Isaiah 66: 18-21
Hebrews 12: 5, 7, 11-13
Luke 13: 22-30
We likely remember years from our childhood when we longed to belong to a group, a sports team, or some club so badly we would ache if we were left out. The adolescent years are tough enough, with hormones and self-image as confused as the weekly weather report, that rejection by our peers is our greatest fear in those teen years. To be chosen for a baseball team but told, “We’ll put you on third base, out in left field,” can be a crushing experience for some youth. Who’s in and who’s out is the perennial struggle of humanity. We are created to be social creatures and isolation is a tough one to handle.
This 21st Sunday presents somewhat conflicting themes of insiders and outsiders. The first reading from Isaiah 66: 18-21 implies God’s plan as big, broad, and without limits: . . . I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory . . . They shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations as an offering to the LORD . . . When the author of Isaiah writes the word “all,” he means exactly that. God intends that “all” be included in his kingdom and “all” are invited to come and share in the feast God has prepared for us – grace, mercy, forgiveness, and salvation. However, there is only one way to enter - through the gate, Christ Jesus himself.
Yet, our Gospel from Luke 13: 22-30, presents a scene that on first blush does not appear to be a blanket, unconditional invitation. In answer to the question, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Jesus responds, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate . . .” Then later adds to the seemingly questionable invitation, “. . .Depart from me you evil doers . . .for behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” That sounds, in a surface read at least, to be a very choosy team. Only the best athletes need apply. Who’s on home plate, second base and out in left field may be more selective than we thought.
The question, however, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” is key to opening the gate Jesus speaks of. How large is God’s house and who is welcome seems to be answered by the vision of the first reading. But, we get in through one gate – Christ himself. The Catholic Church has always taught that Jesus Christ is the only path to heaven. In the Acts of the Apostles 4: 12, Peter proclaims, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”
That pretty much sums it up but it isn’t necessarily so black and white – there is hope. Yet, it seems crystal clear that whether the name is Buddha, Confucius, Moses, Mohammed, or any other, there is only one by which we can enter eternal life – Jesus Christ. Before we fall into the trap of appearing elitist or arrogant, however, this Gospel and other parables of Jesus, do not exclude but rather include. They stretch the boundaries of our assumptions that only those on first base are in the game. Think of Jesus with the lepers, the women, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the children, the rejected and unloved. As we hear in the Gospel, “some who are last will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
In regards to history, the Catholic Church has affirmed that the means given to humanity by which we come to salvation is through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross: his death, burial and resurrection. The Church, as Pope John Paul II wrote in his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, is “simply an instrument of this salvation.” Like ripples that concentrically move out from a stone or rock tossed into a lake, so the affects of the paschal mystery of Christ move out to encompass all of humanity. We are members of the Church and children of God only through baptism but, as the Second Vatican Council reminded us and reinforced through the teaching of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, there are other “spheres of membership in and of relation to the Church.” (Ecclesium Suam). In one sense, it is not either/or; it is both/and. Vatican II also clarifies, in its Declaration on the relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, that God’s plan of salvation includes not only practicing Catholics, but also those who acknowledge the Creator, as do our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters and who “strive wholeheartedly to live up to His decrees.” (Present day fears of religious extremists aside.)
Yet, the Gospel today reminds us of a danger – that of presumption. “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets!” Can we dare to presume that just because we are baptized, bear the religious identity of Catholic, or even show up for Church on a regular basis that we are automatically on home plate? Just because we follow the rubrics of correct liturgy and celebrate the Mass with the appearance of respect and reverence are we assured to be among the in crowd?
For us Catholics, the vision is broad and inclusive but within that vision is one of conversion and repentance. How seriously do we treat our Catholic faith? How often do we really, as we hear every Ash Wednesday, “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel?”
It’s more than just a name, appearance, or an identity that will “open the door for us.” We must, on some level, be making the effort to walk the talk and to run the race. It’s not just about fulfilling an obligation or keeping the laws. Heaven may well be populated not only with faithful Christians but with God fearing Jews, Moslems, Buddhists and those who at the eleventh hour of their lives, turned to God with sincere repentance. But, there is only one who has made this all possible, Jesus Christ. It does make a difference that we are Catholics but that doesn’t let us off the hook by any means.
I’ve often reflected on Matthew 25: 31-46. This beautiful scene of the Last Judgment remains in the scriptures for a reason. We will be judged with love but in relation to how well we lived our faith; how compassionate we were to the needs of those around us; how well we incorporated the faith we are formed in and concretely lived that out in our daily lives. Blessed Mother Teresa had it right; across denominational lines she reached.
The fullness we enjoy in the Catholic-Christian community is both a cause for rejoicing and an invitation to humility and gratitude. Around the Eucharistic table we find our unity and our salvation in that memorial of the Paschal Mystery.