Sunday, August 22, 2010

Behold, Some Who Are Last Will Be First, And Some Who Are First Will Be Last.

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Isaiah 66:18-21
Thus says the LORD:
I know their works and their thoughts,
and I come to gather nations of every language;
they shall come and see my glory.
I will set a sign among them;
from them I will send fugitives to the nations:
to Tarshish, Put and Lud, Mosoch, Tubal and Javan,
to the distant coastlands
that have never heard of my fame, or seen my glory;
and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations.
They shall bring all your brothers and sisters
from all the nations
as an offering to the LORD,
on horses and in chariots, in carts,
upon mules and dromedaries,
to Jerusalem, my holy mountain, says the LORD,
just as the Israelites bring their offering
to the house of the LORD in clean vessels.
Some of these I will take
as priests and Levites, says the LORD.
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Psalm 117
Go out to all the world and tell the Good News.
Praise the LORD all you nations;
glorify him, all you peoples!
Go out to all the world and tell the Good News.
For steadfast is his kindness toward us,
and the fidelity of the LORD endures forever.
Go out to all the world and tell the Good News.
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Reading II
Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13
Brothers and sisters,
You have forgotten the exhortation
addressed to you as children:
“My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord
or lose heart when reproved by him;
for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines;
he scourges every son he acknowledges.”
Endure your trials as “discipline”;
God treats you as sons.
For what “son” is there
whom his father does not discipline?
At the time, all discipline seems a cause
not for joy but for pain,
yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness
to those who are trained by it.

So strengthen your drooping hands
and your weak knees.
Make straight paths for your feet,
that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed.
Luke 13:22-30
Jesus passed through towns and villages,
teaching as he went
and making his way to Jerusalem.
Someone asked him,
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
He answered them,
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough.
After the master of the house has arisen
and locked the door,
then will you stand outside knocking and saying,
‘Lord, open the door for us.’
He will say to you in reply,
‘I do not know where you are from.
And you will say,
‘We ate and drank in your company
and you taught in our streets.’
Then he will say to you,
‘I do not know where you are from.
Depart from me, all you evildoers!’
And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth
when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
and all the prophets in the kingdom of God
and you yourselves cast out.
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.
For behold, some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last.”
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 there are divisions about who is chosen and on the right path.

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 Father Leonard Feeney was condemned by the Holy See for denying salvation to non-Christians.

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 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 or waving a certificate signed by a parish priest.

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. Just handing out a catechism or even a Bible is not enough. 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 marginalization, exploitation and manipulation... Is that a picture of the Christian community you belong to?

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 actively 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.

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", "more natural") 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? 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?

The Irish Jesuits


Elizabeth Mahlou said...

The paragraph about love reminds me of a conversation I once had with a senior manager who works for me. He had a lot of difficult employees whom he found challenging. Yet, I rarely have problems with such employees. So, he asked me what the key was to dealing with difficult people. I told him it was so simple that he probably would not accept it. When I said, "You have to genuinely love them," he told me could not do that. So, a short while later, he left, leaving behind a group of unhappy, "difficult" employees. The person who replaced him knew how to love them, and they are basically happy people today. I know we can love others, truly love them and not exclude folks we might for one reason or another consider "difficult" because I have seen people do it. I don't know how others manage it, but if they are like me, it is with a lot of prayer asking God to let His love flow through me to them for I would not have enough alone. That seems to be a prayer He always answers.

Sarah in the tent said...

'Strive to enter through the narrow gate'

Our Lord referred to Himself as the gate of the sheepfold. It must be a narrow gate, because it is only as wide as one man - Jesus Himself. Following Christ is a process of entering through a narrow gate.

Houses with fences around them often have two gates - one narrow and one wide enough for vehicles to pass through. The narrow gate is the one used by the children of the family, in fact by all those close to the family. The wide gate is used by those who want to roll up the drive in style, or those who don't know the family well enough to enter without ceremony.

If you don't know the family, it might be hard to find the narrow gate, but if you do know the family, the narrow gate is the simplest and most obvious choice.

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

Sarah, thank you for sharing with us a different perspective on "two gates", in particular your focus on the "family entrance" to the manor house.

Thinking about this image brought me (eventually) to remember that when the Solemnity of the Assumption is celebrated on a weekday, the same weekday in the following week is the Feast of the Queenship of Mary. I then turned to the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, with all of the magnificent titles given to her:

MOTHER: of God, of Christ, of the Creator and Savior, of divine grace.

VIRGIN: most prudent, venerable, powerful and merciful.

QUEEN: of Angels, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, Confessors, Virgins, All Saints, and of the Holy Rosary.

SPECIAL TITLES: Seat of Wisdom, Cause of our Joy, Mystical Rose. and, at last! the title that links today's Sunday readings with the Queenship of Mary:

If you seek a sure pathway to eternal bliss, "Strive to enter heaven by staying close to the Mother of Jesus and our Mother: the GATE OF HEAVEN.