Year C: Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Narrow Door; Salvation and Rejection.
He passed through towns and villages, teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” He answered them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then will you stand outside knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’ He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from.’ And you will say, ‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets. Then he will say to you, ‘I do not know where [you] are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!’ And 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. And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
- Do you think few or many will be saved? Why?
- In what ways do you feel you might not be strong enough?
- Where do you feel your life most closely matches the principles Jesus’ espoused and lived during his life?
- Spiritually speaking, (i.e. The daily living of what you profess to believe) what are some of the “narrow gates” you are trying to push through at this time of your life?
Dr Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD
When Luke tells us that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, Luke is reminding us of the truth that we read in last week’s Gospel: Jesus knows that when he reaches Jerusalem he will be killed. So Luke pictures Jesus on a journey, much as Jesus’ disciples and we are on a journey. That journey will end when our life on earth ends. The choices we make on the journey will determine our ultimate destination.
Someone in the crowd asks Jesus, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Notice that Jesus does not directly answer this question. How many will be saved depends on the choices that people make on the journey. Jesus responds to the question by telling a parable.
In the parable a master of a house has locked his door. Some who are outside the house call and say, “Lord, open the door for us.” The master does not open the door. Instead he says, “I do not know where you are from.” Those outside remind the master, “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.” Still, the master does not recognize them.
Remember that a parable is the middle of a conversation. The lesson comes from a single comparison between the person to whom Jesus is talking and someone in the story. In this story Jesus is comparing his audience, those whom he is inviting to become disciples, to the persons locked outside the house. One is not saved simply because one is present when Jesus teaches in the streets, or because Jesus eats and drinks with that person. Rather, one is saved when one becomes a disciple. To become a disciple is to put discipleship first, to choose the narrow door.
A parable is not an allegory. The lesson in a parable comes from the comparison between the audience and the characters in the story, not by having everything in the plot of the story stand for something else. It would be a mistake to think that the master in this story stands for God.
So, whether many are saved, or few, depends on whether many or few chose discipleship. If we heard only Jesus’ parable we might think that Jesus has as much as said, “Few will be saved.” That is not the case, however. Jesus then goes on to describe those who are saved, evidently a great number: First Jesus says that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets will be in the kingdom of God. Next Jesus describes what could be a vast crowd: “And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.”
Although Jesus does not directly answer the question, “will only a few people be saved?” he does seem to imply that many will be saved. However, to have a casual acquaintance is not to be a disciple. To be saved one must respond to Jesus’ invitation to discipleship with a wholehearted “yes.” Since this response is a matter of the heart, those of us tempted to judge who is saved and who is not may be wrong: “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
The Narrow Gate
One day one of our sisters told me she wondered whether people listened to one another in the participatory prayer of the faithful. She wished she could test if they were really praying together instead of going through the motions, and admitted her ongoing temptation to use a sweetly pious voice and softly intone the request: “Loving God, let this holy roof with all its heavy beams fall in on us at this moment.” Then, slightly louder, “For this let us pray to the Lord.” I don’t think she ever did it, but I often think of her when the cue “through Christ our Lord” elicits my automatic “Amen,” although I may not have a clue about what preceded that four-word formula. The opening prayer of today’s liturgy asks, “God … grant us to love what you command and to desire what you promise.” We’d better think twice before we come in with our “Amen” to that one. That’s part of the message of today’s readings.
The prophets understood that praying was serious business and often a real danger to their personal and communal agendas. Isaiah’s people had prayed for salvation, and when their prayer was answered, it became Isaiah’s job to make them aware of the implications of God’s gifts. Their freedom started out wonderfully. The exiles returned home and “the nations,” the pagans in the process of enlightenment, came to worship with them. But then this glorious multiethnic gathering usurped Israel’s exclusive advantage.
Israel’s prayer had been answered in a bigger way than they had hoped. God was calling forth priests and Levites from new populations — blatantly ignoring the rules restricting who could function in those roles. Isaiah doesn’t tell us how it turned out, but we can guess. For those Israelites, as for religious leaders today, cultivating a desire for the fulfillment of God’s promises is a challenge when it impinges on their privilege and primacy.
There’s a slightly different twist on that idea in today’s rather confusing Gospel. Here, not long after teaching people to knock until the door is opened (Luke 11), Jesus seems to renege on that promise, saying that at some point the master will lock the door and that’s it. This incident began when somebody asked how many people were in the process of being saved. Jesus was not in the habit of giving straight answers to such simplistic questions. Instead, complicating the question and confounding the questioners, he turned the tables and said that the process is not so cut and dried.
Making the process of salvation sound almost like an athletic competition, Jesus tells them that they have to strive (the very expressive Greek word is agonizomai) to enter through a narrow gate. He makes a point of saying that many won’t be strong enough to accomplish it. At this juncture the disciples might have thought they were entering the twilight zone. Not only did Jesus seem to be talking about the brute strength needed to push your way into salvation, but then he warned that latecomers would be locked out. What’s going on here?
This week’s readings preach directly to the choir. It’s as if those of us walking out of church on Sunday meet Jesus and say, “Hey, are you going to do anything about those laggards who didn’t show up today? And what about those folks who don’t even deserve to walk into this place?” The not-so-cryptic answer Jesus gives us in today’s Gospel is “Be careful. Your mind has made that door awfully narrow. You’re going to have one tough time getting through!” Then, to underline his point, Jesus will warn us, “As soon as you think you’ve got the admittance ticket and know who shouldn’t get in, you’ve locked the door against yourself.”
The people who are locked out have a problem they refuse to recognize. They think they want in, but the party they plan to attend is not what’s happening inside. The door is locked because the kind of banquet they want doesn’t exist. The people who can’t get in are the ones who pride themselves on belonging to an exclusive club with membership requirements they themselves would have written. They say they know Christ and have all the merit badges to prove it: We heard you teach, we ate with you, etc. But they didn’t really listen to what they heard or partake of the communion of self-giving.
As the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, growing into what God hopes for us is a process that can be painful. The kingdom of God is like a banquet that we will enjoy only to the extent that we love what God desires and desire what God offers. Many are called, but some prefer a more exclusive guest list.
Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.