21st Ordinary Sunday (Year C)
First Reading: Isaiah 66:18-21 Second Reading: Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13 Gospel Reading: Luke 13:22-30
“GO OUT TO ALL THE WORLD AND TELL THE GOOD NEWS.”
Several cotton farmers were whiling away a winter afternoon around the potbellied stove. They soon became entangled in a heated discussion on the merits of their respective religions. The eldest of the farmers had been sitting quietly, just listening, when the group turned to him and demanded, "Who's right, old Jim? Which one of these religions is the right one?"
"Well," said Jim thoughtfully, "you know there are three ways to get from here to the cotton gin. You can go right over the big hill. That's shorter but it's a powerful climb. You can go around the east side of the hill. That's not too far, but the road is rougher and difficult. Or you can go around the west side of the hill, which is the longest way, but the easiest."
"But you know," he said, looking them squarely in the eye, "when you get there, the gin man won't ask you how you came or what religion you believe. He just asks, 'Man, how good is your cotton?'"
Today is the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time. The First Reading of today presents us with the teaching that the salvation of God is extended to all the nations of the earth and it is our task to 'proclaim his glory among nations,' inviting all to the Kingdom of God. In the Second Reading from Letter to the Hebrews we are reminded that we must persevere in trials, even as God uses them to discipline us because it is the loving discipline of a father with his sons. Finally, we are warned in the Gospel of Luke against presumption and the idea of easy salvation. Salvation is for all, but it involves the hard work of collaborating with the grace of God day in and day out, until the last day of our lives. It cannot be taken for granted. It is a task and a mission.
THE LORD OF ALL NATIONS:
God chose the Jewish people for special blessings. But this choice was not an end in itself. God selected them to bring salvation to the whole world. This is the theme of the First Reading of today from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. The prophet stirs up God's people with a vision of how they will participate in revealing God's glory to the world. He mentions several foreign lands around the Mediterranean. Scattered throughout the world, they will spread the knowledge of the one true God. They will attract all people to Jerusalem and its Temple, the symbol of God’s very presence. What a colorful procession! Pilgrims of every race and nation are traveling side by side on horses, mules, and camels. They have been gathered to worship the one true God.
Isaiah prophesied that the Lord was coming to gather all nations and tongues, and how the Lord will even make priests out of them. Today, he invites all of us, you and me, to recognize our absolute dependency upon an awesome God, who is the Lord of all nations, the creator of an incredible universe, the source of everything that is or can be.
a) “Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
But Jesus didn't choose to answer the question directly. Instead he took this simple question – and used it to teach his followers about salvation. He went further than that and stressed the essential facts. How many will be saved isn’t the important thing. The important thing, the one you and I should really be concerned about is, 'How can we be saved?' And this is the question Jesus answers.
b) “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.”
Firstly, Jesus says that one has to struggle to enter through that symbolic 'narrow gate' into the kingdom of God - “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.”
The implication of the narrow gate is that the passage is not built to accommodate throngs indiscriminately, as a wider entrance would. The narrowness of the door is stressed to express the reality that it is not made for crowds. Salvation is a personal and individual endeavor.
Also, salvation is not easy. It comes with a price. It comes with struggle and pain.
Moreover, the narrow gate is open to all, but only those who seek it are admitted. The kingdom of God is a choice to be made. Indeed, the gift of salvation is not an indiscriminate prerogative. Salvation is for all and God wills to save all, yes, but the divine saving love demands a personal response.
c) “I do not know where you are from.”
