Twenty First Sunday of Year (C)
(Isaiah 66:18-21; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30)
Jesus was asked, as you have just heard:
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?" He answered them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter and will not be able.”
Notice the question: ‘Lord, will only a few people be saved?’
That phrasing of the question really means, ‘does God save only a few?’, and that, I say, is a typically human, and indeed modern, way of phrasing the question, in that it implies that any blame for human failure to find salvation is to be laid at God’s door, so to speak.
Jesus often refused to answer questions as desired because frequently they were put not simply to learn the truth but rather to help in the justification of the questioner: simplicity and love of truth have never been common human virtues. And so, here, Jesus responds not to the carefully chosen words but to the real situation and needs of the questioner; He responds as One Who truly loves God and whole-heartedly seeks to do His will; He responds as the only-begotten, uniquely beloved, Son of the Father:
Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will attempt to enter and will not be able.
For Jesus, the question is not whether God saves only a few, but whether men and women will make the required effort to enable themselves to receive what God chooses to offer them. Many will, indeed, seek to enter the kingdom of God, but they will not strive to enter through the narrow gate; rather, they will present themselves late in the day at some other point of entry they imagine to be more easily accessible.
Our first reading told us of God choosing people from nations of every language, while the second described what would be involved for those thus specially chosen, emphasizing above all their need of serious and even painful training:
My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by Him; for whom the Lord loves, He disciplines; He scourges every son He acknowledges.” Endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.
However, such is the modern, largely self-indulgent, Western society to which we belong that I can already imagine someone saying: ‘Why should we have to suffer like that, why should religion entail suffering? The answer is given us by Jesus Himself elsewhere in the Gospel:
His disciples were greatly astonished, saying, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." (Matt 19:25-26)
The reason why no man can save himself is simple enough: salvation is beyond all human powers, it is something that God alone can bring about, because it gives human beings a share in divine life, in the eternal blessedness and glory of God Himself, by making them partakers of His holiness. This we have learned from our Christian faith and formation which teaches us what the original disciples, with their Jewish background, could not begin to understand until they had seen Jesus rise from the dead and subsequently ascend in bodily glory to heaven. A faith that promises such heavenly glory to weak and indeed sinful human beings obviously entails training; and that training will, inevitably, involve suffering in some way or other since it is a training intended to change us, to raise us up above our earthly limitations, to purge and purify us of our inherent selfishness and sinfulness.
We can recognize all this in the response given by the Master in our Gospel reading to those arriving outside the house after the doors have been closed:
After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then will you stand outside knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’ He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from.’
Only those are recognized for salvation whose origin is known, and we are personally known in that way to the Father if He can see Jesus, His beloved Son, in us: that is, if we, as living members of the Body of Christ, are being formed into the likeness of our Head; if we, as dutiful children of Mother Church, are being guided -- by the Spirit with which she has been endowed -- to follow her teaching and so to live and walk as true disciples along the way of Jesus Christ, the one and only Lord of Salvation. Only those thus showing themselves to be sincere disciples of the goodness and truth in Jesus are beloved of the Father.
Of course, all who are left outside, having no appreciation of the holiness and majesty of God, cry out in self-justification:
We ate and drank in Your company, and You taught in our streets.
Dear People of God, those words should give us cause for serious thought, because they are most appropriate for people like ourselves, who, every Sunday, hear the teaching of Jesus in the readings and the homily at Holy Mass before going on to eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion . Let us pray that our situation be nothing like that of the outsiders of the Gospel parable in whom the old adage, ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ was fully exemplified.
They confidently proclaimed their familiarity with the Master:
We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets;
but such protestations merely brought into prominence their hidden contempt for Him, for they had not really given attention to His words heard in their streets, they had never seriously tried to appreciate His teaching in their hearts; nor had their eating and drinking in His presence ever been honest and sincere expressions of their love and longing for personal communion with Him.
Jesus’ answer is given in words of clear and deserved condemnation:
I do not know where you are from. Depart from Me, all you evil doers.
Many today have little respect for religion and so have almost no appreciation of heavenly matters: instead of the transcendent God they can imagine nothing more than a mythical, white-haired, old man sitting on a gilded throne high above; while natural charm of manner, emotional exhibitionism, and the dynamics of spiritual careerism, are the only signs they consider to be indicative of the holiness engendered by the presence of God’s Spirit of truth and life. Consequently, it is not surprising that this parable of Jesus and the attitude of the Master of the house can cause vehement complaints of self-righteous indignation from many: ‘Why should religion, discipleship, entail suffering?’
Because self-indulgence and self-satisfaction is prevalent among men and women of all ages the same teaching was given by Jesus on many other occasions and in many other ways throughout His ministry so that there could be no possibility of it being overlooked or ignored by anyone in the slightest degree serious about serving God:
Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matt 7:13-14)
Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it. (Mk 8:34-36)
So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. (Luke 11:9)
Assuredly, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 18:3)
People of God, in modern society, as we know it, positive words and actions frighten people: leaders of all sorts prefer to be able to avoid responsibility for difficult decisions by saying that events left them with no other option, or that they did all that was humanly possible in straightened circumstances. This they do, not because they love peace or have a high concern for others, but simply because they want to protect their own back from any possible attack, their own person from any cloud of suspicion or threat of criticism. Even in religious matters, leaders can feel so vulnerable, so open to bitter criticism, that it is rare today for anything positive to be said if, so to speak, the direction of the wind and the temperature of the water have not been thoroughly tested and suitably allowed for beforehand.
Now Jesus had no such taste for self-preservation, no such fear of what human beings might think, say, or do, in His regard: He served only His Father’s glory and our salvation. Therefore we should take Him most seriously when He warns us, who, in this world, are privileged Catholics:
There will be wailing and grinding of teeth, when you see yourselves cast out of the Kingdom of God, and (others) come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God.
We should take notice even more carefully if, within that privileged Catholic society, we are in any way influential, powerful, or leaders -- such as priests, teachers, and parents -- because:
Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.
However, although we seriously, indeed anxiously, allow Our Lord’s words to admonish us, we must never forget our primary duty and privilege of filial confidence together with gratitude: we must always take to heart from, and place our trust in, words of comfort such as the following heard in our second reading and echoed throughout the whole of Our Blessed Lord’s life and teaching:
The Lord loves those whom He disciplines; He acknowledges every son He scourges.
To be loved by the Lord, to be accepted as His children, what a privilege!! Surely, any passing, earthly, trials and suffering imposed by the Lord Who thus loves us in His beloved Only-Begotten Son, are to be embraced with humble confidence and firm trust by all who would be true disciples of Him Who embraced the Passion and Cross on Calvary with such enduring patience and consuming love for us.
Son though He was, He (for us) learned obedience from what He suffered; and when He was made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him. (Hebrews 5:8-9)
Having thus been made perfect in His own manhood when He rose in glory to join His Father in Heaven, He now awaits our purification and glorification as members of His Body; a perfection to be brought to fulfilment in us by the Spirit He has given us and the teaching He has left us in Mother Church.