Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dominica XXI per Annum C

25 August 2019

It is very common here in the Bible-belt that questions of salvation are discussed.  At some point I am sure most of us have been directly asked, “Are you saved?”  To pay attention to the Gospel passage today it is clear that the question of who is saved and how many precedes us by centuries.  Today we hear the question asked of Jesus.

In context, the questioner is asking will only a few Israelite people be saved?    It is important to note that before Jesus’ time and during his time this question surfaced and there were different schools of thought among the rabbis about the world to come, which is the Jewish idea of salvation.  Some rabbis took the position that all Israel, all the members of the Twelve Tribes would be saved.  But another current of thought said that the saved would be few and not many.  In this current of thought some rabbis highlighted different moments of Hebrew/Israelite history and noted groups that would not be saved.  Rabbis noted that the generation of the Flood would not be saved.  This was the generation of Noah and the Scriptures say that wickedness was everywhere and thus God destroyed them with the Flood.  These rabbis highlighted the Israelites whose sin contributed to the Babylonian Exile and the destruction of the Temple would not be saved.  They noted that the notorious sin among the men of Sodom would mean they would not see the world to come.  And rabbis noted that the ten tribes who went into exile in the north and intermingled with the culture and religion of the Assyrians would not be saved.  This position that not all Israelites would be saved is a belief that only a remnant of Israel will see the world to come, the promised Day of the Lord, the new creation, that place of harmony.  With this in mind we can appreciate familiar words about the world to come, like those of the Prophet Isaiah: “Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat; The baby shall play by the viper’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.  They shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain; … On that day the Lord shall again take it in hand to reclaim the remnant of his people” (Is. 11:6, 8-9, 11).

With this background, what about Jesus’ response?  Will only a few be saved?  It is important to note that Jesus adopts this remnant, this the-saved-will-be-few school of thought.  His is a sobering answer.  And it is difficult.  To be clear, it is not difficult to understand.  Rather, it is difficult to accept.  He says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”  And to those outside knocking the Master will say, “I do not know where you are from.”  The most sobering aspect of Jesus’ adopting of the more restrictive notion of salvation is what the image he uses communicates.  The image says that some who are trying to enter his kingdom will not be able to do so.  They will not be strong enough to get in.  The other sobering message of Jesus’ words is that those who are seeking entrance, to whom the Master says, “I do not know where you are from,” are at least acquaintances of the Master.  The lesson here is that mere acquaintanceship with Jesus will not save and will not be enough to gain entrance to the kingdom.  Listen to how close those seeking to enter had been: “And you will say, ‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets’.”  I don’t know about you, but that is stunning to hear.  Those who will not gain entrance to the kingdom are not merely people completely far off, people who never followed Jesus.  Rather, they are people who interacted with him.  They were in his presence.  They ate with him.  They listened to his teaching.  But still they hear the message: I do not know where you are from!

So the saved will be few and gaining entrance to salvation will be as entering through a narrow gate.  And why will those who are not saved fail to have strength to enter the world to come?  This is important to note.  What does Jesus say of them?  “Depart from me, all you evildoers!”  It is their sin, their wickedness that prevents them from being strong enough to enter salvation.  And this is really key and quite a shock: What does their wickedness mean or result in for their relationship with Jesus?  It is as if he never knew them.  “I do not know where you are from.”  I think this saying highlights a truth of Catholic faith with which perhaps we are uncomfortable and would like to believe is just excessive piety.  We explain and believe that the more serious type of sin, what we call mortal sin, brings to death the soul’s spiritual life with God.  It ends friendship with God.  If not confessed, healed, and repented of, it leads to eternal separation from God.  Surely that is too harsh, we want to say, right?  I mean, come on, if I’m baptized and I basically lead a good life and I want to be with Jesus nothing really separates me from God in any real or meaningful way, right?  Oh?!  The gospel says that those who are seeking entrance to the kingdom know Jesus and had been in his presence.  Yet, they are evildoers.  They are wicked sinners.  And what is the result of doing evil as regards our relationship with the Master?  He looks upon the severed relationship and says, “I do not know where you are from.”  What makes them unable to enter the kingdom?  What makes them strangers to the Lord?  Their grave mortal sins!  They do not simply harm the relationship.  They sever it to the point of rendering the wicked sinner unrecognizable to the Lord.

Do you realize we are supposed to learn something for ourselves and our relationship with Jesus in this hard teaching?  You see, Jesus draws the questioner into the question.  It is the same for us.  In adopting the remnant-will-be-saved school of thought, Jesus makes the question about the questioner’s own salvation and says: “And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out.”  So, if Jesus’ answer for the Israelites was that some who entered the covenant would not be saved because of their wickedness, what do we who have entered the New Covenant by baptism learn for our own salvation?  We must strive for the narrow gate and we must turn from our wickedness!

Things within our world and even our Church seem like a sorry circus depending on where you train your focus.  If the world even bothers to think about salvation at all, it basically assumes that all people are going to Heaven.  I mean, maybe not Hitler, but you have to be really bad, like almost unimaginably evil to not make it to Heaven.  That’s not what the Bible and Jesus say.  Go to just about any funeral and from the words spoken it sure seems like the deceased is being canonized and that we have some direct knowledge they are already in Heaven.  That’s incredibly presumptuous.  In the Church some have an acquaintance with Jesus for Christmas and Easter, but not much else.  For others their relationship with Jesus might be more about taking rather than giving from their talent or their treasure.  Others might be present and active in so many good ways, but rarely ever go to confession.  Do those things sound like striving for the narrow gate?  And then there is the really crazy stuff that leaves you scratching your head: People who claim to be faithful followers of the Lord but who lead moral lives very much in conflict with Christ and who act as if that is not a grave problem.  There is moral dissent on issues like adultery, sodomy, abortion, and contraception.  You can find people who claim to be Catholic advocating for abortion and claiming to be Catholic.  You can find Christian groups and even churches flying gay pride flags.  I ask, does that at least promote confusion and perhaps seem to aid others in their grave sin?  Of course it does!  And then there is doctrinal dissent.  This week the top Jesuit priest in the order said another silly thing.  It is becoming a particularly Jesuit charism to say silly, uncatholic things.  He said that the devil is not a personified being but rather a symbolic reality.  Well, that’s not even authentic Catholic teaching.  That’s not even biblical.  This doesn’t help people respond to the narrow way and I wonder when Church leaders will call this nonsense out?

I don’t know the answer to that.  But I do know that I must proclaim the fullness of Catholic truth, that I must strive so that my soul gets to Heaven, and that I must work such that you might get there too.  Given what we learn from Jesus in this passage, the question might be put this way: Will you strive to be the remnant?  Will you seek to follow and to remain on the narrow path?  That’s the way to Heaven, no matter what the world is doing around you.  And while what we learn today is sobering indeed let’s not forget the Good News: God has come to save us and has paid the price for our salvation!  Our response is to strive and to make use of the rich gifts of grace in His Church such that we enter Heaven.  Yes, our efforts are needed and we must strive.  But the Good News is that throughout our efforts we are wrapped in the mercy of God who holds nothing back for our salvation!  It is He who comes “to gather nations of every language” [first reading] that many might see His glory.  We do not disdain or lose heart at the Lord’s discipline [second reading].  Rather we strive to guard and live seriously our relationship with God, knowing we have a Father who ardently desires us to recline at table at the banquet of salvation.