Gospel for the Twenty First Sunday (21 August 2016)
Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’
Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Luke 13:22-30 – NRSV)
This text is substantially unique to Luke. However, Matthew makes reference to the “narrow gate” in the Sermon on the Mount – see Matthew 7:13-14 – and the master locking the door – see Matthew 25: 10-12.
The text opens “with a reminder that Jesus is evangelising the people and is on his way to Jerusalem, the city of his passion. This provides the context for both of the following sections, the first dealing with the danger of not responding to the message of Jesus, and the second with the inevitability of the rejection of Jesus and his death in Jerusalem.” (I H Marshall, I. H., The Gospel of Luke: a commentary on the Greek text, Paternoster Press, 1978, 562.)
Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem: Luke has told us in 9:51: “He set his face towards Jerusalem”. And in 12:49-50 we heard Jesus say: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” There is no doubt that Jesus is on a mission. There is a sense of urgency here – “one town and village after another”. One commentator notes the effect of the text: “Luke maintains the reader’s attention on the overall theme of this section: the prophet is travelling toward Jerusalem and his exodos. As he goes, his main activity is prophetic teaching.”(Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 216.) We could say that Jesus is very focused.
“Lord, will only a few be saved?”: The question seems self-serving. The questioner has not picked up the urgency or concreteness of Jesus’ prophetic message.
“Strive to enter through the narrow door .....”: The English word “strive” translates the Greek word Agōnizesthe – from agōnizomai meaning “struggle” or “fight”. (We get the English words “agon” and “agony” from this Greek word.) The intent of the summons to “stay awake!” (see 12:35-37) is heard here again. By the use of the words “strive” and “narrow door” Jesus immediately prevents any shift in focus to a merely theological debate. His response brings the urgency and concreteness back into focus with a prophetic proclamation. Luke does this a number of times – see 9:57; 10:25; 11:15, 27, 45; 12:13, 41; 13:1. The questioner seems to be seeking a simple answer to a fairly general and somewhat abstract question. The proclamation is concrete and urgent, forcing the questioner and listener to reflect on his/her life. The proclamation does not invite debate but action. Thus, a question that might have prompted a detached theological debate, leads to an exchange full of energy and existential challenge. Joseph Fitzmyer writes: “I.e. through the only door to the kingdom there is. Jesus’ warning makes use of the language of a contest (agōn) or struggle in order to stress the need of effort to walk into the kingdom through the narrow door. The path to salvation is not through a wide, open entrance. The call for timely reform (13:3, 5) is now cast in terms of a narrowness of entrance through which only a few can pass at any one time. It is not yet said whether the striving will succeed in opening the door; nor are we yet told who opens it.” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, S. J., The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes, (Vol. 28A), Yale University Press, 2008, 1024-1025.)
‘We ate and drank with you ....’: These people have remained outside the house and are perplexed and dismayed by the situation they have chosen for themselves. Being a disciple of Jesus involves much more than merely associating with him or listening to him teach. The issue is one of identification – you must come into the house. And that is not an easy thing! But many who have not had the privilege of the Covenant life – “from east and west” – will in fact recognize and respond to that invitation. Jesus suggests the universality of the Good News and the Kingdom it announces.
Culture is both friend and enemy. It is typical for human beings to grow up thinking “this is the way life is” – at least until they travel or meet people who have travelled and encountered other cultures. Culture can help people to grow up. Culture can also prevent people from growing up. In today’s Gospel we read: “Someone asked him, ‘Lord, will only a few be saved?’” There is more than a suggestion here of a particular culture at work both helping and obstructing this individual and probably all those present except Jesus.
The cultural anthropologist, Edward T Hall, in a remarkable little book, observes: “Once learned, these behavior patterns (of a particular culture), these habitual responses, these ways of interacting gradually sink below the surface of the mind and, like the admiral of a submerged submarine fleet, control from the depths. The hidden controls are usually experienced as though they were innate simply because they are not only ubiquitous but habitual as well.” (Edward T Hall, Beyond Culture, Anchor Books, 1976/1977, 42.)
This is what Jesus encounters in his audience. A culture that is built around a sense of being “chosen” can disconnect itself from the human family. Jesus is focused on making people aware of the connections, the unity of all in him, through him and with him.
He is not so much teaching a doctrine as he is exposing a truth about reality. Given the deeply ingrained cultural worldview of his hearers, he has to shock in order to get through. Even then, most will simply not get it. Indeed it took the ugly passion and death of Jesus followed by the discovery of the empty tomb and the appearances of the Risen Lord to break through with the apostles.
“You must ‘struggle’!” he says. “The entry to this new world is by a ‘narrow door’!” You are not going to get to where you need to get simply by hanging around me! There’ll be gnawing and gnashing of teeth when you realize what you have missed!” I am reminded of the observation of Flannery O’Connor: “When you can assume your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock – to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” (Flannery O’Connor, “The fiction Writer and His Country,” in Mystery and Manners, Occasional Prose selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993/1969, 34.)
Listen to the text with the ear of the heart. Do not be distracted by the metaphors. Are there any cultural blocks in you? Can you sense the world Jesus is ushering in? Can you hear Jesus?