Striving to Follow Jesus All the Way, 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), August 22, 2004

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Parish, Hyannis, MA
Twenty-first Sunday in OT, Year C
August 22, 2004
Is 66:18-21; Heb 12:5-7, 11-13; Lk 13:22-30

1) Last Sunday we celebrated the solemnity of Mary’s Assumption, body and soul, into heaven. The Son of God came into the world so that each of us might spend eternity, body in soul, in heaven alongside her. In today’s Gospel, as Jesus is heading up to Jerusalem teaching the multitudes along the way, a person from the crowd asks him how many actually make it to heaven. Jesus’ response is as relevant to us today as it was to his auditors 2000 years ago.

2) “Lord, will only a few be saved?,” the person asks. It seemed to be a question flowing from curiosity. Jesus did not come down from heaven, however, to satisfy our curiosity. He came to SAVE US and responded not by stating HOW MANY will be saved, but HOW that interlocutor and others will be saved: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” A similar thing happened at another time, when the disciples asked the Lord about the timing of the end of the world. “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Mt 24:3). Jesus replied not by supplying information they could put into their calendars, but by telling them how to be ready no matter when it occurred. In both cases, Jesus was not being evasive; rather he went beyond trivia to what is most important: making us aware of what we need to know and to do to experience the salvation he won for us.

3) We can say, almost as an aside, that many in our world would do well to pay attention to WHAT JESUS DOES NOT ANSWER in the Gospel. Jesus’ failure to answer the question about the number of those to be saved shows the absurdity of groups, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who want to claim that THEY know the exact amount of people who are saved (144,000, taking literally a symbolic number used in Rev 14:1). It also shows the absurdity of many of those who found storefront churches and claim that they know for certain when the end of the world will be. Not only does Jesus not give us or them that information, but Jesus said in the Gospel that not even HE knew when that would occur — only His Father knows (cf. Matt. 24:36 ). Finally it shows us the absurdity of individual Christians who propose concrete answers to this same type of eschatological trivia. A fellow priest recently told me of a controversy in Toronto that happened on the first anniversary of Princess Diana’s death. When Princess Diana died at the end of August 1997, many parents had told their young children, “Princess Di is now in heaven,” even though there is no way they could have ever known that. Except in the case of a canonized saint — someone whose presence God “certifies” in heaven by the working of miracles (which only God has the power to do) through that person’s intercession after death — we do not know where someone who has died has gone. Around the time of the first anniversary of her death, however, evangelical preachers and catechists were all saying that Princess Diana was in hell — even though they could not know THAT either — because she had been, it seems, in an adulterous relationship at the time of her death. This outraged many of the parents who previously had told their children the opposite and the media caught onto the controversy. One of the main newspapers ran an article, “Where is the Soul of Princess Diana?” in which the reporter asked various members of the clergy for answers to that question. If the reporter had been able to ask Jesus, I’m confident Jesus would have responded to the reporter, “YOU STRIVE first to enter through the narrow gate.” Again, the most pressing question is not about Princess Di’s salvation but about one’s own.

4) Even more than paying attention to what Jesus, in his answer, does NOT say, we must pay attention to what he does: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” This word, “strive,” in Greek is the same word we have for “agony” and it points to the type of struggle and suffering Jesus says it will take to enter into his kingdom. Jesus is saying, “Agonize to enter in.” We live in a culture today in which many people think salvation is easy, that as long as they are not cold-blooded serial killers, they can “float” effortlessly downstream to heaven. Jesus’ words today are a blaring wake up call. He who said that we must “love the Lord … with all [our] strength” MEANT IT. All our strength. All our mind, heart, and soul, too (cf. Lk 10:27)!

5) But what if we don’t love the Lord that much? What if we really don’t make an heroic effort? We might not get an A-plus on our discipleship, but we’ll still make the cut, won’t we? Listen to what Jesus says in St. Matthew’s Gospel about the relative numbers heading toward life and toward perdition. “The gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. But the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Mt 7:13-14). Jesus does not tell us whether those on the road to hell actually end up in hell or whether those on the road to life end up in heaven, but he does tell us pretty clearly that there are MANYon the broad, easy, “highway-to-hell” and FEW on the narrow, hard, uphill road following Jesus’ bloody footsteps to life. Faced with that statement from Him who is truth incarnate, we must ask: Which road am I on? Am I among the many or among the few? If one of us were to ask Jesus that question, what would he say? I think he would tell us again, simply, “Agonize to enter through the narrow gate that leads to life.” The point is not so much KNOWLEDGE about where we are now, but ACTION about where we want to end up.

