter what. Faith demands a sacrifice on your part, to relinquish your self-importance and understanding.”
“I feel so bad. I feel compassion for him. He has done nothing except try to gather his people to his father, and yet they beat him.”
“Compassion?” Sister asked as she wiped the tears from her eyes. “Compassion means to be ‘with passion.’ Passion means ‘to suffer for,’ as when you love something so much you are willing to suffer for it. Our Lord loves us so much he is willing to suffer everything, including his own death for that love. In order to be compassionate towards the One, to be with passion alongside him, can you really say you are truly willing to suffer with him?”
Saul glanced at her for a moment, but then quickly looked away, not saying anything more. He knew the story of what was to come next.
Morning came and with it the commencement of more bloodshed, the sacrifice of the Son of Man for all people, though they did not know it, nor did they deserve or show gratitude for it.
Saul found himself standing next to Sister in an open area outside the governor’s residence, but within the palace grounds. They chained the One to a pillar and began to ridicule him and interrogate him. Saul stepped closer to try to see Jesus’s face. One of the guards stood behind Jesus and unrolled a scroll. Two other guards set up, one on either side of Jesus, with whips and a scourge with leather thongs laced with pieces of bone and metal.
A guard pushed Saul towards Jesus. “Go, stand at the reading of the accounts brought against you.”
“Against me?” Saul asked, terrified at what may happen next. He slowly walked up towards the proceedings; his mouth dry and his forehead wet.
The guard in front of Jesus read the accounts as he pointed at Saul. “Do you pay restitution for his blasphemy against your god?”
“What? No, he had nothing to do with it,” Saul called out.
“Yes,” Jesus said while looking at Saul with compassion and sorrow.
The guard sent the end of the whip across Jesus’s back, whose muscles tensed in pain.
“Do you pay restitution for his pride?” the guard read off.
“Yes,” Jesus said.
“No! Please just say no,” Saul cried out to Jesus.
The other guard lashed out at Jesus with the leather scourge, tearing the flesh across his shoulder and back.
“No, please stop!” Saul cried out.
“Do you pay restitution for his arrogance?”
The whip takes another swipe across Jesus’s back and around his side, tearing at the ribs.
“Do you pay restitution for his lies and deceit?”
Saul begged them to leave Jesus alone and take him instead.
“Can any of us drink from the cup that is poured out for the One King? Can anyone love that much?” Sister Guinevere asked with tears streaming down her face.
The scourge removed more flesh from the side and back of Jesus. He winced in agony.
The guard continued to read. “Do you pay restitution for his slaying of seventy-four innocent unborn children?”
“How many?” asked the guard grinning with anticipation.
“There isn’t going to be much left of him after this,” the guard jested.
Saul dropped to his knees and put his hands up to his face, weeping for his offenses. Jesus called out, “Yes, I do.”
“One, two, three, four…” the guard called out each offense as the whip and scourge took turns removing the flesh of the One King.
Saul, in complete sorrow and misery, looked up towards Jesus. Blood, skin, and pieces of muscle and fat tissue had been flung everywhere. Jesus looked at him with the same compassionate and sorrowful eyes. All Saul could do was look on and imagine the pain he had put the One through. Jesus suffered out of pure love for him. Saul felt absolute anguish. He grabbed at the ground in utter dismay and remorse, wishing that he had never done anything wrong his entire life.
“Seventy-three, seventy-four.” The whip made its last mark across his back. It didn’t even look like human tissue any longer. The flesh was so torn; it was utterly destroyed. Saul didn’t know how anyone could have survived such a torturous beating. Jesus, with labored breathing, could barely move. His hand remained chained to the pillar.
“Turn him over. This side is done. We’ll have to use the other side now,” the guard called out.
Saul looked with complete horror at the mere thought of it. “No, please, no!” he cried out.
One of the guards put his foot on Jesus and pushed him over onto his bloodied and ripped back, and then both guards took a drink from the well before continuing the torturous exercises.
“This is for all the missed opportunities of charity and service to others,” called out the guard. “The scroll seems to be quite lengthy.”
