21 Aug 2016
“‘Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.’” (Luke 13:24)
In the name …
One month ago may seem like a long time. That’s when we read the Gospel selection from Luke about the Lord’s prayer and prayer in general. But in the Bible, that reading and this morning’s are separated only by one full chapter. Back in July we heard Jesus’ parable about persistence in prayer. It was a story about a man who goes banging on the door of a friend’s house asking for loaves of bread to share with unexpected guests. The neighbour protests that he and his family are already in bed and the door is locked. You may remember the moral of the story. Jesus says even if the neighbour doesn’t oblige because of their friendship, he will because of the other man’s persistence.
Now you may not recall that parable from a month ago, but Luke has written a book, and there is no way that a person reading this Gospel-book about Jesus could forget this parable after turning only a couple of pages. That’s when we run into today’s Gospel and another story of Jesus’ that sounds remarkably similar. Again, in this story, there are those outside and they are begging the one inside to open the door for them. (Lk 13:25) In both stories, the one inside represents God. In the first one, God is compassionate. In the second story, God refuses and demands: “‘Depart from me all you evildoers!’” (Lk 13:27) Do these sound like the same God? Would Luke share two similar stories like this that are close together in his Gospel if they were saying two opposite things about God? Or is there something else going on here?
I think it’s the “something else.” First of all, Luke has made explicit mention of the fact that Jesus is making His way to Jerusalem. This is an intentional reminder that Luke uses at several points in his Gospel to remind his readers of where this Gospel story will culminate. Everything in the life of Jesus was part of His message from a parable in some unnamed village about a narrow gate to His death and resurrection in Jerusalem. Luke wants us to understand this parable in the context of Jerusalem and to have Jerusalem help us understand this parable. And we all know the story of Jerusalem. Luke says that not a single follower was at the foot of the cross. Jesus was alone as He died. But we should also remember that Jesus resurrects for everybody. No one deserved a visit from the resurrected Jesus, but He came back anyway, and He told His disciples to share the resurrection with everyone everywhere starting from, where else, but Jerusalem. (24:47) This is why Luke connects this morning’s parable with Jerusalem. This is the context in which today’s story of the ones outside knocking on the door has to be read. This is one reason why “Depart from me all you evildoers” should get us to thinking that something else is going on here.
There’s more that points in this direction. Today’s second story of the knocking at the door is Jesus’ own clarification of His story about the narrow gate. The narrow gate is a free-floating remembrance of something Jesus said, but we’re not sure of the context in which He said it because Matthew uses the narrow gate in a different way and with a different message than does Luke. The narrow gate in Luke is not a message of fewer people choosing it – that’s what Matthew says and Luke could have done the same thing if he wanted to. Luke’s is a message of a bottleneck. It’s like when you’re driving on the highway and three lanes converge into only one because of construction. At this point, Jesus says something unexpected: “‘For many will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.’” (13:24) “Strong enough” seems a strange choice of words here. It implies that some are trying to force their way through the gate, and Jesus says this just isn’t going to happen.
Who are these people trying to force their way in through the narrow gate? Jesus’ answer may come as a surprise. They’re the ones who thought they deserved entrance: “We ate and drank with you Jesus. We heard you teaching in our streets.” They saw, but they did not perceive. They heard, but they did not listen. This is a timeless warning against assuming that being close to the faith is the same as practicing the faith. Even coming to church is not the same as being at church. The ones who want to force themselves through the narrow gate are going to raise every argument possible except for the example of how they lived and how they embraced Jesus.
This all takes place within the second story of the knocking at the door, the one that meant a kind and generous God only a couple of chapters back. This is where Luke drops an intentional reminder that Jesus is making His way toward Jerusalem to die and resurrect for everyone. This is where Jesus adds that on the inside there will be Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the prophets in other words, the good and faithful people of the first covenant. They will be joined by people from east and west, north and south, in other words, the people from everywhere who will make up the new covenant. It’s not the one on the inside who is the stern and unforgiving judge who refuses entrance. It is those on the outside who think they can force their way in, but never bother to accept the invitation to come in. And this is why the passage ends with the familiar words of Jesus: “‘Some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last.’” (13:30)
Our responsibility as church is to proclaim Jesus’ message of compassion and concern, and even self-denial and humility, so that our kind and generous God recognizes us as His own and lets us pass through the narrow gate without problem. And for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo