In our Gospel passage for Sunday, Luke again emphasizes Jesus’ teaching ministry: “Jesus passed through towns and villages, teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem”. Since we know the end of the story, the mention of Jerusalem strikes an ominous note, because it meant rejection and the horror of the crucifixion.
Somewhere in some village some unnamed person in the crowd asked Jesus an interesting theological question: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” We don’t know the person’s motives for asking the question. Perhaps they saw the increasing opposition from the religious leaders and could sense that the crowds, although superficially interested in Jesus’ message – they ate and drank in his company- continued to side with their leaders. Nonetheless, the question was posed, “..will only a few people be saved?”
Perhaps many of us have contemplated that same question especially as we survey our current culture and see few committed Christians. The question at hand would have made for an interesting theological discussion but Jesus did not answer the question directly. Instead, he directed the question away from abstract theological speculation, toward specific application for each person in the crowd. The person had asked, “Will the saved be few?” Jesus turned it around to ask, “Will the saved be you?”
Remember, Jesus was speaking to a crowd made up mostly of religious Jews. They believed in the one true God. They were not agnostics or polytheists. They believed in the Hebrew Scriptures and lived in basic accordance with them. In giving his answer, Jesus was not addressing a pagan audience. He was talking to the “church” crowd, most of whom assumed they would go to heaven because they were good Jews. Jesus gives these “religious” folks some important and practical lessons on the subject of salvation:
Salvation requires earnest effort, urgent attention, and honest self-examination.
It requires our earnest effort because the gate is narrow. It requires our urgent attention because the door may soon be closed. It requires our honest self-examination because once it is closed, the door will be eternally-closed.
In his response, Jesus uses the word “strive”. It derives from a Greek word used in reference to athletic contests and to war. Obviously, it implies a great deal of effort. You don’t win wars or athletic contests by being passive. Every athlete who wins, strives to win. They invest great energy and effort into winning. A win is the result of deliberate and sustained effort. The fact that the gate is narrow implies that it takes deliberate thought and effort to go through it.
Jesus is asking, are you striving to enter the narrow gate? Are you making your salvation a matter of deliberate and sustained effort? Are you sure that you’re entering the narrow gate as defined by Jesus and not a broad gate of your own creation?
Again, consider the Olympic athlete. They make winning the gold medal the focus of their life. Everything they do is with this goal foremost in their mind. They won’t eat anything that is not good for them, because it might hinder their body from performing at its maximum on the day of the contest. They do not go to parties and stay up late because they want to be rested and ready to give everything to the race. They will refrain from engaging in activities that their friends enjoy, if it means jeopardizing their fitness. The committed and determined athlete is disciplined to work out for hours, often when their body is screaming, “that’s enough!”, because they are striving to win.
This is the attitude and commitment we are to have regarding our salvation.
Now, not later, is the time to cultivate and nourish a personal relationship with Jesus and not settle for a mere casual acquaintance with him.
‘Lord, will only a few people be saved?’ How easy it is to distract ourselves from the real challenges by asking very interesting questions. But Jesus’ reply points to what really matters: ‘Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.’
Jesus warns us off any false sense of entitlement: like the Jews, we too can feel comfortable in the belief that God is somehow obliged to save us. What counts is not our past exploits or successes, but being with the Master at all times.
Today’s Gospel stresses the lot of those who become outsiders because of their failure to respond to the invitation to “recline at table in the kingdom of God”. Exclusion does not come from lack in the “wideness of God’s mercy.” The Good News of the kingdom carries warning that we could “blow it,” permanently, if we refuse the gift, the invitation, and task of the Gospel. The stark image of the locked door is a wake-up call.
“I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!”’ Strong words indeed, which we hope we will never hear directed to us.