Saul, in utter anguish, watched helplessly as they tore into Jesus’s chest, stomach, arms, and legs; the guards had no mercy in their punishment. The One just absorbed all of the hate, the injustice, intolerance, cruelty, anger, prejudice, and indifference without complaint.
After the soldiers finished the horrifying scourging, they unchained the One’s hand from the pillar and the Son of Man fell lifelessly to the ground. Weakened and in a state of shock from the incredible torture inflicted, Jesus groaned in agony. The unsympathetic soldiers dragged his brutalized body towards the governor’s house, leaving a trail of blood, and dropped him down against a pillar. Waiting for their commander, they decided to further humiliate their prisoner. They put a tattered red cloak on him, mocking him as if he were a king. They created a crown from the thorns of a bush and pressed it into his head. The soldier winced and sucked his finger from accidentally sticking himself with one of the thorns, while Jesus remained silent as they thrust the crown of thorns deep into his head. Blood dripped down his forehead and cheeks. For a king’s scepter, they placed a cane reed in the One’s hand.
All through this torment and humiliation, Jesus said nothing. His eyes were lowered and his saddened face still had a look of compassion and forgiveness for mankind. The soldiers began to bow and kneel before him saying, “Hail, king of the Jews.”
“Hail, your majesty. Hail, the king of the Jews. Where is thine god?” As they mocked him, they hit the crown with a reed, further driving the thorns into his skull.
Sister and Saul looked on in terror as they witnessed the guards’ inhumane cruelty.
“How is it possible that the human race can be so wretched and heartless?” Saul cries.
“We have fallen so far away from our Father. We have turned away for so long that we can no longer see good and beauty in the world.”
“Why doesn’t he do something? Why doesn’t he destroy them?” Saul asked through tears of anger and frustration.
“He loves them, Saul. He loves them as much as he loves us. Everyone has a place in God’s heart if they want it.”
Sister took the arm of Saul and directed him away from the governor’s house. “Come, we have another stop.”
Saul looked once again at Jesus and then turned to follow Sister. They walked uphill on a stone road. Saul sobbed; his heart completely wrenched at what he had witnessed. The One took the punishment for all of his wicked deeds, all of his sinfulness and selfishness. The guards had inflicted his punishment upon Jesus, who accepted it willingly. Jesus actually wanted to take it upon himself rather than see it placed upon Saul. “How can anyone love me that much? Who could such a person be that could take that kind of punishment for someone else’s deeds? Why? Why for me, Saul Kriesh, the most unworthy of all?” No matter how much Saul tried to analyze it, he could not justify the actions. The only thing that came to mind was Sister’s words, “God’s ways are not Man’s ways. We will never comprehend the majestic heart and mind of God.”
They stood at the side of a stone road where people were starting to gather. There was noise and commotion coming from down the street. People were yelling and jeering at a man carrying a large wooden cross surrounded by soldiers. As the man looked up, Saul recognized him. “Oh, you have to be kidding me. They are making him carry his own cross?”
“Yes, he carries it for all of us. He carries our burdens, our trials, and our sinfulness on his torn and bloodied back. Already, he has fallen twice, but he struggles to get up and continue.”
“Why? He knows they are just going to kill him at the end of the road. Why bother? I wouldn’t carry the instrument of my death or dig my own grave. I’d have them kill me right then and there. Why would he suffer more than he has to?”
“He is bringing all of the suffering and sinfulness to himself – the anger, intolerance, and injustice. As he takes it upon himself, he smothers it in love; love for his Father and love for us.”
Just then, Jesus stumbled to the ground, the cross falling upon his wrecked body, bloodied with open wounds and torn flesh. Crashing to the stone road, the heavy, wooden cross fell on top of him. Blood splattered upon the ground as there was little of his skin left to contain it. A guard stepped up and prodded him with a blunt object to get him up. “Come on, get up. We haven’t got all day.”
Saul looked away. He couldn’t stand to see any more. He wished he had never done anything his entire life that might have added to this misery being suffered by the Son of God. How could he have been so selfish and unaware? “Sister please, I can’t watch this anymore.”
