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Reflections for the XXI Sunday

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the twenty-first Sunday in ordinary time. He says that Jesus clearly explains that anyone who follows him through the narrow gate of sacrificial serving and sharing love will be saved.

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

Introduction: As he continues his fateful journey to Jerusalem, Jesus answers the question as to how many will be saved by answering how to enter into salvation and how urgent it is to strive now, before the Master closes the door. Jesus wants us to ask the question: Are you prepared to be saved, choosing the narrow gate?   Jesus clearly explains that anyone who follows him through the narrow gate of sacrificial serving and sharing love will be saved.   Jesus also admonishes his followers to concentrate on their own salvation instead of excessively worrying about salvation of other people.

Homily starter anecdote:   Three surprises in Heaven: Bishop Sheen tells us that we will have three surprises in Heaven. The first surprise: We will be surprised to see that many people we expected to be in Heaven are not there. St. John of the Cross gives the reason why they are not there: “At the evening of our life, we shall be judged on how we have loved.” The second surprise: We will be surprised to see that the people we never expected to be in Heaven are there. That is because God judges man’s intentions, and rewards them accordingly. The third surprise: We will be surprised to see that we are in Heaven. Since our getting to Heaven is principally God’s work, we should be surprised that God somehow “went out of His way” to save us, simply because we showed the good will and generosity to cooperate with His grace. In today’s Gospel, Jesus answers the question, who will be saved, when and how. (http://frtonyshomilies.com/).

The first reading (Is 66:18-21) explained:  Isaiah answered prophetically a similar question about salvation, which would be put forward some 200 years later by the Jews returning to Jerusalem in 540 BC after forty-seven years in exile.  Some of them brought back to Jerusalem their pagan wives and in-laws who had been converted to the Jewish Faith. The question was whether Yahweh would accept these former pagans along with His chosen people. The third part of Isaiah's prophecy (chapters 56-66), answers this question.  In the prophet's message, Yahweh declared that He was the Lord of all peoples rather than of the Jews alone.  In fact, some of these converts were to be missionaries to other pagans.  Even the hereditary posts of priest and Levite could be held by these outsiders.  (The Jewish priests were born into the priesthood.  No Jewish man born outside of a priestly family could ever dream of standing at the altar and offering sacrifice to Yahweh.  But Isaiah foresaw that even the non-Jews would be invited to join that highly restricted ministry!)  

The second reading: Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13:   The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, considering the “narrow gate theology,” gives it a different twist (Heb 12:5-7, 11-13).  For Paul, the road less often taken and the gate less often chosen are the paths of God's discipline. The pain and suffering Christians experience are parts of God’s discipline, given in love. We are being disciplined by our afflictions, strengthened to walk that straight and narrow path - that we may enter the gate, take our place at the banquet of the righteous. The experience is similar to that of a child, disciplined by loving parents who desire only to help him grow, mature, and become responsible.  God’s discipline can be appreciated only by those who regard their relationship with God as that of a child to a parent (Proverbs 3: 11-12). Unfortunately, we often take God’s discipline differently. Some of us meet God’s discipline with a resigned acceptance that sees no other possible course.  Others gulp it down like a bitter pill so as to be done with it as soon as possible. Some respond with self-pity, which, in the end, leads to their collapse.  Still others become resentful and turn away from God. However, there are some, who can lift their spirits above present trials and look beyond to the peace and justice (v. 11) which are the fruits of God’s discipline.

