Wednesday, August 17, 2016

"STRIVE TO ENTER THROUGH THE NARROW GATE."


ASTRIVE TO ENTER THROUGH THE NARROW GATE.@
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. Isaiah 66:18-21; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30.
AIM: To help the hearers see trials as opportunities to grow.
 
ALord, will only a few people be saved?@ Jesus is asked in the gospel we have just heard. The question was asked out of mere curiosity. If you read through the gospels carefully, you will see that Jesus never answered such questions. Asked by his disciples before his ascension, ALord are you going to restore the rule of Israel now?@ Jesus replied: AThe exact time is not yours to know. The Father has reserved that to himself.@ (Acts 1:6f) 
Here too Jesus refuses to satisfy his questioner=s curiosity. Instead he responds to a different question B and a far more important one: AHow can I be saved?@ Many, he warns, will not be saved. People who are complacent, who think they can postpone their decision for God, will find themselves shut out from God=s presence. Then, when it is too late, they will protest about injustice and misunderstanding. As members of God=s chosen people, they will insist, they are entitled to salvation. On the contrary, Jesus warns, their exclusion from God=s presence will be due neither to injustice nor to misunderstanding, but to their own overconfidence and lack of effort.
That is not the end of Jesus= answer, however. Though the overconfident and complacent cannot expect salvation, Jesus says, many others who do not belong to God=s chosen people and hence (in the minds of his Jewish hearers) have no ground for confidence, will be saved. APeople 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.@ Jesus was reaffirming an ancient but often overlooked belief of his people which we heard in our first reading. There the prophet Isaiah represents God as saying: AI come to gather nations of every language.@ God offers salvation not just to one people, but to all peoples. 
In reaffirming this teaching about salvation for all, however, Jesus gives it a twist that would have shocked his Jewish hearers. They assumed that even if there were to be some non-Jews in heaven, they themselves would have the best places.  Jesus warns them that if they think their birth as members of God=s chosen people guarantees them the best places at God=s heavenly banquet, they risk having no places at all. Outsiders will take the places they are forfeiting by their laziness and complacency. AThere 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.@
 The lesson for us Catholics today is clear. A Catholic baptismal certificate and attendance at Sunday Mass do not guarantee salvation. Our Catholic faith must produce fruits in daily life. If it does not, we too risk hearing one day the terrible words that Jesus speaks in today=s gospel: AI do not know where you are from.  Depart from me, all you evildoers!@
AStrive to enter through the narrow gate,@ Jesus says. That Anarrow gate@ stands for every situation in which God=s demands weigh heavily on us and seem too hard to bear. Our second reading is addressed to people in such situations.  Having entered the Church as adults, through baptism, they assumed that their troubles were behind them. God would protect them from all future trials. Their experience was different. Instead of the peace and security that had expected when they made their decision for Jesus Christ and his Church, they found themselves launched on a fresh sea of troubles. Was it really worth going on, they wondered?
Is there someone here today who is asking that question? Then that second reading is for you. It tells you that life=s trials and troubles are signs not of God=s absence, but of his presence. Everything that threatens our peace of mind, or even life itself, is a challenge, and an opportunity to grow. Our trials and sufferings are the homework we are assigned in the school of life.
The idea that God is a supernatural protector who guards his own from all suffering is not a Christian idea, but a pagan one. Why is there suffering in a good world, created and upheld by a good and just God? Which of us has never asked that question? Our faith does not answer it. Faith gives us not an answer; it gives us instead the strength to endure amid of suffering.
As a help to this endurance, the second reading encourages us to look on trials as God=s way of disciplining us, as parents discipline their children. Good parents impose discipline not in anger, to pay their children back for being bad; but out of love, to help the children to be good. AEndure your trials as >discipline=,@ the second reading says. AGod treats you as sons.@ 
Our teacher in this school is Jesus Christ. Whatever trials and sufferings we encounter, his were heavier. This same letter to the Hebrews says of Jesus: ASon though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when perfected, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him ...@ (Heb. 5:8f).
This is the Anarrow gate@ of which Jesus speaks in the gospel: the patient endurance of all the hard and difficult things that life sets before us. Jesus never promised that God would protect us from trials and sufferings. He promises that God will be with us in trials and suffering. 
Today=s gospel begins by saying that Jesus was Amaking his way to Jerusalem.@ Luke, the writer, and every one of his readers knew what happened at Jerusalem. Jesus also knew in advance what would happen there. He was not blind. He was no fool. Though he continued to hope, Jesus knew with increasing certainty, as he made his way to Jerusalem, that if he continued on that way, it could end in only one way. For Jesus, our teacher in life=s school, Jerusalem meant Calvary. There he passed through his own Anarrow gate.@ There he had his final examination in life=s school.

John=s gospel tells us that Ain the place where [Jesus] was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb ...@ (19:41). In that garden tomb, hard by Calvary, the Lord=s devoted but heartbroken friends laid his dead body on Good Friday afternoon. From that tomb Jesus was raised on the third day to a new and glorious life beyond death. He had passed his final examination. He had graduated.  For him there would be no more school, no more examinations, no more suffering.

Jesus invites us to walk the same road he walked. Here in the Eucharist, where he gives us his body and blood, he provides us with the food we need for our journey. He invites us to make our way to Jerusalem, there to pass through our narrow gate to Calvary B but beyond Calvary to resurrection and the fullness of eternal life with him.