“Lord, Will Only a Few Be Save?” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, August 21, 2022

“Strive to enter through the narrow door” says Jesus in today’s gospel, in response to the question:” Lord, will only a few be saved?”  Other versions use the words “narrow gate”, rather than “door”, but the reference is clear. The” narrow door” was a small gate built into the much larger city gates of a city. It allowed someone to enter after hours when, for security reasons, the main gates had been closed and locked. The gate was too small to enter with more than a few items. Animals, carts, weapons and other large items had to remain outside the gate until the opening of the main gate in the morning. (By the way, the night gate for the city of Jerusalem was nicknamed the “needle’s eye” , hence Jesus’ statement later on in the gospel of Luke :”It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). Those who were rich in Jesus’ time were considered to be greatly blessed by God, and therefore automatically guaranteed a place in heaven. Jesus turns that assumption on its head, leading to the question by his astonished disciples:” Then who can be saved?” , to which Jesus responds: “For human beings, it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Luke 18:26). No human being can save themselves. Salvation belongs to God alone, as the book of Revelation declares (7:10). It cannot be bought, earned or merited by human effort alone – it has to be received from God as a gift, or not at all.)

Anyone who wanted to enter a city after hours in Jesus’ time had a choice to make. Would they be prepared to leave their possessions and baggage behind in the street in order to enjoy security within the city walls? Or would they choose to stay with their possessions and risk the danger of being attacked and robbed, maybe even killed? It was a clear-cut choice. There was no middle-ground, no compromise. Jesus is telling us that to be saved presents us with a similar all-or-nothing choice. You can either choose to detach yourself from dependence on material things and depend totally on God, or choose to depend for life and happiness on material things, rather than God. As I said a couple of weeks ago, you cannot have a Jesus plus attitude. Belief in Jesus plus total dependence on possessions and wealth. As Jesus puts it so succinctly in Matthew 6:24:”No one can serve two masters; for a servant will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one  and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth”

“Lord, will only a few be saved?” You notice that Jesus doesn’t answer the question- he so rarely does in the gospels. He is not interested in statistics. His answer was more personal…here’s how YOU can be saved…not by comparison to others, by association with others, or by religious affiliation. The man proposing the question may have been thinking like many college students today who ask if they will be graded on the curve (in other words, in comparison to the other students) or graded in comparison to an objective standard by which all, some or none of them might pass. If it is on the curve and there are many to be saved, the man might tend to look around at other people and compare himself to their religious convictions to estimate his chances of being saved. Jesus is not grading on the curve. He gives us objective standards to follow, through commands to love God and neighbor, to love as God himself loves, to die to self , pick up one’s cross and follow Jesus. The question, then, comes down to us. Are we trying to keep ourselves in good spiritual condition or weighing ourselves down with things that cannot be brought through the narrow gate into the Kingdom of Heaven? 

Our second reading tries to answer another enduring question which never seems to be answered. Why do the innocent suffer? Or: why do bad things happen to good people ? The writer of the letter to the Hebrews sees suffering in terms of testing, rather than as punishment for sin. This is in accord with other scriptures, particularly in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament: Proverbs, and Job and Sirach. Christians are encouraged to persevere in the face of trial and suffering. In addition to finding in Christ their role model, they are exhorted to realize that suffering can lead to a strengthening of faith. In fact, it is the way in which Jesus, who began our faith, brings it to perfection, in the words of Hebrews 12:2. Just as Jesus himself, Son of God though he is, became “perfect through his suffering” (Hebrews 2:10). Not that God delights in making us suffer, and so deliberately sends suffering upon us. No, that is a very Old Testament way of looking at God, and many Catholics still believe it to be true. Jesus, in the New Testament, however, shows, in his words and example, that God allows suffering, rather than deliberately sends it, in order to enable us to grow in faith and maturity and wisdom. In fact, the word translated as “discipline” in our second reading (Gk paideia) should really be translated as “training regime”. It expresses the whole process of education, training, and, yes, discipline by which young people are helped to shape themselves in those qualities of mind and body which characterize the real adult, strong, sober, and able to cope with the problems that life will bring their way. God uses our sufferings to train us up, like spiritual athletes, to become the best possible version of ourselves that we can be. We are sons and daughters of God by God’s gift, through our baptism, and every child receives a measure of discipline from their parent, as a sign not of rejection, but of love. In the words of Deuteronomy 8:5: ”Know then in your heart that as a parent disciplines, or trains a child, so the Lord your God disciplines, or trains, you.”

 “Lord, will only a few be saved?”

The answer, says Jesus, depends on you, and you, and you … on each one of us. Will you allow your sufferings in this life to make you bitter or better?  Will you let these sufferings turn you away from God and bury you in self-pity and self-blame? Or will you allow God to use these sufferings as part of the cross he asks you to bear, in imitation of his Son, Jesus, who bore far, far more, than any of us will ever be called to suffer , but disregarded the shame of the cross, and embraced it, for the sake of the joy that lay beyond, as Hebrews 12:3, puts it, the joy of knowing that his cross would bring the hope of salvation to all. Will we allow our sufferings to train us so that we yield the peaceful fruit of righteousness, of holiness, of love, joy, peace and all the other fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5: 22-23)? And so the question we ask of Jesus “Lord, will I be saved?” is turned back by Jesus on us: “How much do you want to be saved?”