It is said that familiarity breeds contempt, but in religion it might better be said that it breeds presumption. Although rarely stated, it is easy to believe that knowing about God is the same as really knowing Him. The prophets without exception tell us that having a mastery of laws and customs – and even being actively involved in liturgical practices – can make one look religious but does automatically connect one to God. Today, Luke shows us what this really means.
First, it is necessary to remember that Jesus is a Jew talking to other Jews. The Jews are a chosen people, because they were ordained to bring the presence of the Lord of History to the entire world. This may be found throughout Jewish history, as we have seen in our examinations of the First Readings at Mass, but it became crystal clear after the return of the exiles to Jerusalem after 430 BC. To take only one example, Isaiah writes:
It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth (Is 49:6).
Although this was part of the prophetic tradition, it was not necessarily part of people’s daily consciousness. It is not an accident that Jesus brings this out at the start of his ministry. Jesus told the people of Nazareth that he had come to “bring glad tidings to the poor” and “proclaim liberty to captives” (Luke 4: 16-20). His listeners are very pleased until he adds that this is not only for them but for non-Jews as well.
28 When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury.
29 They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. (Lk 4:25–29
When Jesus is asked today, “Lord will only a few be saved?”, He is being questioned at very least if non-Jews (gentiles) will be saved. We already know his answer from Nazareth, but he refuses to be distracted from his message that everyone needs to have a change of heart. Simple membership in any group is a very “wide gate”, and does not require the necessary upturning of mind and heart. He will only tell them that they must enter by the narrow gate.
Jesus is on his “way to Jerusalem” (Luke 13: 22) Since he told the disciples that he was the Messiah who would need to suffer and die (Luke 9: 22), “going to Jerusalem” meant that he was consciously going forth to be sacrificed. That is “The” narrow gate. It is difficult to find and hard to accept, but it is the sure way to salvation. It requires making a decision not just going along with the crowd. It is no wonder that Jesus demands strength and warns of timing.
He also knows the greatest temptation:
We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.
This was first been addressed to the Jews who experienced the ministry of Jesus face to face. We might think this an unbelievable opportunity but remember the experience at Nazareth. There are no exceptions, even Mary his mother needed to be tested, the sword of choosing for or against Jesus would piece her heart as well. (Luke 2:35)
This is even more pertinent for the first Christians, and indeed for us. We eat and drink in Jesus’ company and actually receive Him in the Eucharist, yet what does this mean for us? Do we experience it as our sharing in God’s life and accepting the mandate to commit ourselves to Jesus’ mission or is it simply a ritual or perhaps even just a habit that we do on Sundays?
The most eloquent statements of the need for liturgy to be connected to conversion for true worship to be celebrated are found in the Old Testament, and still speak as powerfully to us. The first reading today from Isaiah 66 is a good example (see commentary) but my favorite is from Psalm 51, speaking to the Lord the Psalmist says:
8 For you do not desire sacrifice;
a burnt offering you would not accept.
19 My sacrifice, God, is a broken spirit;
God, do not spurn a broken, humbled heart (Ps 51:18–19)
The penalties for failure are dire and expressed today in very Jewish terms. After being cast out of Jesus’ presence, those who took the wide gate are told that there will be a great banquet with Abraham and the patriarchs and prophet to which they would now be excluded. This is the messianic banquet: all Jews prayed to live to experience this:
And 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.
It is not only that they will be denied a place, but that others who they deemed unworthy but had followed Jesus on the cross, the narrow way, were feasting instead of them. This also is a message for Christians. The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is unique to St Luke (16: 19-31) and ends with, “Neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’” (Luke 16: 31). This is not about the clarity of testimony but the firmness of response.
How do we know if we have opened the narrow gate? As is always the case with St Luke look at our Blessed Lady. In the Magnificat at the beginning of the Gospel, she sings:
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.
53 The hungry he has filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty. (Lk 1:52–53)
As we know, the entire song is like this, and it is put at the beginning of the Gospel to tell us how to experience the journey that the good news will require of us. Jesus told us today that “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” If life looks – or better feels – the way everyone tells you it should, you have not taken the narrow gate. Let me suggest a simple test with a follow up exercise. There are rare times in our lives when we express our deepest thoughts and feelings to other people. If you get a nod of agreement from most people, is Jesus a major presence in your life’s journey? After all, how many people really believe, much less act on the knowledge that the lowly will be lifted up and are willing to be seen as last in anything? But stick close to those whose eyes show understanding, for although the gate is narrow, you cannot open it alone.
As we have seen reading the Gospel of Luke this year, he employs several literary devices to draw us into his world. One is the use of Mary, the mother of Jesus, to put flesh on discipleship for us. Another is connecting the major statements of the Gospel to one another, but also to the Old Testament and to the Acts of the Apostles (Luke Part 2, if you will). Today, we saw and examined in the homily two relatively clear references to Mary, several to the Old Testament, and indeed cross references to other parts of the Gospel. We did not have the time, however, to look at Acts. You may wish to read the passage below:
46 Both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.
47 For so the Lord has commanded us, ‘I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.’”
48 The Gentiles were delighted when they heard this and glorified the word of the Lord. All who were destined for eternal life came to believe,
49 and the word of the Lord continued to spread through the whole region.
50 The Jews, however, incited the women of prominence who were worshipers and the leading men of the city, stirred up a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their territory. (Acts 13:46-50)
This is part of Paul’s first major sermon. It reflects Peter’s first effort in Acts 2 and like this gives an historical overview of the mission of the Jewish People. They also both reflect on Psalm 16:10. “You will not suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption.” It was Jesus who brought eternal life, not David, and it was through him that the mission will continue being “an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.” It is the mission, not the personnel who accomplish it, that is important.