by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Do your best to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” Luke 13, 24-30
In order to get an insight into today’s gospel-reading, I suggest we can do two things: try to get into the mind of the person who asked Jesus: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” and, secondly, try reading today’s gospel in the context of the first reading from Isaiah.
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?” strikes me as a question that is born of the naivety of a gatherer of statistics or emanates from the presumption of someone who believes that he or she has already earned right of entry into heaven. The questioner did not have sufficient gall to ask: “Lord, will only a few of us be saved?” However, I dare to suggest that that was what he or she meant. It’s a question that was born of attitudes such as arrogance, privilege, entitlement and elitism, and suggests that the questioner had already decided that there was no shortage of people in the world who had disqualified themselves from entry through their lives of skulduggery and immorality. I even wonder if self-satisfied, ‘holier than thou’ individuals would be at ease mixing in heaven with those whom they had categorised as the dregs of society and who, inexplicably, had managed to scrape through the door. Another way of approaching this gospel-reading is for each of us to ask ourselves: “Could I imagine myself saying to Jesus: “How many others, besides me, will be saved?”
While Jesus would have been familiar with the Book of Isaiah, there is nothing in today’s gospel-reading to suggest that the question above reminded him of the extraordinary prophecy recorded in today’s first reading in which God promised to gather together people of all nations and religions, and even bestow priesthood on pagans. The people of Israel were adamant that only males of the tribe of Levi were eligible for priesthood. Isaiah made it clear that this was God’s initiative and that God excluded nobody; God’s welcome was for all. Nobody had a right to special treatment. So, Isaiah did not shrink from pointing to the openness of God who proclaimed: “I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory…and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations…Some of these I will take as priests and Levites” (Isaiah 66: 18-21). Those who saw themselves as God’s chosen, with exclusive access to God, would have felt discomforted, at the very least.
In coming to terms with the gospel-reading, we have to be patient with the rapid shift in metaphors. The reading starts with the image of a statistician searching for the numbers of how many will be saved. Jesus quickly changed the focus by stressing the kind of effort required by those desiring to be saved. Luke attributed to him a Greek word meaning that they would have to go to agonising efforts. (It’s the same word used to describe the agony Jesus endured in the Garden of Gethsemane as he reflected on the suffering ahead of him on his journey to his place of execution.) In so doing, Luke introduced the image of the narrow door, through which there were many trying to enter. Then, without warning the metaphor changes to the master who gets up from a chair or a bed and locks the narrow door and refuses to be moved by those who are locked out and pleading for admission. Not even reminders that he had joined them previously in eating and drinking were sufficient to make him relent. The reading concludes with the biblical aphorism familiar to all of us: “Some who are last will be first and some who are first will be last” (Luke 13: 30).
We have to tread warily when it comes to making sense of Jesus’ metaphorical reference to “the narrow door”. To begin with, his recommendation: “Try to come in through the narrow door” is no answer to the question that was addressed to him. Rather it was a deliberate ploy on his part not to be drawn into some kind of numbers game. He ignored the question by switching to another topic. But what he said can lead to the misunderstanding that one earns entry into God’s kingdom by one’s own efforts, thereby forgetting that all we are and have, including our successes and achievements are gifts from God.
With that clarification, we can now turn our focus to the meaning of gaining entry to God’s kingdom via the narrow door. I suggest that the starting point is one of the “I am…” statements of Jesus in John’s Gospel. Scholars debate as to whether there are seven or eight of these statements. We could probably repeat them all if we stopped to recall them. – “I am the bread of life, I am the good shepherd, I am the light of the world…”. – and they are all metaphors. The one that concerns us here is “I am the door”. The context in which John attributed this statement to Jesus was the insensitive and unjust act of excommunication visited by Jewish leaders on a blind beggar who insisted that Jesus had restored his sight by directing him to bathe in the pool of Siloam. The beggar was adamant that Jesus was a prophet sent by God. For his trouble, he was accused of not being born blind and thrown out of the temple for allegedly telling lies.
In the time of Jesus, many householders kept a few sheep, which were sheltered at night in pens adjoined to their dwellings or in the living-space itself. Returning to the sheep fold at the end of the day was to come to the comfort of home. The man who had just been evicted from the temple would surely have been comforted on hearing Jesus proclaim that he himself was the door into the comfort of home with God. His message of welcome stands in stark contrast with the proclamation of banishment given to the beggar by the temple authorities.
In today’s gospel-reading, we hear Jesus’ exhortation to his audience: “Try to come in through the narrow door.” (Luke 13, 24). That is the metaphor used later by John when he attributed to Jesus the unqualified assertion: “I am the door. Whoever enters through me will be safe.” (John 10: 9). Luke described the door as narrow (Lk. 13: 24) because his audience would have been familiar with the pedestrian gate in the city walls which allowed people to enter only one at a time. It also suggests that adherence to the teachings of Jesus, to living Jesus’ values of mercy, justice, compassion, selflessness and generosity required discipline and perseverance. To live in imitation of Jesus is the way into our real home in God.
We can all probably recall times when we have taken a wrong door, a door that left us considerably less than satisfied. Today’s gospel-reading is a reminder to us to retrace our steps and to rediscover in Jesus an open door to opportunity, new life and the comfort of our true home with God.