6) Perhaps there is someone here today, saying to himself or herself, “But there must be some type of loophole. As long as I come to Mass each week and keep the commandments, I don’t have anything to worry about, right?” There is no loophole. There’s no short-cut out of the effort Christ is calling us to. In today’s Gospel, there were many who thought they had an “in,” only to be profoundly mistaken. They remained on the outside, knocking, trying to get in to no avail. “We ate and drank with you!,” they cried. It wasn’t enough. “We heard you teaching in our streets.” That wasn’t sufficient either. To both, Jesus said, “I do not know where you come from.” In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives even more stunning examples. “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many miracles in your name?” (Mt 7:22). Jesus says even to these he will declare, “I never knew you” (Mt 7:23). Jesus was saying to these people that a mere external relationship with him is not enough. It’s not enough just to come to hear Jesus’ words. It’s not enough to eat and drink with Jesus in the Last Supper in which we participate in the Mass. It’s not enough to mention his name to a few others or even to do a few good deeds in his name. In each of these things, Jesus says that we can still remain a STRANGER to him, someone unknown. After all, Judas ate and drank with Jesus, he heard his discourses, he was sent out by him to announce his kingdom and in his name he cast out demons and worked miracles (cf. Mt 10:8ff). Yet he never really knew who the Lord was. He followed Jesus on the outside, but not on the inside. Even though Jesus wanted it so badly, Judas never became his intimate friend, he never became a real member of his family. We know that Judas ultimately valued Jesus less than 30 pieces of silver. Today, disciples only-on-the-outside often sell Jesus for less, considering something else in their lives — whatever it be — more important than Him. We have to do more than listen to Jesus — we have to put his words into action, even difficult words like we find in today’s Gospel. We have to do more than eat and drink with him — we need to become whom we eat. We need to do more than announce his name and do some good deeds — we need to live by his name (Christian) and allow Him to work through us.

7) To be a faithful Christian means to “agonize” to follow Christ always. There is no point that we can stop fighting to follow him and “live off the interest” of previous years of good discipleship. We are called to struggle until the day we die. As Archbishop Sheen used to say, “If we’re not going uphill, we’re sliding downhill.” If we’re not swimming against the current of the world toward Jesus, we’ll be floating down stream over the falls. “Unless you pick up your cross each day and follow me,” he tells us, “you cannot be my disciple” (Lk 9:27,14:27). In the midst of a culture that is consistently trying to water down our commitment to God, Christians who want to be faithful need to strive even harder to pick up the Cross God gives them each day and unite themselves to Christ on the Cross. Christ, himself, is the “gate to the sheepfold” (Jn 10:7,9). The reason why the gate is narrow is because it is the width of the Cross.

8 ) God gives us our daily crosses so that we might enter into the gate who is Christ. Very often we misunderstand this. We run away from crosses and see them as curses rather than blessings. The second reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews, tells us that through the Cross God the Father disciplines and trains us out of love. In so doing, we gain the strength so that Jesus may never have to say of us, as he did of those in today’s Gospel, that they will “attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” Listen to what St. Paul tells us about the Father’s love in giving us daily struggles and crosses: “My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves. Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Then he gives us clear action items: “Therefore lift your drooping hands [in loving service] and strengthen your weak knees [by using them to pray humbly], and make straight paths for your feet [so that you might follow Christ on the way of the Cross through the narrow gate into God’s kingdom.].”

9) The same Father who out of love trains us and disciplines us knows that we need his help lift those drooping hands and to strengthen our frail knees. He knows we require his loving assistance to strive to enter through the narrow gate onto the thin, uphill road that leads to life. Every day — and not just on Sunday — he offers us the opportunity to hear his word and put it into practice and to become Whom we consume as our celestial food and strength for the uphill journey. To say “Amen!” as we receive Him in holy communion, is to say, literally, “Yes!!” to struggling against the “old man” in each of us so that we may enter more and more into Christ. To say “Amen!” means to say “so be it!!” to our mission to go out to those on the broad path that leads to perdition and help them come back to the narrow road that leads to life. To say “Amen!” means to say “fiat!!” to all that God wants of us each day he gives us. If we do this, then when we come to knock on that final door, saying, “Lord, open to us,” we will see him open that door and smile, call us by name and say, “I DO know you! Come on in! Enter into the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of time!” (cf. Mt 25:34).