Gospel exegesis: Are you saved”? When the questioner asked Jesus “How many will be saved?” he was assuming that the salvation of God's Chosen People was virtually guaranteed, provided they kept the Law. In other words, the Kingdom of God was reserved for the Jews alone, and Gentiles would be shut out.  The Jewish catechism, Mishnah, taught: “All Israelites have a share in the world to come.” But the author of the Apocalypse of Ezra declared, “this age the Most High has made for the many, but the age to come for a few” (4 Ezra 8:1). Hence, Jesus' answer must have come as a shock. Jesus affirms that God wants all persons to enjoy eternal life with Him. But he stresses the need for constant fidelity and vigilance throughout our lives. Thus, Jesus reminds us that, even though God wants all of us to be saved, we all need to work at it. Entry into God’s kingdom is not automatically granted, based purely on religious Faith or nationality, so we cannot presume on God’s mercy and do nothing by way of response to God’s invitation. What Jesus is saying is that salvation is not guaranteed for anyone. "Outside the Church there is no salvation" was a rallying cry for centuries.  But Jesus declares that nobody can claim that he is “saved,” possessing a "visa" to Heaven. How many will be saved in the end is a decision that rests with God, and depends on whether His Justice or His Mercy finally prevails.  Jesus came to bring God's love and freedom to the whole world. The message of his Gospel is that there is not a single person, not a single people, nation, race, or class, which will be excluded from experiencing the love and liberation that God offers. Hence, the role of the Christian community, from the beginning until now has been, first and foremost, to proclaim to the whole world the Good News of God's love for the world, and then to show this Good News to be real, reflected in the loving, sharing and serving lives of individual Christians. So to be "saved" means to live and to die in a close, loving relationship with God and with others.

 Sayings and parables: Jesus issued a series of sayings and parables that emphasized the difficulty involved in entering God’s Kingdom, and he stressed the need for constant fidelity and vigilance throughout our lives. Jesus also insisted that salvation was an urgent matter -- the "narrow gate" was open now but would not remain so indefinitely (“the master of the house will lock the door”).  Then he added two conditions:  a) Eternal salvation was the result of a struggle: "keep on striving to enter.”  (The Greek word agonizomai means strenuous effort in athletic competition.  See I Cor 9:25; 1 Tim 6:12; 2 Tim 4:7).  It is like the effort one would make in swimming against the current in a river.  A man must ever be going forward or else he will go backward.   b) We must enter through the "narrow gate" of sacrificial and selfless service. (Confer Mt 7:13-14; Jer 21:8; Dt 30: 15-20; Jos 24:15). 

The narrow gate: Most cities of the ancient world were surrounded by walls that had large gates in them.  Jerusalem had about twelve gates that were large enough for two-way traffic.   People moved through these gates to do their business, to shop and to visit their friends.   These gates, however, were closed at night, in case the city came under attack by an invader.   There were also smaller gates through which individual citizens could be allowed into the city by the guards without exposing the city to danger. These smaller, or narrower gates were what Jesus was talking about. These smaller gates were like turnstiles – only one person at a time could enter through them.

Jesus repeats Isaiah's image of a final banquet. He does not want his followers to presume they can just slip through to enter his Father’s house. Jesus is not looking for casual acquaintance from us but for real dedication. The crowd will press for entry, but the door will be too narrow to admit all. The less alert will be forced to stay outside and appeal in vain for entry. They will say that they ought to be allowed to enter because they were acquainted with Jesus during his earthly life The irony of Jesus' image is that the narrow gates are the proper way to enter the Kingdom precisely because they are just wide enough to receive a single person – anyone who is willing to do sacrificial service for the glory of God.  In other words, entering through the narrow gate denotes a steady obedience to the Lord Jesus -- overcoming all opposition and rejecting every temptation.  It is the narrow way of unconditional and unremitting love. Mere faith in Jesus and membership in His Church by Baptism cannot guarantee salvation.  Some of the Fathers of the Church interpreted the narrow door as that small place in the heart where one says "yes" or "no" to what one knows to be true.  It is the one place through which no external force can enter to shape or coerce one's choices. This place is what Teresa of Avila calls the "center of the soul" wherein God dwells.  That means that Jesus is the narrow gate, the way by which any person must enter the Heavenly city.

“Being saved’ is not a Protestant idea.  Protestants, in fact, took the idea from Catholics.  But in Catholic theology, "being saved" is the end result - seeing God face to face in Heaven, and not a ready-made “passport and visa” as some of our Protestant brothers claim.  Jesus explains that Salvation begins with Faith.  But it is also the result of how that Faith is lived, as is seen in the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophets.  We, too, believe that we cannot “earn” our way into Heaven by good works (this is the Pelagian heresy, condemned by the Council of Carthage in A.D. 418), but we also believe that we must allow God to work in our lives through His grace, a grace that is reflected in our actions.

