Jesus said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him. (Matt 21:31-32)The "them" that Jesus was speaking to were the "chief priests and the elders of the people" in the temple in Jerusalem. They were the holy people. The set-apart of the set-apart. And while it's true that some of them were corrupt, these priests and elders may very well have been as squeaky clean as they come. And Jesus is telling them that women who sell their bodies enter the kingdom of God before them!
Why is that? Is it that God loves it when women prostitute themselves? Is He happier when people commit harlotry than He is when His own chosen (holy, set-apart) priests and elders do their holy, set-apart jobs? Of course not. So what's the deal?
The deal is that entering the kingdom of God isn't about the things that a person does. It's not about a person's good and righteous deeds, or lack thereof. Rather, it's about a person's belief (or lack thereof).
Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness. (Rom 4:4-5)But isn't faith without works dead? James is the one who said that, and he gave two examples of what he meant. The first example was Abraham offering his son Isaac on the altar. Here's the second example:
Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? (James 2:25)What were Rahab's "works"? Was it that she turned around and changed her behavior and gave up harlotry and started following God's law? Now, of course it would be a great thing for Rahab to turn around and change her behavior and quit harlotry. But that's not her "works" by which she was "justified." (The word "justified" in this case doesn't mean "made righteous," but rather "shown to be righteous.") Rahab's "works" were that she hid spies and lied to those who came to her house to find them!
Her "works" were the result of what she believed. What did she believe and why did she believe it? She told the spies that her people had heard of, and feared, the great works of the Lord, and that He was giving their land to Israel. She told them, "the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath." (Joshua 2:11). She believed God. That's why she did what she did. It's not that she was made righteous by what she did, but rather what she did showed that she believed, and that's why she was credited with being righteous.
That's why harlots can enter into the kingdom of God before God's chief priests and elders. It's not about what any of these people do or don't do. It's about what they believe