“We have one more place to go,” she said. She led him up the stone street towards an elevated point that looked out over the city and temple.
“What is that sound? It sounds like babies are crying.” Saul asked.
“It is the sacrificial lambs at the temple. Since yesterday, they have been slaughtering some two hundred seventy thousand lambs. And today, they will slaughter the Lamb of God. The author of all life came to be with his people whom he loved, and our response to that kindness was to torture and kill him.”
Saul watched from the top of the hill as Jesus, with the help of another man, carried his cross. Finally, he made it to the destination of his death. The One could barely stand. The cross fell to the ground and Jesus was tossed upon it. Crawling across it, he stretched out his arms willingly, waiting to be hung upon it, as if he desired this execution. Saul continued to watch as the guard took a nail and with a hammer drove it through the lower part of his hand and into the cross. Saul winced at the thought of it.
As Jesus turned to see the guard drive the second nail through his other hand, he looked at Saul, still with eyes of compassion. Though his face was marred and bloodied, he seemed to have a look of contentment that much good would come of his agony. His compassionate gaze bore the understanding that he was doing his Father’s wishes, no matter the pain and suffering that may come with it. He succumbed as a soldier going to fight for his Father’s honor, only this man fought unlike anyone who had ever come before or since.
The last nail was driven through his feet and into the cross. The soldiers then lifted the cross into a hole in the ground and stood it up. As it fell violently into the hole, the entire cross shook with vibration, and Jesus’s weight forced the nails to cut up through his flesh until they reached the bone.
“This is insane. How can these people be so cruel? I can’t watch anymore! Sister, take me back, please!”
“Take you back to what? For what purpose? This is your last moment of truth – to get off the fence. You must choose either to follow him or forever be without him. Look at his mother. She has been here with him from the start. She shares in his suffering. And he is suffering for you. All you can think of is to leave him? You are thinking only of yourself and your comfort; how the sight of his sufferings make you feel uncomfortable because you are the direct cause of those sufferings. When will you stand for something? When will you stand with him who dies for you?”
Saul dropped to his knees as fear and darkness overwhelmed him. Sister left him and knelt beside Maria to pray with all of her heart. Saul worried after his fate as the shadows consumed his light. All of his misery and recollection of the past come to the forefront. Oceans of blood and betrayal, a life of uncharitable works, and an indifference to all of the good in the world came crashing in upon him. The shadow moved in for the final victory, to invade the inner room of his heart and claim it as its own.
Great time at the Catholic Marketing Network event!
As the CMN event comes to a close, thomas e explains the adventure of Penury City. It is the latest Catholic fiction work from the author.
“Mostly, I felt as though I was just the typist delivering God’s message that He is with us. The living God of the Bible is not some entity that lived long ago, in a land far, far away, but He is here – today – in the present! He waits for us to talk with Him; to listen to Him. Since the beginning, from Adam and Eve, through Noah, Moses and the prophets of old as well as the Apostles and Disciples in the New Testament, God has spoken to us. Jesus taught Paul in the desert for three years! How did He do that? Was it in Paul’s mind? Was Jesus really there with him?
God talks with us today
“God talks to us today as well. He is always constant. We are the ones who change. What He did in the Old and New Testaments, God also does today. It’s just that today we are so distracted. We have our technology, our gadgets, our earbuds, our science, and our degrees. I think sometimes today we feel we are too sophisticated for God. We need to re-evaluate our lives; to stop for a moment. If we can keep quiet for just a minute, He will be there. And in that silence, we will hear Him. God longs to talk with us. He delights in us. God created us to receive love and to give love. However, if we don’t receive His love – what is there left for us to give away?
“Penury City reminds us that God is with us. God is now. Living in the Kingdom of God doesn’t mean we must wait until death. We can live in the Divine life right now. We too can walk again with God in the cool of the evening. When was the last time we took a stroll with our Father?”
And though the CMN event comes to a close …
The adventure of Penury City endures. It awaits you to come and find out for yourselves the message for our day.