The Protestant doctrine on salvation versus Catholic teaching, simplified: Most Protestant denominations believe that once saved, you are always saved, in spite of your future sins and even apostasy. They believe that we are saved by the shed blood of Jesus when as teenager or adult we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, confess our sins and say the “Sinner’s Prayer.” asking God’s pardon and forgiveness. But the Catholic doctrine is that salvation is a past, present and future event. We were saved when we were baptized as children or adults. We are being saved at present, when we cooperate with God’s grace by loving others as Jesus did -- by sharing our blessings with the needy and by getting reconciled with God daily, asking His forgiveness for our sins. We will be eternally saved when we hear the loving invitation from Jesus, the Judge at the moment of our death and on the day of the Last Judgment, saying: “Good and faithful servant, you were faithful in little things, enter into the joy of your Master. “Hence, our answer to the question: “Have you been saved?” should be: “I have been saved from the penalty of sin by Christ’s death and Resurrection.  I am being saved from the power of sin by the indwelling Spirit of God.  I have the hope that I shall one day be saved from the very presence of sin when I go to be with God.”  It is through the grace of Christ that we are able to live out His life in us -- a grace that is fortified every time we participate in the Holy Eucharist, are reconciled with God and meditate on His Word.  The real question is:  who will enter God's Kingdom?  There is only one answer:  those who choose the narrow gate, and they will come from east and west, and will eat together, live together and enjoy God's   beatific vision for all eternity.  

Life messages: 1) We need to make wise decisions and choose the narrow gate.  God allows us to decide every day what road we will walk down and what gate we will choose.  He encourages us, however, to choose His way:  “Choose life” (Moses – Dt 30:19-20); “Choose this day whom to serve” (Joshua – Jos 24:15); ”If God is Lord, follow Him” (Elijah – 1 Kgs  18:21); “There are two paths: one of life and one of death, and the difference between the two is great.”(Didache);   "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me" (Lk 9:23).   This means a consistent denial of self and the steady relinquishing of sinful pleasures, pursuits, and interests.  St. Paul lists these sins in Galatians 5:19-21: “The works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, and occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like.” Paul then enumerates "good works" that are representative of the "narrow road" and “narrow gate."  These are “the fruits of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23).  In other words, the "narrow road" or "narrow gate" concerns our everyday living—our relationships with God and with one another. To enter the narrow gate involves being with the blessed ones (poor, peacemakers, persecuted, etc), being salt and light consistently, following Jesus’ radical way about murder/anger, adultery/lust, divorce, truth-telling, choosing mercy over revenge, loving enemies. And it involves doing good deeds for the right reasons; it involves pursuing the Kingdom and God’s justice instead of fame and fortune; and it involves not condemning the others. It involves repentance, obedience, humility, righteousness, truth and discipleship.  Hence, we are to strive to enter through the “narrow gate” by prayer and supplication, diligently seeking deliverance from those things which would bar our entrance and acquiring those things which would facilitate our entry.

2) We need to check our track daily.  The parable of the locked door warns us that the time is short.  Each day sees endings and opportunities missed. “Opportunity will not knock twice at your door.”  Remember the old "Examination of Conscience" we were asked to make at the end of each day, in which we ask God’s pardon for the faults and sins of the day?  "How conscious was I this day of God's numerous gifts?  How well did I respond to the opportunities to bear witness and serve in Jesus' name: to forgive, feed, clothe, and love those who entered my life?  How much did I strive today to enter through the narrow gate of sacrificial love in action?'"  We might conclude this self-examination with a short prayer: “I need you Jesus Christ.  Grant me forgiveness for my sins.  Make me a new person.  I need your Holy Spirit to direct me, to strengthen me, so that I can walk in the narrow way and choose the narrow gate.  I need you to change me from a self-centered, self-sufficient person into your wise servant.” (Fr. Antony Kadavil)

22 August 2019, 16:28