Aug 20, 2016

21st Sunday: Let me in!

"Strive to enter through the narrow gate."

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

The context of our Gospel this Sunday is Jesus’ answer to a question from an interested follower.  His answer is fundamental to understanding the heart of God as compared to our limited human vision. It concerns privilege and entitlement not as a social or economic condition but as one of faith.

So, someone from the crowd asks: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” We understand salvation to be right with God and with our neighbor; to put our faith in Jesus as savior and redeemer and to then be rewarded with eternal life – i.e. salvation.

Yet, the question of the bystander implies that some will not be saved.  Maybe the one who asked felt very justified in their right living or was concerned about his/her own possible salvation.  Am I among the few who will be saved? What if I’m not? I’m rich and comfortable so God must be blessing me – right?

Jesus’ answer takes us well beyond restrictions and it does cause us to question our sense of reward or even justice.  Our Lord says: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” Does this imply that only the skinny and strong will make the mark?  What if I can’t fit through that “narrow” gate?  Obviously, Jesus speaks in analogy yet his implication is clear. The road to salvation is not about privilege or entitlement; it is about the mercy of God for those who will accept it – the call to conversion. You may want to imagine it this way.   

There is a popular game show on television in which contestants are asked to make a choice between three doors:  “Door #1, Door #2, Door #3” shouts the game host.  Behind only one of those doors is the grand prize.  Maybe a new car or complete bedroom furniture set or some such expensive prize. 

The obvious point of the game is to make the winning choice; to win the biggest prize.  Yet, Jesus’ analogy is not about having to choose between three equal doors with only different numbers as a distinction. It is about a specific gate that is distinctively narrow.  He tells us which one to choose. No worry about the prize behind – salvation – our only concern is about getting through. He implies that getting through it will not be easy: “many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”

Yet, aren’t the arms of Christ wide open for all like the statue of Christ the Redeemer above the city of Rio de Janeiro? Why not just walk in? What makes this door so “narrow?” In this case “narrow” is specific about choice.

God in sending his Son offers an invitation to humankind - a proposal as it were.  God invites everyone to come to know Jesus; to hear his call to forgiveness and mercy; to become like a child in our faith; to open our hearts to those on the margins and to become Christ-like in our way of living to love, forgive and show mercy ourselves with compassion and humble service to others.

Yet, such a call to conversion is not always our first choice.  We’d rather choose the larger more colorful door than to try and fit through the narrow gate.  Everyone is invited to follow the way Christ shows us but it means to put aside our own expectations and to think as God thinks.

So, I think anyone of us could justify ourselves based upon our behavior. I can hear myself asking the similar question of Jesus: “Lord, I’m doing my best, won’t I be saved?” In other words, where do I stand on the question of my own righteousness?  I’m a good Catholic. I treat others with charity.  I try to forgive rather than hold a grudge. I attend Mass regularly and know they place other flowers in Church besides poinsettias and lilies. As a priest, I do my best to remain faithful to what God has called me for his service. 

While doing our best is certainly not to be dismissed and we do know the mercy of God is abundant for all, yet our faith is not about privilege and is certainly not an automatic ticket to heaven.  If I accept the invitation to follow Christ then I place myself in the position of always having to choose him and the way of the Gospel above other ways – the “narrow gate.”

Faith is more than just showing up.  It is a full and active participation in the treasure Christ has given us.  All are invited and all are welcome but it’s not on our own terms, as the late Cardinal Francis George once said.  It is on God’s terms as revealed to us in Jesus the Christ. It might often demand taking the higher, less popular, lonelier and more narrow road in spite of what the general population may be walking.  Remember last week’s Gospel (Lk 12: 49-53) about the power of Christ’s way to divide even close family members? 

These are seemingly harsh and uncomfortable words from the one we usually picture is more gentle and inviting.  Yet, it reminds us that religion and our faith, if we really take it seriously, has that edgy side to it and carries a certain responsibility. 

Our first reading from Isaiah this Sunday reminds those returned from the Babylonian exile who are rebuilding the nation of Israel.  God has restored them but they must begin to see things in a new way.  God will add to them a greater population; to “gather nations of every language.” Those who have “never heard of my fame or seen my glory; and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations.”

This broad, universal inclusiveness of all nations clearly indicates the coming gift of salvation through Christ and the Church itself. 

So the answer to the initial question: “Lord will only a few be saved?”  Hears, “No, all are invited but those you may consider undeserving or not worth the time, may ultimately be the ones who embrace the invitation far more than the self-righteous or those who may feel they are entitled to it.”

“For behlod, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” No matter where we feel we stand in line, let’s get on about our Christian responsibility to do far more than just show up or rest on our spiritual laurels.  Sharing the Gospel is more than just words. It is faith in action with a humble and self-sacrificing heart after the example of Jesus himself. 


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. 

(Collect of Mass)