Earning a Pass?

Former New York City mayor and multi-billionaire-philanthropist Michael Bloomberg, while being interviewed on 60 Minutes, spoke thusly about his satisfaction with his charitable activities:

“I like what I see when I look in the mirror….We’ve probably saved millions of lives, and certainly we’ll save tens of millions of lives going forward,” …. So, you know, when I get to heaven, I’m not sure I’m going to stand for an interview. I’m going right in.”

Now Bloomberg said this with a grin, and one hopes that he said it with tongue firmly planted in his check.  Because taken at face value, this was a chilling statement of misplaced confidence – the self-satisfied assumption that his generosity has earned him a pass to heaven.

Now, we want to be very clear:  Michael Bloomberg’s commitment to doing good with his wealth is certainly praiseworthy.  His is one of the earliest names in the list of the more than a hundred billionaires who have signed the Giving Pledge begun by Bill & Melinda Gates, each of whom has pledged to commit at least half of their wealth to charitable causes.  Given that Bloomberg is listed as the tenth-wealthiest man in the world (at $37 billion), his philanthropy can indeed have a very significant positive impact, and we should not begrudge him a sense of personal satisfaction for that.

But the ‘chilling’ aspect of the quote is his quip about being waved right into heaven – as if the extent of his generosity can buy God’s approval.  Let’s hope that was just a little ironic joke on his part, because scripture is very clear that ‘good works,’ regardless of number or magnitude, qualify no one for salvation.  That shocks many, but there’s no way around it!

Jesus undoubtedly shocked a lot of people when he taught that public acclaim is the only reward to be gained by flamboyant generosity (Matthew 6:1-4).  But since we’re in no position to assess anyone else’s inner motives, that’s a judgement we’re not qualified to make.  However, when Jesus commended the poor widow for her puny but costly gift (Luke 21:1-4), He did make it clear that the magnitude of the gift is irrelevant in God’s eyes – her penny is equal to Bloomberg’s billions — more, in fact, because hers represented such an extreme sacrifice of love.   Heart always trumps $$ in God’s accounting!

Perhaps the most sobering scriptural guidance is found in Matthew 25:31-46 where Jesus describes the final judgement.  A particularly striking aspect is the surprise expressed by both those on the left (destined for damnation) and those on the right (destined for heaven) – neither seems to think they’ve earned (or failed to earn) their fate!  And that should give pause to anyone who thinks they’ve figured out how to buy their way in!

Yet, there is an aspect of Bloomberg’s quip which is certainly ‘dead on’ – he will definitely not be standing for an interview – but then, nobody will!   You see, Jesus makes it clear that the ‘sorting’ will be performed with the easy precision of a shepherd separating sheep from goats – it’s not an interview or ‘grading on a curve’ – it’s like separating different species!  The difference in ‘DNA’ is apparent from the way that some served Christ and some didn’t.  For a human observer, that distinction may not seem obvious, but for the Good Shepherd, it is crystal clear – He knows His sheep!

Now this account of the final judgement has raised questions among Christians, and some have wondered whether those who assist their fellow man but don’t know Christ are serving Him nonetheless.  However, we must regretfully note that this runs counter to the sense of several passages of scripture, and even in this one, the key issue is whether service is rendered to Christ, the King.  And so, although it is presumptuous to put limits on how God in His mercy and grace dispenses His salvation, we must surely have grave concern for the individual who believes they can ‘punch their own ticket’ into heaven, regardless of the worthiness of the cause, or the size of the personal ‘payout’ they are prepared to make.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”  (Ephesians 2:8-9)

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