Reflection on the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Luke 13: 22-30
Today’s readings are hard ones — I found them both uncomfortable and challenging. Jesus sounds distant, harsh even, hardly projecting mercy or compassion. Or projecting a welcoming and open kingdom of God. He talks about the narrow door, the locked door. Those standing outside clamoring to get in — the wailing and gnashing of teeth.
In today’s Gospel we meet Jesus, significantly, on the road to Jerusalem. He has passed through villages and towns teaching as he goes. He is making his way to Jerusalem — the destination of prophets. In Jerusalem he will face betrayal, abandonment, torture and death. I can’t imagine this as a terribly happy journey but it is a resolute one. For Jesus time is running out.
What was Jesus’ mindset as he waked — as he taught? He is not naïve. He has read the signs. He knows what is coming. He knows why he is going to Jerusalem. He has said openly that he will be betrayed and killed. Yet he persists in his mission with faith and determination — the stuff of integrity. He has tried to prepare his closest friends for his death, but the Twelve are in denial. Many others who once followed him have already deserted him.
And then, in today’s reading, he meets a man in a town he is passing through. And Jesus is asked what, on the surface, at least, is a simple straight- forward question: “Will only a few be saved?” And then it gets complicated.
How does Jesus hear the question? What is really being said or asked. What motivates the question? And the answer? Do you ever wonder why someone would ask Jesus that question? It doesn’t seem like a question of idle curiosity. Or of concern for others. It’s a loaded question, perhaps a trick question to entrap Jesus. It’s a question I would ask if I wanted to hear Jesus tell me that a place had been prepared for me from the beginning of time — a response that would certainly leave me off the hook. It would vindicate me. No worries. No need to change my life. Or I would ask it if I wanted to hear Jesus say not to worry — “those people,” those people with, in my self-righteous judgment, the wrong race or ethnicity, the wrong friends or background, the wrong nationality, the wrong religious practice, the wrong political party, certainly won’t be at the table in the kingdom.
It’s not a question I would ask. I would want attention from Jesus, sure. But maybe not too much attention. I’d ask that question when I didn’t want discipleship to be so difficult and demanding and wanted a way out. Jesus never offers one. And he certainly didn’t offer one to the villager who questioned him.
Instead Jesus tells him to strive to enter the narrow door and cautions him that many who would like to don’t have the strength. That pretty much turns the tables on the villager. It is a subtle question to the man — do you have the strength? The endurance, faith and commitment? Do you want the strength? The man offers no response.
The Gospel of Luke was written for the early Church – for second- and third-generation Christians and for the future Church. For us. Certainly the question of who is welcome at the table, who is welcome in the kingdom of God, is still a question today. And certainly authentic discipleship still takes strength and faith and endurance. Luke wanted those early Christians to have the reassurance of knowing that the Gospel they heard and embraced was authentic and had embraced them — that Jesus had embraced them.
From a literary standpoint this passage, and the question, enables Luke to have Jesus say what he, Luke, wants his audience to hear. Luke’s concern is to show a continuity to the teaching and ministry of Jesus and that of the Apostles as the Gospel is preached in far-flung places — as scattered as Rome, Greece, Turkey, even Spain and India, into a Gentile world, to the ends of the earth. Luke needs that audience to hear Jesus saying that people, Gentiles — those other people — them — from the east and the north and the south would come to recline at the table in the kingdom of God along with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets. It gives them an invitation to a place at the table. The last will be first.
And those to whom Jesus is originally sent — the lost sheep of Israel – the children of Abraham and Sarah — those who first heard Jesus and rejected him — may well stand outside — gnashing their teeth. Surprised both that they are outside and at who is at the table. In their rejection of Jesus, the first may become the last.
Jesus tells the man who poses the question, the early Church, and us to strive to enter a narrow gate and cautions that many will try but not be strong enough. Those words, spoken by Jesus as he is on the road to the place of his death, come as he is realizing just how hard the road he travels is, how much strength he is going to need to remain faithful to the kingdom. How much integrity costs.
So he teaches that the time is short — because it is. It’s not enough to have eaten and drank with Jesus as he passed through the village. Or to have been a mere presence as passive members of an audience at the edges as he taught. Jesus comes to know us in our walking the road to Jerusalem with him, in our struggles, our stumblings, our outright falls.
That question — who is REALLY invited — welcomed —at the table is a question asked today — and too often answered in behavior which marginalizes, belittles, excludes, demonizes, dehumanizes, victimizes or murders others. But the door of the Gospel is always a door of mercy and compassion, of acceptance and respect, because the door is Jesus. The question is answered whenever mercy, compassion and justice are practiced with love.
For us it is to stay the path. Cross and all. To welcome, to include and even love. To live so we aren’t surprised at who finds a place at the table in the kingdom.