TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2019)
Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13
Most of us prefer to live with the non-Catholic perception that all people (and pets) go to heaven. It gives us a great deal of comfort to think that no matter what we do, no matter how we live our lives, God will make up the difference (purgatory), and be there at the gate (if there is a gate) to welcome us into heaven. This Sunday’s gospel from Luke, given close to the end of Jesus’ public ministry, gives us pause, however, because it sure doesn’t sound like that is the way Jesus sees eternal life.
As Jesus was “making His way to Jerusalem, someone asked Him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?”” Ponder for a moment who asks that kind of question? It’s not the kind of person who in their wildest dreams thinks for a moment that they are not going to be one of the “few.” The Jewish people had a concept of the anawim, or faithful remnant, the “few” that would be saved. Misguided conservatives used the concept to comfort themselves over the large number of people who have left the active practice of their Catholic faith, content that the smaller number of those saved would constitute a more purified church. But they, too, should take little comfort from Jesus’ words in today’s gospel, for even those who “ate and drank” in Jesus’ company (Sunday Eucharist), and those that heard Him teach in the streets (priests, religious, Bishops), might find themselves “outside knocking” and hollering “Lord, open the door for us.” The possibility of God answering “Depart from me, all you evildoers!,” should give all of us pause, for our hope is that, when our time on earth is over, we will sit down at the heavenly banquet with “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets.”
At the beginning of His public ministry, Jesus must have been somewhat of a novelty, and people no doubt followed Him as people might follow a political candidate like Bernie Sanders or Pete Buttigieg. There was an interest in what Jesus was saying. But the more Jesus walked and talked among them, the more He provided an example that was meant to be followed, it was clear that there were aspects of His teaching that were not easy. Indeed, some of Jesus’ ideas were considered to be revolutionary. The religious leaders of the day, to whom the people looked for guidance, were increasingly not happy, a discomfort that turned antagonistic, and it became more and more difficult to claim allegiance to this itinerant preacher from Nazareth.
Jesus was uninterested in the person who had no intention of taking His teaching to heart, He was uninterested in false discipleship. It was not enough to just notice Him on the road, or to know somebody who knew somebody who knew Jesus’ family. Not even those who might have been lucky enough to be at table with Jesus were assured of entrance into heaven. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, false Christianity’s continue to tempt Christ’s disciples today. Some worship the church instead of the God it exists to serve. Others tempt to co-opt Christ for political or social goals that have little to do with the gospel. Still others follow when it is fashionable but fall away as religion goes out of fashion or begins to ask too much.
Important people were accustomed to entering through the broad and impressive gates, but Jesus’ followers were encouraged to enter through the “narrow gate,” a gate defined by how Jesus lived His life. The narrow gate has to do with faith and forgiveness, with generosity and kindness, with justice and mercy. When Jesus has the Lord say in today’s gospel “I do not know where you are from,” it is because the Lord cannot recognize anything that is deserving of entrance into heaven. It is how we live our lives that makes a difference, not our titles, not a mere connection to the church, not even attendance at weekly or daily Mass. The people who will “recline at table in the kingdom of God” are not going to be Catholics or Christians or religious people, they are going to be people from all over the world (“east and the west and from the north and the south”) who have taken Jesus’ message to heart and who live their lives proclaiming the love and compassion, the forgiveness and generosity, the justice and mercy exemplified for us by Jesus during His earthly ministry.