In this week’s Gospel, Jesus once again turns our thinking inside out.
(Notice that he is still on his way to Jerusalem, the organizing principle of Luke’s Gospel. What does Jesus’s pilgrimage to die in Jerusalem mean?)
On the way, someone asks, “Will only a few people be saved?” We tend to think of religion, and lots of other things, as an alternative between two answers to that question. “Liberals” say, hey, everyone’s fine, no need to judge; their answer to the question is, “many will be saved, everyone!” “Conservatives” say people are not fine, people do deserve to be judged, only a few will be saved—but tend to define the standard of judgment as “like me” or “not like me.” (Our current trends toward nationalism and tribalism—on both the Left and the Right—show how far we can go in judging people based on their conformity to us.)
Jesus is not a liberal or a conservative. He doesn’t answer the question how many will be saved. Instead, he changes the perspective.
He says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate,” and our reading concludes, “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” On the one hand, he seems to say that many will not be saved: “for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. . . . He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers.’” Jesus is opposed to liberal presumption. We can lose our salvation.
But he is also opposed to conservative presumption, to the presumption that other people will be condemned, but people like me are going to be fine. “Some are first who will be last” means, you might think you’re in the in-crowd—but if you think that way, you will end up on the outside.
It’s striking how his metaphor proceeds. Right after talking about the gate, he switches to the metaphor of knocking on the door after it has been locked. Those on the outside will say, “Lord, open the door for us,” and the Lord will respond, “I do not know where you are from” (or maybe, “I don’t know you—where did you come from?”)
But then they give their wonderfully presumptuous answer: “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.” They say, “Hey, Jesus, let me in, you know me, we hung out together!” They think they are insiders.
But the Gospel is full of humor, and this is a funny way to describe being insiders: We ate and drank, and you taught. They are passive. But Jesus says, “Strive.” (Maybe the more important part of the metaphor is not the “narrow door” so much as the “striving”: you have to work hard to be a real Christian.) Their self-description, “We ate and drank in your company,” makes Christianity sound like eating popcorn at the movies.
And their passivity is a description of going to Mass. “You taught in our streets” (literally, our big open areas, our plazas) is the Liturgy of the Word. “We ate and drank in your company” is the Liturgy of the Eucharist. And Jesus says, showing up at Mass and sitting there passively while I preach, and then mindlessly eating my Body and Blood, will not get you into heaven. “Being Catholic” won’t get you into heaven.
As he says elsewhere, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” Or as he says here, “struggle to enter in,” “strive to enter through the narrow door.”
The context of our Gospel is a series of stories where more people get into heaven than you’d think: Luke 13 begins with the Galileans crushed with their sacrifices, who are not as unrighteous as you’d like to think; then the barren fig tree, that gets a second chance; then a woman cured of her disability, when the Pharisees would tell Jesus to stop his works; then the mustard seed and the leaven, which become a huge tree, home for the birds, and the kingdom leavens three whole measures of flour. Many will be saved. But not you, if you take it for granted and rest on your “identity.”
Something similar happens in our reading from Isaiah, almost the very last verses of that hopeful but strange book. In third- and second-to-last verses, Isaiah speaks of new heavens and a new earth, when “all flesh shall come to worship.” Many will be saved!
And yet the last verse of the book is, “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” Those who trust in the Lord will be saved, he can do it, he will reach out to every nation. But those who think they are in the nation of the saved and are eager to treat others as outsiders, those who think they don’t need a savior and don’t need to repent, those who rebel against his command, they will not be saved.
Thus in our reading from Hebrews he says, “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” If we let the Lord be our Lord, how great a salvation! But you have to strive for it!
Do you catch yourself thinking you’re already righteous, already an insider?