21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 25, 2019
St. Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS
Isaiah 66:18-21; Psalm 117:1-2; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30
Before I say anything, I want you to take just one quick moment and think about something yourself. When you hear this Gospel, when you hear the Lord say, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate,” what do you think of? If I were to walk around with the microphone—and don’t worry, I’m not going to—but if I were to walk around with the microphone and have you tell all of us what the “Narrow Gate” is, what would you say? Take a second. Formulate an answer.
When we hear “narrow gate,” one of the things we immediately think about is a very good, very Protestant-America Calvinism, a good ole Bible-Belt Christian, American Puritan sort of answer. We think about Jesus finally sticking it to all of those people that are leading heathen lives, people that are atheists, or they don’t follow the Church’s teaching, they reject the truth—and how there is no way they’re going to make it. We think about the narrow gate being the rules and teachings we have to subscribe to. It’s a sort of ritual purity, or making sure we say our prayers that our mom taught us each morning. Entering the narrow gate is making sure we are always right when it comes to Church teaching, that we defend the teachings of the Church against anyone that might slightly corrupt them. That’s the narrow gate: a very constricted life, a life full of clinging to rules and “the truth,” just kind of looking pitifully at all of those people who definitely aren’t going to make it through the narrow gate. And there are little pieces of truth in that. But it misses the mark a little bit.
The narrow gate is something a little more involved. The narrow gate is discipleship, and more specifically, discipleship to Jesus Christ. And discipleship to Christ means relationship with Christ. This is what our Gospel is pushing us toward today. It is only through Jesus Christ that we enter the Kingdom, that we are saved. Many will eat and drink in his company, many will be around him and hear his teaching. But Jesus says it is not proximity or “status” that saves, but a life of discipleship.
We can get caught-up on the “who is saved” question, and that is definitely there. Our first reading from Isaiah and the Gospel both focus on the fact that salvation is extending beyond the people of Israel and being offered to people of every nation. But that is the backdrop of the story. Jesus himself side-steps the question. And that is because underneath the story, when we go deeper, when we focus on Jesus’ response, we see that the real issue is about discipleship, striving to enter through the narrow gate.
In this passage from our Gospel, we get a question that probably comes from an argument that was going on. And so—classic—they bring it to Jesus. He’s asked, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” In other words, the implicit question, or the implicit mindset was, “So if you’re the Messiah and all, and you’re here to give us salvation: who is going to be saved? Is it just the Israelites? Just God’s chosen people? Or are the pesky gentiles going to be offered salvation too?” And what does Jesus do? Does he launch into a beautiful discourse on the universality of salvation? Or a teaching about baptism? Or purgatory? Does he talk about following your conscience? No. Jesus dodges the question, because it’s the wrong question to ask. This question reveals this underlying belief that salvation depends on “who you know,” on “your status,” on “being the chosen people.” And how does he respond? I mean, you can almost hear the weariness in his voice. Why? Because as we heard earlier in the Gospel of Luke, salvation is offered to all, the sower sows the seeds over all the earth—rocks, weeds, path, good soil, all of it. Salvation is offered to all…but not all will accept it. And so Jesus responds, with the weariness of someone that knows not all of his labor will bear fruit—Jesus responds, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” In other words, “Become my disciple. Enter into relationship with me. This is the only way.”
And he also immediately shoots down false ideas of what this narrow gate is. “We ate and drank in your company.” Not going to cut it. “You taught in our streets; we heard you teach.” Not good enough either. Guilty by association may be a thing, but salvation by association isn’t. I mean, fill in your own: “Lord, I went to mass every Sunday.” I do not know where you are from. “Lord, I volunteered for my parish.” I do not know where you are from. “Lord, I could ace a test on all of the teachings of the Church.” I do not know where you are from; depart from me.
