Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 21C
The question in today’s Gospel has been the subject of lots of debate and speculation, even in recent times. “Will only a few people be saved?” Is hell crowded or empty? Will God’s mercy win out over everything, or does God actually respect our free will when we say No to Him? I think a lot of the discussion is motivated by a genuine concern for our neighbor. We see lots and lots of people not really engaged in spiritual pursuits. There’s a perception that in modern times human populations all over the world are tending to be less and less religious, more agnostic and atheistic. The errors of Islam have once again spread into huge portions of the world as well. And so, what can we say about them? Are they all going to hell? Even just asking the question for ourselves, another way we could phrase the question is, how difficult will it be to get to heaven? Should I kick it into high gear or just give up now because I don’t really stand a chance anyway? “Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
Now notice that Jesus does not say in reply, Yes, and Jesus doesn’t say, No. He says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” If we think we are strong enough already, good enough Catholics, good people, nice people, we need to think again. The Saints who have made it to heaven were those who were always striving for more, challenging themselves and being challenged by God to answer more fully each day the call to holiness, to pray without ceasing and to serve the least ones. Saint Teresa of Calcutta would often summarize the Gospel on one hand. Five words. You did it to me. Jesus said, Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you did it to me. Mother Teresa was always striving to better serve the poor and the abandoned, the dying and those who had no one else to care for them. She was always striving to give more and more of herself to God, to Jesus in the Eucharist. Strive to enter through the narrow gate.
The original motivation for the question of whether only a few would be saved was probably the prominence of a spiritual elite in the time of Jesus. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the priests and scholars of the Law, only a few of the total population, who were able to keep the laws about cleanliness and the many traditions of the Jews. These were perceived as the chosen few, the ones closer to God and often proud of their positions. Even in our own day, we might think that priests, deacons, bishops, cardinals, popes, that they have some advantage over the rest. In some ways, that is possible, in that we have hopefully spent a lot of time and study in learning the truths of the faith, but all of us will be judged rather on how we have actually put those truths into action, and those who know more intellectually don’t necessarily do more.
The first reading from Isaiah prophesied that God would take priests and Levites from among the nations, from the unclean Gentiles, the people that had not been chosen by God as the Jews had, and Jesus says that “people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” The spiritually elite have no advantage over anyone else in entering the kingdom of God. If anything, there is more of a danger that they become complacent and think that they are already doing enough. Are we striving, or are we settling? Strive to enter the narrow gate.
Now what about those others, the atheists, the unchurched, the “spiritual-but-not-religious,” the Muslims and followers of false religions, what about them? I can control the words, actions, and responses of precisely one person. And that person is me. The reply that Jesus gives in today’s Gospel reminds me of what He says to St. Peter on the shore of Galilee at the end of the Gospel according to John. Peter is walking with Jesus on the shore and turns to look at John and asks, “What about him, Lord?” And Jesus basically replies, Don’t worry about John. I’ll look after John. “You, follow Me.” “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” “You, strive to enter the narrow gate.” You, share the Gospel that we have received. Live it loudly, and let those whom God has called respond. God is going to take of those others. He offers and desires the salvation of each and every person. But you can control the response of you. So strive, and don’t settle, in the spiritual life. Share the Gospel with the person next to you, the people we actually meet each day. If every believing Catholic did that, the invitation from God would eventually reach everyone in the world. And then let God be the final Judge of their response. You, strive.