Well, that was a cheerful Gospel! They say that sermons are supposed to have good news. I suppose that the good news in this one is that if we periodically experience the Christian life as quite challenging, that’s not because we’re doing it wrong.
“Will only a few be saved?” That was one of the hot questions in Jesus’ time, the sort one might use to size up new teachers. Who’s included in God’s coming Kingdom? It’s a sort of multiple-choice question: the very faithful Jews, all the Jews except the notorious sinners, all the Jews, all the Jews & the very virtuous Gentiles? This isn’t so much a question about life after death, as about who participates when God’s Kingdom is established on this earth.
Jesus’ answer is “None of the above.” Jesus offers a number of quite troubling images: a narrow door, an unsuccessful interview with the house’s owner, other people streaming in from all the compass points. More importantly, he shifts the question from a conversation about “them” to an exhortation to the crowd: “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.”
Today we talk about the Church as wide and inclusive. That’s in Jesus’ answer too: “Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” But to talk of wideness and inclusivity alone is perhaps not the whole story.
Back to our text, it’s not hard to place this interchange within Jesus’ ministry. Like John the Baptist, Jesus warns the Jewish audience not to presume on their Jewishness. So, we non-Jews can devote the rest of this homily to feeling superior? Nope. The repeated warnings in the Epistle to the Hebrews remind us that going on autopilot is even more dangerous for us: “if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!”
So, if “Strive to enter through the narrow door” is also directed to us, what’s it mean? What response is it calling for?
“The narrow door” is—obviously—a metaphor. In Luke’s Gospel it seems to point towards the Great Commandment and Jesus himself.
The Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God —that is, Yahweh— with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” So much for all the other gods that diminish our humanity! So much for the multitude of temptations to love our neighbors less than ourselves or end up loving ourselves less than we’d love even a pet. “Strive to enter through the narrow door” and “strive to live humanely” may turn out to be the same exhortation.
It’s worth noticing that this strive-to-enter-through-the-narrow-door exhortation is one that Jesus has already applied to himself. Jesus is making his way to the death that awaits him in Jerusalem. This is what loving God and loving his neighbor mean for Jesus in this situation. Doors usually involve four pieces of wood; Jesus’ narrow door is constructed of two.
But the narrow door is also about Jesus himself. It’s sometimes said that Jesus preached the Kingdom of God and that the Early Church preached Jesus. And that’s half of the truth. The other half? Jesus’ words and actions implied a unique role for Jesus in the Kingdom: the anointed / the Messiah / the Christ. “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” The Gospel of John comes at it differently: how are we supposed to love God (so the Great Commandment) if we don’t know God? Jesus makes God known. Jesus is the reality check on our images of God.
For the Gospels, the Great Commandment and Jesus are not two separate doors but one and the same door. For this reason, from the beginning, the Church has engaged in mission, so that there are places like Holy Cross very far from Jerusalem, with none of us looking particularly Jewish.
“Strive… For many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.” Turning our attention from ‘the narrow door’ to the trying-and-not-being-able part, what’s that about?
First, “strive” is rather like the verb we met last week in Heb 12: “run with perseverance.” Athletic and military metaphors are frequent in the New Testament; this is a world in which the virtues of the soldier and the athlete are needed.
“And will not be able” recalls another text from Luke: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave 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.” And for “wealth” we could substitute any number of other gods.
Recall the traditional way to catch a monkey. Take a coconut and make a hole in it, just large enough for the monkey’s hand. Tie the coconut down, and put a sweet inside. The monkey smells the sweet, puts his hand into the coconut, grabs the sweet and the hole is too small for the fist to come out. The monkey will do anything except let go of the sweet. So you can wait till it falls asleep, goes unconscious from exhaustion or simply walk up & throw a net over it.
The sweet: for us humans it may be an addiction, or an exaggerated need for survival or security, affection or esteem, power or control. All of these can fatally get in the way of our loving God and our neighbor. They can warp our perception of our surroundings, so that we see others simply as competitors, and make us vulnerable to leaders who play on our fears.
We really want God’s Kingdom; we really want that sweet, whatever it is.
Recognizing that we’re holding onto the sweets —we typically discover a whole series— letting go of them, more single-heartedly loving God and our neighbor: all these are different ways of talking about the same life-time project. For this we are baptized and come to this communion rail. For this we rely on each other’s prayers and Jesus’ intercession. For this we make use of the means of grace: prayer, Scripture, the neighbor who doesn’t tell us what we want to hear. Jesus is our door.
Our culture encourages us to see ourselves as free. Scripture tends to see freedom as something we achieve, like the freedom to play a musical instrument well, or the freedom to speak another language well. So, to circle back to today’s psalm, if we pray it with today’s gospel as background the focus does shift:
Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked, *
from the clutches of the evildoer and the oppressor.
Looking down at the clutched hand… I really want that sweet; I really want freedom. Sweet Jesus, have mercy.