21st Sunday of the Year
This teaching of Our Lord is introduced by a question, How many people will be saved? It is a sort of abstract question, one that can be discussed and answered in the comfort of our armchair, without exposing us to any danger, without challenging us to any task. It is the kind of question we like; but, in the present Gospel reading, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to be crucified and has no time for armchair speculation. He answers at a different level.
He says that there are two gates or doors that people believe are ways into the kingdom of God, but only one can lead us to sit at the messianic banquet: there is the way of repentance which is hard and the way of complacency, which is easy.
The narrow way of repentance begins by recognising our weakness, how easily our values can become distorted, how secondary things can become primary, how good things can become idols, how our past attainments and present qualities, if we pay too much attention to them, can make us blind and become obstacles to knowing God’s will. Even when we know what is wrong, we so often lack the strength because we do not realise how little we rely on Christ. Like the apostles on the Sea of Galilee when Christ was asleep in the boat, all these weaknesses, if they are not tackled, are like contrary winds, adverse currents, rocks and whirlpools that endanger the safety of the boat. Our attention must be constant because the temptations are constant. The moment we are complacent, the moment we rely on our own intelligence, our own experience, our own routine rather than Christ as a guide, we are travelling through uncharted waters without maps, and these weaknesses begin to re-assert themselves and are used by the Evil One to sink us when we are not looking.
This lack of self-satisfaction, this constant awareness of our weakness, this attention to our continual need to steer close to the will of God, to renew our commitment to Christ at every moment, is called “Repentance”.
Repentance is not “feeling sorry for our sins”, though someone who repents may well feel that sorrow. Repentance is changing direction, re-aligning our values - not once but continually - giving up our worldly way of looking at what we do and , and seeking only the will of God, as Christ did: He who said, “Not my will but yours be done,” and as the Blessed Virgin said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord: may it be done to me according to his word.” When this becomes the way we look at things, every moment becomes a sacrament in which we find the will of God and his Presence and; and, to boot, we are passing through the narrow gate.
What about the wider gate that doesn’t lead anywhere, the one at whose entrance so many people wait to enter but cannot because it is locked? It is the wide gate of complacency, the one where people look at themselves and decide that they have changed enough and need only to change others, who are content with their own discipleship, with their own strengths, with their own attainments, with the gifts that God has given them in the past, and they are so content that they are oblivious to the gifts and challenges that he is offering in the present. It is a religious life that is standing still because of self-satisfaction or laziness; and, when people stand still, they cannot be arriving anywhere, especially at the messianic banquet.
How many of us have joined this crowd and have stood outside this gate, without, perhaps, realising it!. Perhaps we all have done so at some time, or even most of the time! Instead of actively seeking what we must change so that we can do the will of God better, we protect ourselves with our religious routine so that nothing will change. Instead of seeking out the will of God in every situation, at every moment, we take refuge in generalities and avoid specifics that might challenge us. If our sins do not make us feel guilty, we accept them as part of ourselves and vaguely rely on God’s mercy rather than do our own part that enables the Holy Spirit to eradicate them or simply to make them harmless. All this is the wide gate that leads to nowhere.
Of course, if we are entering the narrow gate, we have become subject to Christ’s will in every situation. Believe it or not, this means we have become subject to his discipline; and he will discipline us whenever he decides to do so, through his very active Providence; and this is not always pleasant. That is what the second lesson, from Hebrews, is all about.
We must become aware of his discipline and what he is telling us through our circumstances. If he is not disciplining us at present, we can be assured that he will do so when he is ready. If he never disciplines us, then it is perhaps a sign that we are waiting at the wrong gate.
Jesus says in the Gospel that some who at present appear to be “last” will be first when the coming of Jesus in glory takes place. Conversely, some who are “first” now, in prestige, in religious complacency, could ultimately be last or miss out altogether at the coming of the Lord.
It is important to understand that, if we put ourselves among the "last who shall be first", then we are probably suffering from the pride that belongs to those who are standing before the wide gate of complacency. It is better to put ourselves among the "first who shall be last", and then call on Our Lord Jesus Christ to have mercy on us as sinners. If this cry is genuine, then, and only then, will we be entering through the narrow gate.
Implied in this message of Jesus is the answer to the original question about “how many” will be saved. We believe many will be saved and from all races. However, and most importantly, this gospel gives us a clear call, wherever we come from,and in every generation, always to strive earnestly, throughout our lives, to enter God’s banquet hall. This can only happen by looking for and doing God’s will day in and day out.
The biblical scholar, the late Father Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., comments on this Sunday’s Gospel text with these words:
“We must be willing to accept the sudden, unexpected turns of life, even to be at peace with our sinful, suffering moments, to be ready for the unplanned yet heroic demands of sickness and misfortune. When we seem to become the outcast, we are one with those who are coming from the ends of the earth and entering by the narrow door” (from “Biblical Meditations for Ordinary Time, Weeks 10 – 22,” Paulist Press, 1984, p. 387).
Hence, we can pass through the narrow gate of repentance only if we constantly ask ourselves, "What does God want from me today?", never being satisfied with yesterday's answers, but by looking as clearly as possible through the sacrament of the present moment to God who calls us.