Secondly, Jesus then uses the parable of the locked door to explain to his followers that there is more to being a follower of Jesus than they might think. The parable of the locked door refers to those who tarry in accepting Jesus. Jesus says very clearly that it is not enough to follow Jesus, eat meals with him and listen to him. We cannot claim discipleship by mere affiliation. There is something more that has to be done. Having once accepted Jesus' invitation, each one has to live by his teachings every moment of every day. Those who do not remain faithful to him will be left outside. Jesus is warning people of faith not to take their salvation for granted. What he does say is that salvation is not guaranteed for anyone. 'We are your people' will not be good enough. What Jesus is saying is that no one, no matter who he is, has an absolute guarantee of being saved, of being accepted by God. No one is saved by claiming identity with a particular group or by carrying a particular name tag. So, merely being descended from Abraham, Jacob and all the prophets - as the Jews were - did not count; there is no such thing as national salvation.
d) “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
Lastly, Jesus indicates that many who think themselves respectable or 'high and mighty,' so called 'movers and shakers,' will not be included in the kingdom of God; and many who are considered disreputable or 'looked down upon,' so-called ‘down and outers,' will be included. The list of 'saved' will shock and amaze us. Why? Because God’s ways are not our ways.
A story is told of a wealthy woman who, when she reached heaven, was shown a very plain mansion. She objected. “Well,” she was told, “that is the house you prepared for yourself.” “Whose is that fine mansion across the way?” she asked. “It belongs to your gardener,” was the answer. “How is it that he has one so much better than mine?” “The houses here are prepared from materials that are sent up,” she was told. “We do not choose them: you do that by your earthly faithfulness.”
So, will only a few be saved? But then that is not the issue. For God loves all of us and wills us to be saved. The issue is to discipline ourselves so that we be able to respond faithfully and at every moment to God's call and thus, with His help, attain salvation. This will then serve as the materials we send up to heaven for the house being built for us.
“WHOM THE LORD LOVES, HE DISCIPLINES”:
In the Second Reading of today the author of the Letter to the Hebrews speaks about the discipline of God and raises the age-old philosophical question: why do bad things happen to good people? There’s no satisfactory answer to human suffering and natural disasters, e.g., floods, fires and earthquakes. Some may argue that hardships can strengthen our character, make us better human beings. We’ve heard that expression: no pain, no gain. But in the final analysis, suffering is a mystery. Yet in the Christian tradition, inescapable suffering, accepted with trust in God, and united with the sufferings of Jesus, can be redemptive for others. Why? Because our faith proclaims that the sufferings of Jesus were precisely this: redemptive or healing for all mankind.
When we discipline ourselves, then, with God's grace, we can remain faithful in our following of Jesus. At times we have to struggle to live the Christian life. But God prepares us for the difficulties we will encounter. Like a responsible parent, God must at times discipline us. That discipline may cause some grief. But through it, we learn God's ways of love, justice, and peace.
The problems and sufferings we have all experienced, and will be experiencing, are parts of the discipline we undergo to remain faithful in responding to God's invitation. Discipline and no other is the “narrow gate” through which we enter into eternal life.
In conclusion, three questions can be posed from today’s readings:
First, 'Who is to be saved?' Everyone is to be saved. That is the meaning of the universality of salvation. Jesus does not at all say that only a few will be saved. The whole thrust of the Gospel, and especially of the Gospel according to Luke which we are reading, is that Jesus came to bring God's love and freedom to the whole world. The message of that Gospel is that there is not a single person, not a single people, nation, race, or class, which is excluded from experiencing the love and liberation that God offers. However, the universality of Christ’s salvation is not a guarantee that we will be saved. The mere fact of being baptized does not equate to salvation.
Second, 'How are we saved?' The unequivocal answer is that salvation comes from Christ through his Church. This explains the Catholic focus on the sacraments. The Church is the sacrament of Christ and so she makes available his life-giving sacraments to those of us who have been incorporated into his Body. The role of the Church from the beginning until now is first and foremost to “go out to all the world and tell the Good News.” It explains why the Church is evangelical in her mission.
Third, the Gospel speaks of entering the narrow gate. The question now is 'Are you saved?' The narrow gate indicates that salvation is not cheap. We need to discipline ourselves, use the the things that happen to us to help us grow, rather than get us down. We need to remember that the tested people, the people with the most problems, the last people, may be the ones who get in the door first. Those are the people that will easily slip through the narrow door. Indeed, many are lost because they do not choose the narrow door. They prefer a religion that is not too demanding, one that does not make it mandatory to attend Mass every Sunday. We may be surprised to discover that some who seem less worthy will enter the kingdom before us.