Gospel for the Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time (25 August 2019)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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 passage from Luke must be understood in the context of the journey to Jerusalem and the advent of the Kingdom through that journey and what is to be accomplished in Jerusalem.
The journey to Jerusalem theme emerges powerfully at the Transfiguration: “Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (9:30-31). (This is clearly a most significant moment in the life and teaching of Jesus – see also Mark 9:2-8 and Matthew 17:1-8.)
The Greek word translated as “departure” is exodon. We are not only invited to recall the Exodus Event but to recognize the New Exodus. The journey is announced again 10 verses later in 9:51: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). It is not Jesus’ departure that is spoken of here but his being “taken up”. However, the “departure” and the “being taken up” are of a piece.
The Greek analēmpseōs – translated here as “taken up” – is rooted in the word lambanō meaning “take” or “receive”. The fulfilment of Jesus’ mission is indicated in this expression – he will ascend to the Father who sent him. The Father is the one who will “take (him) up”.
Thus Luke’s Gospel is, as it were, bookended by two affirmations that Jesus and the Father are one in this New Exodus: Mary speaks for all disciples when, after the announcement of Jesus’ birth, she says: “Let it (ie the birth of Jesus the Christ) happen according to your word” (1:38); Jesus’ last words on the Cross are, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (23:46 – see also Psalm 31:5).
Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is also a journey with and to the Father. This is paradigmatic for all disciples. For example, St Paul’s statement to the Philippians: “I press on .... because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (3:12). St Paul’s word is the more emphatic – katalambanō. It means something like “seize”. The Pauline scholar, Brendan Byrne SJ, writes: “(Paul) still hasn’t breasted the finishing tape. He presses on to ‘capture’ it, as Christ Jesus has ‘captured’ him. The Greek verb, katalambanein, rendered here as ‘capture’, is usually translated by softer expressions such as ‘obtain’ (NIV) or ‘make (one’s) own’ (NRSV). These scarcely do justice to the vigor of the Greek, which conveys the sense of catching something or someone suddenly, as a parent might grab hold of a child walking on the sidewalk of a busy street if the child ventures out towards the edge. Paul’s language well-conveys the sense of how the risen Lord ‘captured’ him on the road to Damascus and turned his life in a totally opposite direction to the one in which he was going” (Brendan Byrne SJ, Freedom in the Spirit: An Ignatian Retreat with St Paul, New York: Paulist Press, 2016 – see “Day 4: Instrument of God’s Grace”).
Ironically, before Jesus had begun his ministry, when he was being tempted in the desert, the devil suggests an alternative to his impending journey to Jerusalem: “Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here . . . (4:9-10).
Lord, will only a few be saved?: This sort of question exercised the minds of the teachers of 1st century Judaism. “Were all those calling themselves Jews really part of the chosen people? The concept of a remnant chosen by God from a larger population is found clearly in the writings of the Essenes who saw themselves as that ‘saved’ group and who scorn other Jews, the ‘ungodly of the covenant’ (1QM 1:2). We can find the same perception in writings more frequently associated with the Pharisees, as in 4 Ezra 8:1: ‘This age the Most High has made for many, but the age to come for few.’ Such discussions about who will find their way into the age to come are continued in m.Sanhedrin 10:1–6, and bT Sanh. 99b; 105a” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 219-220.) The same question has exercised the minds of Christian thinkers even to the present day. We should bear that in mind when we read this text. There is plenty of scope for both arrogance and silliness here. Actually, it is a question that every organization of significance faces: Who belongs? How do they become part of the organization? How might their belonging be discontinued? And so on. Generally – but not always – groups find ways to handle these questions.
Maybe the issue of belonging is grounded in some primitive reality buried deep in the human psyche? Since we are dealing here with the Kingdom of God, such questions about who belongs and when it will all be brought to fruition, become particularly imponderable, even if pondering them is stimulating – and seductive!
Unsurprisingly, Jesus in fact, does not give an answer. Rather, as Luke’s Gospel reports it, he responds with allegory and enigmatic statements that are anything but clear and unambiguous: “It is difficult to avoid the impression that Luke’s further elaboration has some allegorical features. The master of the house who shuts the door has ‘arisen’ to do so, and is called ‘Lord’. Those who join the banquet come from every direction and recline at table with the patriarchs and ‘all the prophets’. Those who did not enter before the door was shut stand outside in bitter frustration and sorrow. A restored people of God enjoys the banquet of the kingdom of God. And some Jews do not take part in it! (Luke Timothy Johnson, op cit, 220).
the narrow door: Perhaps Luke shares Matthew’s source here but omits part of it. Matthew writes: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). The impression in both Luke and Matthew is that it is going to be a struggle to enter – “the few” will have to contend with “the many” (hoi polloi) because the passage way is narrow and the time is short.
to knock at the door etc: This part of Jesus’ response seems to be at odds with 11:9-10: “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened”. We might understand this text in the context of belonging to the Kingdom represented by the first Christian community – those Jews who had accepted Jesus as the Messiah. The Kingdom, thus understood in terms of this concrete historical fact, manifest to the disciples that “Many are called but few are chosen”.
