TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR


Commentaries on Readings:  Isaiah 66:18-21; Hebrews 12:5-7.11-13; Luke 13:22-30

THERE IS A WORLDWIDE TENDENCY among people who believe in a religion to feel that they are a privileged group, that they carry with them some cast-iron guarantee that their future is absolutely secure. The concept of a “chosen people” is not really confined to the Jews. We find it among Christians, Hindus, Muslims and even among militant Buddhists (a contradiction in terms?).

It is not for us here to evaluate other religious beliefs. We will confine ourselves to Christians. Even among Christians themselves there are divisions about who is chosen and on the right path. Just listen to some of the Christians of Northern Ireland speaking about each other.

Christians have believed for a long time that they and they alone will be, as they put it, “saved”. “Outside the Church there is no salvation” was a rallying cry for centuries and, if we are not mistaken, still is for some. Yet it was well before the Second Vatican Council that Jesuit Fr Leonard Feeney was condemned by the Holy See for denying salvation to non-Christians.

How many will be saved?

Perhaps this was what Jesus’ questioner had in mind when – in today’s Gospel passage – he asked, “Will there be only a few saved?” The question reflected the belief of many Jews in Jesus’ time that they and they alone were God’s “Chosen People”. For them that meant, on the one hand, that “pagans” and “unbelievers”, people who did not observe the Law of Moses, were outcasts to be rejected by God forever. The salvation of God’s People, however, was virtually guaranteed, provided they kept the Law.

As often happens, Jesus does not answer his enquirer’s question directly. If he does not actually counter with another question, he will speak in parables or images. In any case, his meaning will be quite clear to an open mind. Jesus speaks today about coming in through a narrow door and about a householder who refuses to open the door after he has locked up for the night. The fact that those knocking claim to be companions known to him does not make him change his mind. “You are late and I do not recognise you any longer.” Terrible words!

So, in answer to the person’s question, Jesus does not confirm or deny that only a few will be saved. What he does say is that salvation is not guaranteed for anyone. “We are your Chosen People” will not be good enough. What Jesus is saying is that no one, no matter who they are, has an absolute guarantee of being saved, of being accepted by God. No one is saved by claiming identity with a particular group or by carrying a particular name tag.

Message is for all

Jesus does not at all say that only a few will be “saved”. The whole thrust of the Gospel, and especially of the Gospel according to Luke which we are reading, is that Jesus came to bring God’s love and freedom to the whole world. The message of that Gospel is that there is not a single person, not a single people, nation, race, or class, which is excluded from experiencing the love and liberation that God offers.

The primary role of the Christian community has never been simply to guarantee the “salvation” of its own members. It is not the function of the Church to turn all its energies in seeing that its members “save their souls” and sometimes pray for those in “outer darkness”.

The role of the Christian community from the beginning until now is first and foremost to proclaim to the whole world the Good News about God’s love for the world, to share the message of the Gospel about what constitutes real living with the whole world. It also hopes that many will respond to its message of life through a conversion of their lives. The Church completely betrays this mandate when it becomes obsessed with its own survival and its own “rights” and privileges.

And it is not only a verbal message, the verbal teaching of Jesus, which has to be communicated. Our whole lifestyle, individually and in community, as Christians is itself to be a proclamation to all those who hunger for a life of truth, of love, of justice and greater sharing, a life of compassion and mutual support, an end to loneliness and marginalisation, exploitation and manipulation… Is that a picture of the Christian community you belong to?

How to be ‘saved’?

How many people will be saved? What does it mean, “being saved”? It is not very helpful to toss out the old catechism jargon about those dying “in the state of grace”, “without mortal sin on their souls”. Trying to put it in more realistic terms, to be “saved” means to live and to die in a close loving relationship with God and with others. It is to share the vision of life that Jesus offered to us. It is both simple and difficult to do. “By this will all know you are my disciples that you love each other.” By loving each other in the name and the spirit of Jesus is really all that is necessary to be “saved”.

How many, then, will be saved? No one knows but surely it is God’s will that it should be many. And, as the Scripture often says, God’s plans will not be frustrated. It is not for us to judge.

A graced position

But let us come closer to home and look at the second part of Jesus’ teaching today. To belong to the People of God (a phrase used by the Second Vatican Council), to belong to the Christian community is, in many ways, a privileged, a graced position.

If we really belong to a community which shares and explains the Word of God in a way that helps me to understand the deeper meaning of life, if I find comfort and support – spiritual, emotional, social and material – from that community, then I am blessed indeed. But such a grace also is one of responsibility.

Jesus expresses this in a number of ways. The path to life is through a “narrow door”. In terms of the Gospel, the doorway to life can be summed up in the word “love”. In one sense, love is an all-embracing word in both its figurative and literal meanings. Yet, to guide all one’s action only by love is a choice that many are unable to make. Many find it extremely difficult and many simply reject it. They prefer to go by the broader way (which they even call “more human”) of hatred, resentment, jealousy, competitiveness and revenge.

How many of us can claim to have succeeded in walking the narrow way of unconditional and unremitting love? Yet, if we fail in love, what kind of Christians are we? Do we deserve the final reward of brothers and sisters, disciples, of Jesus?

Frightening possibility

So what Jesus is saying today is that many who regard themselves as “Catholics” may find the door closed in their face. They will hear those terrible words, “I do not know you”. How can Jesus not recognise someone who was baptised as Catholic and who went regularly to Sunday Mass? Because these people in their turn did not recognise Jesus himself in all those people they may have hated, resented, used, exploited, manipulated, rejected, trampled on. “As often as you failed to do it to the least of my brothers, you neglected to do it to me.”

When we do come face to face with God – and hopefully we will – we may be surprised at who is not there. We may even be more surprised at those who are there: people we regarded as “pagans” (Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims), animists, agnostics, even atheists, people of other races we tended to despise, the dregs of society. “People from east and west, from north and south, will come to take their places at the banquet in the Kingdom of God.”

These people will be in the Kingdom because, whatever labels we gave them, they were at heart loving, caring and sharing people, people who lived their lives for others as Jesus did. These people Jesus will recognise. Let us make sure that he will be able to recognise each of us, too. What will you do today to make sure that Jesus knows you?

 

 

 

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