21st Sunday Year – C

Is 66:18-21, Heb 12:5-7, 11-13; Lk 13: 22-30

The Irish pastor said, “Everyone who wants to go to Heaven stand up!” and the whole church stood up.  And he said, “And those who want to go to hell, remain standing!” At the back of the church, old Murphy remained standing.   The pastor said, “Murphy, do you want to go to hell?”  Murphy said, “No, Father… I just hate to see you go there all by yourself!”

An exasperated mother, whose son was always getting into mischief, finally asked him, “How do you expect to get into Heaven?” The boy thought it over and said, “Well, I’ll just run in and out and in and out and keep slamming the door until St. Peter says, ‘For Heaven’s sake, Johnny, come in or stay out!’

In the first reading, Isaiah’s prophecy speaks to the Babylonian exiles returning to Jerusalem some 400 years later, telling them that salvation is not a Jewish monopoly and that is why Yahweh will welcome the pagans also into Judaism. The good news is: God wants all people to be saved. The gate of heaven is open to everyone, a wonderful image. But Jesus, who always wishes to keep us in touch with reality, reminds us that, sadly, not everyone is headed that way.

Jesus is asked a question we would all like to know the answer too. “Will only a few people be saved? From the gospel, it sounds as if there are going to be lots of people in heaven, people coming from north and south, east and west. However, we would have liked a few more details, numbers, percentages perhaps, but I guess Jesus figures we can answer the question for ourselves by seeing how people live according to his teaching. If we live by his teachings, we’re on our way to eternal happiness; if not, we’ll lose out.

When some of you were growing up, most people believed that it would be very hard to be saved. We worried about the smallest things such as whether we ate a little meat on Friday or drank anything before communion. But you see, Society today has gone to the other extreme. People in today’s society seem to think salvation is practically a given, that the only people not in heaven are those how had to work hard at avoiding getting there. Surveys today show almost 75% of Catholics say they can be good Catholics without attending church every Sunday. Half believe they can be a good Catholic without donating time or money to help the poor.  It’s like saying we can love God while choosing to ignore the important ways in which he asks us to serve him.

Heaven will have room for people from all nations, but there is still the “narrow gate” we have to pass through. In other words, we can’t take salvation for granted.

There are two images in today’s gospel, and neither one of them is particularly encouraging. First there is the image of the narrow gate. Jesus says that to enter the kingdom we must enter through the narrow gate. Second, there is the image of the closed door. Jesus warns us to be careful lest we be locked out. Now how do these two images apply to our lives? They both point to an essential need; personal responsibility.

I was impressed at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem during my Holy Land tour. The most notable thing about the church is its doorway. It is very small, only about three feet wide and four feet high. The crusaders who built this church designed the doorway in that fashion because they wanted to assure that who ever would come to visit the place where Jesus was born, would have to make an individual and conscious choice to enter and at the same time would be forced to bow as they came into the holy place.

The small door of the Church of the Nativity, like the narrow gate in today’s gospel, reminds us that if we are going to enter into the presence of the holy, if we are going to enter into the kingdom of God, we must do so with a conscious and purposeful choice. We cannot stroll into the kingdom unaware. We cannot walk in as part of a large group of people, holding onto someone else’s coat tails. We cannot enter into the kingdom on someone else’s merit.

One day, each one of us will have to stand before the Lord and give an accounting for the lives that we have lived, for the decisions that we made, for the opportunities that we missed, for the gifts that we used and the gifts that we squandered. It will be our life on the line. No one else can answer for it. We must assume personal responsibility. This is why Jesus says that those who enter will enter by the narrow gate.

The image of the closed door that Jesus used in the gospel was a warning to the Jews not to take their position as “chosen people” for granted. It’s a similar warning for all of us and the ‘closed door’ reminds all of us that time will run out. Life is just so long and none of us know how long it will last.

All of this is very serious. Jesus doesn’t tell us this to depress us or to discourage us or to scare us. He tells us this because he loves us.