St Paul wrestles with this vey question in his Letter to the Romans – see chapters 9-11. Sadly, coupled with the belief that “the Jews” killed Jesus who is the Christ, this has led, within the Christian community, to an enduring and utterly abhorrent anti-Semitism through the ages. The Second Vatican Council declared in 1965: “As Holy Scripture testifies, Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation, ( Cf. Lk. 19:44) nor did the Jews in large number, accept the Gospel; indeed not a few opposed its spreading ( Cf. Rom. 11:28). Nevertheless, God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues – such is the witness of the Apostle (Cf. Rom. 11:28-29; cf. “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (Lumen Gentium)). In company with the Prophets and the same Apostle, the Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and "serve him shoulder to shoulder" (Soph. 3:9). (Cf. Is. 66:23; Ps. 65:4; Rom. 11:11-32)” (“Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” (Nostra Aetate), #4).
Nostra Aetate – greatly influenced by the Jesuit, John Courtney Murray – and its explicit reaching out to peoples of other religious traditions was a watershed moment in the life of the Catholic Church. With reference to the document’s words on the relationship with the Jews, one Rabbi observed: “It is radical in the literal sense of the word, in that it uproots previous teachings of the church. It charts a new course for the relationship between Jews and the church. There is no way to avoid saying it; it is momentous and transformative” (Rabbi Daniel F Polish, “A lever that moved the world: Catholic-Jewish relations 50 years after Nostra Aetate”, America (online), January 14, 2016.).
The last lines of Nostra Aetate particularly concern the healing of relationships with Jews and people of other religious traditions. Those lines invoke the Scriptures:
“We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a loving way any human being, created as they are in the image of God. Our relation to God the Father and God’s relation to us his brothers and sisters, are so linked together that Scripture says: "Those who do not love do not know God" (1 John 4:8).
“No foundation therefore remains for any theory or practice that leads to discrimination between people and people, so far as their human dignity and the rights flowing from it are concerned.
“The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against people or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion. On the contrary, following in the footsteps of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, this sacred synod ardently implores the Christian faithful to ‘maintain good fellowship among the nations’ (1 Peter 2:12), and, if possible, to live for their part in peace with all people (Cf. Rom. 12:18), so that they may truly be children of the Father who is in heaven (Cf. Matt. 5:45).”
Two very strong influences converged in Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) to make her one of the 20th century’s best short story writers – she was a deeply committed Catholic and she was thoroughly immersed in the culture of the Deep South of the United States. A theme that emerges strongly in her writings is that of the “Christians” who are so convinced of their (cultural) take on Jesus, that they do not see the glaring contradictions in their lives. One such character is Mrs Turpin. O’Connor lets us listen to the bigoted and hate-filled judgements of others, running through Mrs Turpin’s mind. Then, at the very end, while standing on the rail of the hog pen, she has a vision. It gently but definitely mocks and undoes her bigotry, turning her “Christian” world upside down:
“A vast horde of souls was rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away” (“Revelation” in Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980, 508-9.)
In today’s Gospel – Luke 13:22-30 – we hear “someone” ask Jesus: “Lord will only a few be saved?” Jesus’ response is enigmatic. Luke, in fact, has gathered a number of statements together here and they can leave us very perplexed, in rich ground for both dogmatism and silliness. Sadly, history would suggest this was the case in the Catholic Church. A fair minded person can find there a dogmatism that led us to the presumption that “we” – on the barque of Peter – are those being saved and the “rest”, well who knows . . . .
Every text has a context. Typically, the context holds some essential keys to understanding the text. For example, when we hear Jesus say that the “master of the house” will tell some of those wanting to enter the kingdom: “Away from me all you wicked men!” we should understand that this is part of a prayer not a statement of historical fact or prediction. The words come from Psalm 6:8. Psalm 6 is a prayer of a person being tormented by others, crying to God in their pain. It is the first of the so-called Penitential Psalms. Luke places words from another of the Penitential Psalms on the lips of Jesus at the end: “‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’” (23:46 citing Psalm 31:5). When Jesus responds by citing such a Psalm – which would have been known to his listeners – what do you think he is saying?