‘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 but will not be strong enough (not be able).’
The first lesson to be learnt from those words of Jesus is that we should take great care lest we allow ourselves to be swept along with the majority. There are, sadly, many nominal Catholics and pseudo-religious people who imagine that because they are only doing what others -- most others, they would say -- are doing these days, they can consider themselves to be safe and secure from serious fault ... for who could fairly blame the majority, how could the understanding and expectations of so many so-called Christians and even Catholics be wrong? And so, despite some possibly niggling vestiges of conscience, they approach the Lord with false confidence and soft words of entrapment, ‘Lord, will only a few people be saved?’
What does ‘be saved’ mean there? It is a passive expression and it does not appear to be a question about being saved by someone, so much as being saved from someone, from something. ‘Being saved’, it implies, is what happens to some people without their involvement, and one can already anticipate -- hidden in such passivity -- the future complaints and ready excuses of the majority not thus saved, ‘We couldn’t do anything about it; it wasn’t our fault, we only did what lots of others were doing’.
Jesus rejects such passivity and any suggestion of such helpless innocence, immediately; He insists on an active appreciation and open expression of the question involved, and therefore He answers, Strive to enter through the narrow gate, which means, ‘You strive to enter through the narrow gate, for it depends ultimately on you; without doubt you cannot do it of yourself but neither, most certainly, will it be done without you, in spite of you, or against you.’
At the root of this attitude to God is the bogy of sin. Why should God label some of our actions as sinful, why should He get angry when we do such things? They don’t touch Him; they just satisfy us, give us some pleasure in life.
Here we need to try to face up to a basic, and unfortunately wide-spread mis-appreciation, and wrong-headed understanding, of Catholic teaching: God, Jesus, and His Church, do not simply ‘label’ actions as sinful because they anger, or are thought to anger, God. God declares something to be sinful for us because it would hurt us, and could become like a stone of offence against us at the deepest level of our being. When Mother Church in the name of Jesus, likewise says, ‘such an action would be sinful for you’, she means, such an action would hurt us, and could, perhaps, even ultimately destroy us. God is motivated by love when He warns us against sin; He is not pushed by anger in such matters but allows Himself to be moved by compassion and concern for us, even though it gets Him ‘bad coverage in the popular press’, so to speak.
People of God, our heavenly Father, our Lord and Saviour, the most Holy Spirit our Helper, is omnipotent of Himself and for us, but He is neither foolish nor arbitrary; He wills to re-form us in Jesus by the Spirit as His children, His children in Spirit and in Truth. He will not have our merely passive subjection but desires our total love and active understanding, our sincere obedience and self-commitment, so that, ultimately, we may be fit and able -- in Jesus -- to share in His eternal beatitude; and to that end He is constantly at work in us and with us, for us and our eternal well-being, through His Spirit.
Many will refuse or ignore God’s inspirations, because they choose to sample the attractions of earthly life rather than work with Him; they want to experience some of the earthly pleasures they can afford, or to which – in accordance with what others were apparently doing around them – they feel they have a right, and so can ‘legitimately’ allow themselves. These are the ones who would not say ‘no’ to their own desires, rejecting, even mocking, the very idea of discipline, and regarding sacrifice as being for fanatics only. Because of such spiritual indifference and indulged sensuality many, attempting later to enter by the narrow gate, will find themselves ‘not strong enough’ to do so, according to our translation’s active understanding of the Gospel words ... as distinct from the normal and more passive expression, ‘not be able’ to do so. Their original, ‘bi-focal’, so to speak, question, ‘Lord, will only a few people be saved,’ spoke indeed of salvation but secretly hinted at and mocked the ‘bogy God’ Who, they frequently say, is always calling things that annoy Him, sins; labelling something as wrong and sinful merely because it is against His subjective preferences or despotic wishes.
All such people want a broad path and a large gate, slightly perhaps, but permanently, ajar; they want what a famous Lutheran pastor, one persecuted by the Nazis, called ‘cheap grace’. Let me quote him:
‘Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.’
Such grace is much sought after: people will go from church to church to find it, and on finding what they want they will call such an accommodating church a truly Christian church, a loving, caring, compassionate community from which no one is to be excluded and where none are judged; where sin is recognized as being mainly in the eyes of the beholder, and where, for the pure all actions and all people are pure; where the only thing that matters is a good intention, and the supremely good intention is not really wanting to harm anyone else.
In our Gospel reading we heard Jesus say:
There will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God, and you yourselves cast out.
The times of Jesus and His Church are offered us to enable us to avoid those eternal punishments. Jesus is merciful, loving, and understanding, but all with a view to our repentance and conversion; He cannot, would not want to, remove what His Father has established ... eternal punishment awaits those who deliberately and wilfully ignore Jesus for whatever reason. Jesus comes to offer us what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor I quoted earlier, calls ‘costly’ -- not cheap – grace; grace that leads to eternal joy, fulfilment, and peace. He writes:
‘Costly grace is the Gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.’
My dear People of God, we are very highly privileged because the Lord has revealed to us the truth of the Gospel in the Church which He established and which His Spirit guides and protects. The Gift of His Spirit is always there for us among His people and we know where to seek and ask for It in the Eucharist and the other sacraments of the Church. Let us take care and watch, let us pray and let us work, because at times the way can indeed seem to be narrow, stretching on and on before us with no end in sight; we might even, at times, fear that the door is closed to us ... but such things are but fears, not fact, imaginings not reality; for Jesus has assured us:
Do not be afraid little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:32)