21st SUNDAY -C- August 25, 2019

Isaiah 66: 18-21; Psalm 117; Hebrews 12: 5-7, 11-13; Luke 13: 22-30

By: Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

I wonder if the person who asked Jesus, "Lord will only a few people be saved?" was asking out of curiosity or because he or she was feeling cozy and part of the "in crowd." Did this person feel safe and secure thinking that what Jesus was saying about being rejected at the end time could not possibly apply to him or her? Was the "someone" who asked the question one of those traveling with Jesus towards Jerusalem? Did the questioner think that membership in Jesus’ band automatically brought dividends with no further self-investment; just being with the Teacher would be enough?

The opening of today’s gospel narrative should cause us in the pews and at the altar to squirm. Are we just going along with the group, we who are members of the community and lead respectable lives. We follow the rules and fulfill our obligations. Is that enough? Maybe for us and those who admire us – but not for Jesus. Instead of playing the numbers game, answering the question about how many are to be saved, Jesus deflects the questioner’s inquiry. Forget about how many will be on the final guest list for the banquet, look instead to your own quality of discipleship. Jesus says we are to "strive" to enter through the narrow gate. From the Greek for "strive," ("Agonizesthe") we get our word "agony." This gives us a sense of what effort will be involved to get through that gate. The word could be applied to a strenuous athletic effort, the energy, pain and dedication athletes put into competition like the Olympics. Years of herculean efforts have brought them to the games, it has been a "narrow gate" indeed for them. Jesus calls his disciples to such efforts on behalf of the reign of God. He knows the goal is worth the effort. But as we preach from this passage we need to be cautious.

If we are not careful, this passage can be a trap for us preachers. In calling us to "strive," to work hard to enter "the narrow gate," to be "strong enough," the impression we might get is that if we put enough effort into it, we can enter the reign of God. All it requires is a lot of sweat, dedication and perseverance. But remember that grace lies beneath the surface of the biblical stories. Entrance through the narrow gate begins with an invitation from God. Having heard and accepted the invitation, we are in the realm of God’s grace, the constant source, energy and inspiration for our "striving."

Today’s Isaiah and gospel readings show how inclusive is God’s saving outreach. We may have our notions of who is "in" and who is "out"; who is worthy and who is not—but the gospel cautions us not to jump to conclusions and not to be smug. What kind of logic and world are we being invited into when the first are last and the last first? That’s certainly not the world to which we are accustomed. Of course not, it is an entirely new world-- a new way of reasoning, judging, rewarding and giving entrance. In fact, the gospel suggests we put our math and standards in storage and let God be God when it comes to who comes through the admissions gate. We should tend, Jesus reminds us, to our own concern. We have heard the gospel, accepted Jesus’ promises, known the difference grace can make in our lives—and now we can strive to reach the finish line----thanks to God!

To help make the point that we do not earn entrance to the reign of God on our own, today’s account begins with a reminder of place. Remember Jesus is on the road, making his way to Jerusalem. A major section of Luke’s gospel (9:51-18:14) takes place on the road to the holy city. So, the reading begins with a reminder that the "striving," the difficult task and struggle needed to accomplish our salvation, will be first achieved through Jesus’ dying and rising in Jerusalem. Jesus will faithfully fulfill his mission to preach and practice the good news, even though it will mean his death. In today’s passage, as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem, Luke would not have us forget that the source of our new lives is Jesus; through him we are given the desire and commitment to "strive" to get through the narrow gate.

In Jesus’s society, when people ate together they became part of the inner circle, they were like family members. Those who are locked out of the house, in his brief parable, are claiming prerogatives from Jesus because, they say, they belong to his "company," they ate and drank with him and his disciples. Based on their standards of acceptance, they are right, they belong with Jesus. But Jesus says more is required of those who sit at table with him. For those of us with him at this eucharistic table, more is required than membership in our church, parish and community. Salvation is not guaranteed to a privileged group who claim rights based on membership.

Those requesting admission at the door proffer still more credentials to get in. They claim Jesus taught in their streets and sat among them in their synagogues. Jesus’ response is abrupt. More than hearing him is necessary; more than being able to recite correct doctrine is needed to make us people who bear his name – Christian. We have to put his words into practice. But how inclusive should that practice be? As wide as the world in which we live. We must be open to all, "from the east and the west, and from the north and the south," for those who are good, no matter what their background, will be invited to dine with Jesus and the great ancestors of faith, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Such a vision must have startled Jesus’ hearers who thought they would be among the privileged because they could claim Jesus as "one of ours."

Why is this gate "narrow?" Gustavo Gutierrez puts it this way.

We may be too restrictive in our estimation of where God is present and acting. We tend to look only within our church walls to see God’s special ones; we tend to rank one denomination over another as "truer" than others; we tend to make too sharply-defined distinctions between the useful and useless; we tend to jump to conclusions about people’s worth from how they look and speak, the jobs they have or don’t have, the income they make, their place of origin. Well, the last shall be first and the first last and "they" will come from all the points of the compass to sit at the table. So, we had better put on our biblical lens, look again and, if we have not already done so, start "striving" to live as people with another vision of reality.

When we enter the final and everlasting banquet, Jesus tells us, we will be surprised at those enjoying the feast. God has a pretty broad vision and we will be surprised at those who "made it" through the narrow gate. If we accept this vision of the end time then we should start preparing for it now. We need a change of glasses; we need to look at our world through biblical lens and act accordingly.

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings: