21st Sunday Year C – Lectio Divina on Lk 13,22-30
I do not think that we today, if we met Jesus, would ask him how many will be saved, as that stranger did when he met him on his way to Jerusalem. We have to admit that salvation is not something that people today are interested in, not even Christians. It is hard to know why this should be. Is it because we are so preoccupied with the small problems we face every day, that we have lost sight of the most important thing in life? And yet it is on it that our eternal happiness depends. Or is because we think we are not too bad, and we take for granted that we will be rewarded for our efforts? This seems to us reason enough to enjoy this life without worrying about the next. It often happens that people, even with the best of intentions, think they do not need to pay too much attention to their final destiny, since God is so good that he will forgive us even if we are not good. There are many people today who, for different reasons, take salvation for granted, simply because they deserve it, or so they think.
At that time: 22 Jesus went on his way through towns and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem. 23 And some one said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, 24 “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 25 When once the householder has risen up and shut the door, you will begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, `Lord, open to us.’ He will answer you, `I do not know where you come from.’ 26 Then you will begin to say, `We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 But he will say, `I tell you, I do not know where you come from; depart from me, all you workers of iniquity!’ 28 There you will weep and gnash your teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves thrust out. 29 And men will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God. 30 And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
I. READ: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it.
Jesus teaches everywhere he goes on his way to Jerusalem. A stranger comes and asks him, how many will be saved. Will there be only a few? (Lk 13,23). Luke takes advantage of this scenario – a profoundly religious question put to Jesus as he is teaching on his way to Jerusalem – to join together three statements of Jesus about entry to the Kingdom (Lk 13,24.25-29.30). It is interesting that to this theoretical question on salvation Jesus responds with two very practical, easy-to-understand images, that of the narrow gate and that of sitting down at table.
The man was interested in the number of those who would be saved. Jesus answered him by telling him to be concerned about his own salvation (Lk 13,23). It is not as easy as we might think. What matters is not how many will be saved, but whether or not we will be counted among those who are saved. Our salvation is not a topic for discussion, but a task to be accomplished. And it is worth bearing in mind the warning of Jesus that not everyone who tries will be saved.
To explain himself better, Jesus resorts to a parable in which his listeners have a part to play (Lk 13,25 -29). He reminds those who take their salvation for granted because they are his close friends, that salvation does not depend on what they think but on the will of God. Sharing the life of Jesus here on earth is no guarantee of a future life in his company. Those who want to enter the Kingdom, may have to consider the possibility of being left outside.
Not everyone who wants to enter will do so, but only those who are recognised and welcomed by the Lord. Since it depends on “Someone Else” our salvation cannot be taken for granted. And worst of all, some of those who are least privileged and furthest away will be the first to enter. The fact that the last may be first is a strong warning to the people who think they are completely in order with God (Lk 13,30). That those who are furthest away from the goal now have a better chance of reaching the destination is not intended as a principle to be relied on. Nobody can be certain of victory, if even those closest are unsure of it. Jesus does not make things easy for good people, none of us are so good that we automatically deserve God’s gift.
II. MEDITATION: apply what the text says to life
In Jesus’ time, people were certainly less educated and less fortunate than we are today. Their lives were shorter and conditions were worse than those of today. For this reason, probably, they valued this life less than we do and paid more attention to the next. They were convinced that they could not free themselves from their sins and more concerned about the salvation that God alone could give them. They had little to lose in this life and they were more worried about what they might lose in the next. They lived without many of the things we have, but they did not want to live forever without God.
There are probably not too many nowadays who worry about the salvation of all. Not even convinced believers are certain of that gift which will always be unmerited. It would be good for us to ask ourselves, more often and more seriously, if we will one day be among those who are saved. If we did this, we would, without any doubt, live this fragile life better.
For this reason, it is worth noting that Jesus did not reply to this very important theological question: since only God can save, will he save many or few? To Jesus it seemed more important to warn the man of the risk run by those who do not try enough, than merely to satisfy his curiosity. Knowing the number of those who will be saved is much less important than making sure that we are among them.
Instead of answering the question, Jesus wanted the questioner to focus more on his own salvation than on the number of those to be save. Jesus made it clear that the majority would be saved, but he did not guarantee the man that he would be among them. Salvation should not become an academic question, or simply a topic for discussion. Jesus sees salvation as a life-long task. If he made anything clear, it is that salvation is not only uncertain, but also extremely difficult.
The requirements are not easy. The door is narrow. Effort is needed and, above all, salvation depends, not just on the desire to enter, but on being accepted by the Lord. The way in is not as easy as we would like. Neither personal effort nor hard work is enough. Entry to the Kingdom will always be a grace given, not something earned on merit.
Being his disciples, having lived with him and been taught by him, are not enough to ensure that we will not be left outside, without him, forever. Why then do I not ask if I will be saved? Do I take it for granted because it is a grace and does not depend on me? What can I do today to receive that grace which is not guaranteed even to those who have listened to Jesus and sat at table with him?