Discipleship doesn’t mean being part of the club. Just because you got some water poured on your head doesn’t mean you’re good. “Striving to enter through the narrow gate” isn’t something that happens by accident, it doesn’t happen casually. Remember, the narrow gate is a life of discipleship; and discipleship is a real relationship with Jesus Christ.
There are different kinds of friendships, or relationships. One kind is useful friendships or relationships. These are the people you’re “friends” because you’re useful to each other: people you work with, people you go to school with. But when situations change, they go by the wayside. It’s a real friendship, but it is more just a friendship you have because of the situation you’re in. It just kind of happens by accident. Another kind is pleasant friendships, or friendships of pleasure. These are relationships you have because these are the people you just like to be around, people you have fun with. Maybe you’re on the same sports team, or maybe it’s the friends you hang-out with on weekends, a group you have coffee with, a mom’s group, people you gossip with around the water cooler. These are pleasant friendships; friends that you have fun with, but not much else. The thing is that these two kinds of relationships happen by accident, they’re shallow, they don’t have substance. “You eat and drink with each other, see each other on the street,” but you do not really know each other. This is especially true in our day and age, in the social media generation we live in. Everyone is your friend. You know a lot about a lot of people. And this gives an illusion of intimacy, of closeness, of true relationship. But really, it is nothing more than a shallow connection.
This is not the kind of relationship I’m talking about when I say that discipleship is a relationship with the Lord, with Jesus Christ. This kind of relationship involves intimacy, a shared life—not just being physically in the same room as the person, not just eating and drinking with them, not just knowing a few facts about them. The narrow gate is entering into a real, authentic, deep, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ—the gate himself (c.f., John 10:9). Discipleship is not a “status” or a “club.” Discipleship is a path, a daily task, a relationship.
Because I’m a priest, a lot of people just assume that I’m a disciple of the Lord. And sometimes I think that I am a true disciple because of that fact that I’m a priest. It’s like, “Well, of course I’m a disciple. I mean look at what I’m doing! I’m a priest. Doesn’t get much more of a disciple than this, right?” But then, I put myself in this same story. “Lord, I ate and drank with you. Lord, I heard your teachings. Lord, I’m one of your priests. Lord, I go to mass every day and pray every day.” And yeah, I have a relationship with the Lord, but is this relationship real, authentic, and intimate? Am I a true disciple?
Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus laid out the conditions for discipleship. He said, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Do I deny myself, or am I always self-seeking, seeking what I want, doing what I want, trying to provide for my own good and my own happiness? Do I take up my cross daily, or do I just take it up every other day, when I feel like it, when it’s convenient for me? Do I follow Christ, or do I just hang-out around Christ—“follow him” like I follow people on Instagram (just observing them), do I make sure I’m at the same parties as him?
If I am a disciple, if I have a true relationship with Christ, then just like any true relationship, that means I have responsibilities; it means I have to do my part, I can’t just be along for the ride. It also means I have to show up. You don’t go to your kid’s soccer game because it’s great soccer; you go because you love them, because they want you there, because it shows your love for them. But you have to show up, and not just exteriorly, but interiorly too. Have you ever talked to someone while they were also messaging people on their phone? They may be right in front of you and talking to you, but they’re not really there? It’s the same thing with a true relationship: just because we “eat and drink” with someone doesn’t mean there is a real relationship there. You have to show-up, interiorly and exteriorly. Discipleship, a true relationship with Christ, also means that you are faithful—or maybe a little more clearly, it means you are consistent. We all know people that show-up when it’s convenient for them, they hang-out with us when they have time—but they aren’t going to make time for us. But in a real relationship, you are consistent. I mean, for example, going to the gym: you have to do it consistently, or it doesn’t change you. Responsibility, showing-up, and consistency. These are simple elements of being a disciple, of having a true relationship with Christ.
We can sit around and ask questions about status, and who follows the rules, and what are the teachings. But the real question is that of striving to enter the narrow gate, striving to live a life of discipleship, a true relationship with the Lord.