Aug 24, 2013

21st Sunday: Salvation - entitlement or gift?

"Strive to enter  through the narrow gate."

Is 66: 18-21
Hb 12: 5-7, 11-13
Lk 13: 22-30

Entitlement programs such as our Social Security and Medicare are written on stone in the mind of all our citizens. All those who work contribute to Social Security throughout their working life and when the time comes to begin collecting, we indeed feel “entitled” to be recompensed.  While much chatter has been going on about the future of this “entitlement” program, we all still feel that we deserve our pay.

The same is true about Medicare.  We deserve affordable medical care and basically expect that it will be provided for us.  Again, all the controversy swirling these days about affordable medical care and the exorbitant cost of any government health care program is, in the mind of most of us, still something we deserve. 

Much can be said about entitlements but one thing may be implied in this Sunday’s Gospel from Luke 13: 22-30: Salvation is not an entitlement program. Those who cried to the master of the house (God): “. . . We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets . . .” are somewhat put aside to hear the master say: “. . . I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!”  Harsh words, these.

In other words, Jesus reminds us that all are called to his good news but it isn’t about nationality, language, or geography.  Just because, historically speaking, our Lord walked among the citizens of ancient Israel (“We ate and drank in your company . . .”) does not mean they have an automatic in. Salvation, though accomplished in the death and resurrection of Christ, is still an invitation to conversion of heart and life. No one has a special “in” with God but only those who conform their lives to the Gospel.  

In answer to the question posed, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Jesus states, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate . . .” The Christian disciple, regardless of who he/she may be, must be focused and resolute. The narrow gate spoken of is that of Jesus himself – he is the gate through which salvation is accomplished for all – not as entitlement but as gift for those who seek the way he offers.  To mold and shape ourselves into the image of Christ himself, the narrow door, implies a lifetime of shaping, sculpting, squeezing, and pushing ourselves in order to fit the space of the door.  A life lived in grace and love from Christ is this call.  Easy?  No - that's why the door is narrow.

It certainly begs the question, the same as posed in the Gospel, “who can be saved?”  Only Catholics?  Only Christians?  What about Jews, Hindus, Moslems and even the non-believers? 

The Church has come a long way in its understanding of who’s in and who’s out.  – if anyone is indeed “out”? Among our Protestant brethren, there are variations on what it means to be saved.  One branch of a more fundamentalist bent sees salvation as a one-time conviction – to Jesus as my personal savior.  If I believe this to be true, I am saved and nothing can change that truth. It isn’t about baptism or the reception of any particular sacrament, it is rather about turning one’s life around to follow the Lord.  What choices I may engage in later does not change the fact that I am still saved – so goes the belief of certain branches of the Christian community.

We as Catholics, however, while believing in Jesus as our savior view salvation as ultimately accomplished once we find ourselves in heaven before God himself. There we know “we are saved.”  Before that time comes, baptized into Christ and his Holy Church we work out our salvation through a life lived in faith, good works, prayer and lives of Christian virtue.  The saints tell us this time and time again and for that reason the Church offers them as examples of heroic Christian virtue. 

How we live here does make a difference in the life to come.  It isn’t something we are entitled to it is something that God invites us to embrace.  The tools of our spiritual life, our self-discipline, our sacrifices, our efforts to live within the confines of that narrow gate mean that we try to do things the right and good way.  Like trying to master a musical instrument or a sport.  There is a right and wrong way to become a master. Certain skills that are specific to the instrument or the sport itself. God's call to holiness is a gift offered through love and mercy. How I choose to accept that gift, or not, is my choice.

What about the non-Christian believers?  As the Second Vatican Council reminded us in its document on the Church (I paraphrase), as non-Christians live their lives in ways that are compatible with their belief in God – peace, love, unity, respect, forgiveness – are universal traits of all religions, because of the salvation already accomplished in the death and resurrection of Christ, they too can be saved.  God’s mercy and love are not restricted.

The first reading from Isaiah 66 this Sunday parallels that of the Gospel.  It is expansive in its view: “I come to gather nations of every language . . .” and goes on to name some of the ancient peoples of the time.  By this sign, God speaks through Isaiah about his desire for universal salvation that he accomplished through the chosen people. 

In the heavenly banquet of heaven we may indeed be surprised about who is there and who isn’t.  Meanwhile, as we work out our salvation this side of eternal bliss, we are challenged to have an expansive view of who is welcome in God’s house and by association who deserves of our prayers, our welcome, and our humble service in Jesus’ name.
As we work out our salvation, we live in Christian hope as we “live by faith and not by sight” (St. Paul: 2 Cor 5:7)

Our Eucharist calls us to look around the Church sometime.  Who is there?  Isn’t this a sign of how we live here and what our ultimate future is meant to be?  While we are not entitled to salvation it is offered to us so that we may conform our lives to that of Christ and live accordingly in imitation of him.  If at times we stumble and backtrack, we are assured that God desires us to be with him, perhaps more than we ourselves at times, but his mercy and forgiveness is consistently available.  Think about that in your next celebration of Reconciliation.  Hans Urs Von Balthasar, a popular theologian once wrote: We not only dare to hope all will be saved, we are obliged to hope that all will be saved.

O God, who cause the minds of the faithful
to unite in a single purpose,
grant your people to love what you command
and to desire what you promise,
that, amid the uncertainties of this world,
our hearts may be fixed on that place
where true gladness is found.

(Roman Missal – Collect for this Sunday)