To explain this further, Jesus has recourse to symbolic language. It is the best way to speak about God and the life hereafter. If somebody wants to enter a place, the narrower the access the harder he will have to try. Jesus does not actually say that the doorway that leads to God is narrow, but he tells us to choose the narrow way in order to reach God.
This is indeed a strange way to encourage his listeners! But at least he does not deceive us with false promises. It is difficult to reach the thing that we desire most. The road is difficult, but when we reach the goal, we will enjoy it all the more because it was difficult to get there.
It seems as if God makes it difficult for us to reach him, as if God wants us to suffer as we follow him, so that we will appreciate him all the more. In reality what God wants is to lessen the pain we suffer when we seek him. He is just behind the door, so it does not matter if the door is narrow. If we want to be sure that he will be waiting for us at the end of this life, then we should not seek to avoid life’s difficulties. Jesus himself said it: if you do not try to enter by the narrow gate, you will not be able to enter. The choice is in our hands.
With the parable of the master who does not recognize the one calling from outside, Jesus reminds those who take God’s goodness for granted that they should not fool themselves. Just because God is good, does not mean that he can be fooled. Those who stayed outside when the door was closed were not strangers, though they were treated as strangers. They had been friends and companions, but they did not become guests. They had eaten with the master, and spent time with him, but they were not admitted to his house. It was not that they had done anything bad. Their only mistake was that they were not in the right place at the right time when he was closing the door. It made no difference to those who got in, that the door was narrow, as long as it remained open. Those who were left outside their friend’s house – and outside his heart – did not complain that the door was narrow. Their problem was that it was shut. The only thing the master of the house had to say was that he did not recognize as a friend the one who was left outside the house. The lesson is so obvious that Jesus does not even comment on it. It would be a mistake for us to deceive ourselves that having a good relationship with God is a guarantee that we will be with him one day and make our home with him in heaven. Sharing with Jesus in this life does not guarantee that our future will be with him. Taking our friendship with God for granted is the surest way to begin to lose it. Those who were intimate friends with Jesus saw others getting preference over them. A friendship that can be lost is a precious friendship. It is always safer not to leave a house if there is the risk of not getting back in. If there is a danger that God will not recognize us ever again, just because we have left him for a short while, we need to stay close to him every moment of our lives. It will be worth any sacrifice, if we value eternal life in his house.
So that there will be no shadow of doubt, Jesus concludes his exhortation with a warning that is both unusual and unfair. The last will be first. Those looked down upon will be considered the best. Unknown strangers will be intimate members of the Kingdom. The people who are furthest away may have a better chance of reaching the destination, but this is not helpful as a principle to be followed. If those who are closest are unsure of reaching the Kingdom, then nobody can be sure of it.
Jesus does not make things easy for the good, and nobody is so good as to be automatically deserving of God. Basically, this is what the parable is about. His listeners were certainly not pleased to hear that others would come from afar and take their places alongside the patriarchs and prophets of Israel in the banquet of the Kingdom. For the early readers of the Gospel, this was a sad, but undeniable reality. Some of the people who seemed least likely had been welcomed into the kingdom. The people who thought they had a right to it, with a whole history of salvation behind them, were left outside.
For us today, ‘Christians of the old stamp,’ the words of Jesus are a serious warning and, at the same time, a simple statement of fact. We will not be saved just by wanting it, although even wanting it is a grace from God. We need to live in the awareness that we have been chosen, and stay always close to the Lord. If living with him as a disciple and sharing the table with him are not enough to ‘earn’ us a place in the Kingdom, we cannot set any limits to our efforts nor rest in our hope of attaining it. Until we are allowed to pass through the narrow doorway, we are not saved. We do not have to be good ourselves to believe in God’s goodness, but we fool ourselves if we think that God will do our part if we neglect to do it ourselves. We tend to forgive our sins before God has forgiven them, and we avoid acknowledging them. God, and salvation, are waiting for us behind a narrow door, in difficult circumstances, after an unexpected failure. Looking for God in the easy things of life is a mistake that leaves us without hope. Jesus warned his Jewish listeners, and apparently without much success. With one last proverbial, enigmatic statement, Jesus resolves the problem. It does not matter who is first or who is last because there will be some people saved from each group. What matters, according to Jesus, is that there are no preferences and no privileged places. Those who are first cannot be sure of getting in, and those who are last may well be admitted. It is not who we are or where we are that assures us of entry, but what God wants us to be and where he wants us to be. To live today in his grace is the best way, and the surest way, to ensure that we are always in his grace, and that he will allow us to enter and have supper at his table.
Jesus has warned us today. Will his warning be more effective today than it was then? We should hope so! We risk too much if we rely on God’s infinite goodness instead of trying to be better. If God can so easily be lost, than we need to pay careful attention to him. It does not make sense to risk being left outside forever, just because we have not always stayed close to him. If the people, who were first in line for a long time, were to finish up last in the Kingdom, it would be a great pity, so great that they would regret it for the whole of eternity. It is up to each one of us!