Muhammad Ali’s Gravestone

It sits in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery facing Mecca. Made of gray granite, the stone arch simply reads “Ali.” In Louisville, and in most of the rest of America, that is all the name that is needed. Muhammad Ali, known as Cassius Clay until his conversion to the Nation of Islam in 1964, is regarded by many (most?) (all?) as the greatest heavyweight boxer ever. He died in June of 2016 at the age of 74. The Champ had suffered from Parkinson’s Disease for many years.

Underneath the single name of the gravestone arch is the legend: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room in heaven.” That is a play on words of an Ali quote which originally read “…for your room on earth.” I’m not sure if Ali spoke or authorized the version with “heaven” in it.

No matter. People will love the quote. It is an eloquent illustration of what might be called “work righteousness,” i.e. that your relationship with God and all the good things he dispenses come from your performance. Want more stuff from him? Do more stuff for him. For example, Ahmad Ewais, the body-washer who performed the ritual preparation of Ali’s body for burial, told ESPN Magazine that he believes that 40 of his sins are forgiven for every body he washes.

There is a widespread social logic that approves of those kinds of ideas. But they’re wrong. This year will mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, whose immediate cause was the church’s selling of spiritual favors, including reduced divine punishments and penalties, for those who paid or performed devotional acts. All such talk directly contradicts the central message of the Bible, which declares that no human being can erase even one of his or her sins, but that all are justified freely through faith in Jesus Christ, whose blood was shed for sinners in need.

If you would like your gravestone to give comfort to those who come there to mourn, don’t suggest that your good deeds have paid your rent in heaven. Give glory to Jesus Christ, who has invited you into his Father’s house and freely given you a room.

Pastor Mark Jeske has been bringing the Word of God to viewers of Time of Grace since the program began airing in late 2001. A Milwaukee native, Pastor Jeske has served as the senior pastor at St. Marcus, a multicultural congregation on Milwaukee’s near north side since 1980. In addition, he is the author of six books and dozens of devotional booklets on various topics.

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