21ST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – AUGUST 27, 1995 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
The biblical readings today set out two of the great features of Christianity. Anticipating the Gospel, the reading from Isaiah describes the assembling of the nations, Spain, Africa, eastern Europe, in a restored Jerusalem, joining Israel, returned from exile, in the worship of God. The expectation of this universalism Jesus then draws upon in the Gospel when he describes a Kingdom of God which includes people from east and west, north and south.
It was this vision that propelled the early Christians out and on to their catholicizing mission: the truth and grace embodied in Christ, they were convinced, were not meant only for Israel but for all nations. The Church on earth was to try to be as inclusive as the Kingdom to come would be. And this remains not only one of the great marks of the Church, but also one of its chief duties: to be even now a community in which the differences among nations are overcome under Christ and in the unity of the one Spirit. Something which the daily newspapers make it clear is needed not only for the Church to be the Church but for it to be a redemptive, reconciling force in human society and history.
We have here the first great feature: the world-historical character of Christianity. The Church is not supposed to be a little conventicle of people huddling together for warmth in a cold and alien world, but a confident, world-embracing, world-redeeming people, the criterion for whose identity and mission is the plan of God revealed in the vision of the Kingdom of God.
But in our two NT readings, we find also the other feature of Christianity: its intensely personal character. Jesus himself makes this clear when he warns that the door into the Kingdom is narrow, that it will not be enough to boast of acquaintance with him to be saved, but that repentance and obedience to his Father’s will are also required in those he will be able to recognize as his true followers on the last day. This demand for repentance and fidelity is inescapably personal, challenging each of us individually to reflect on how we are living our lives.
The reading from Hebrews addresses the same personal dimension of religion: how Christians are to deal with suffering and pain. Pain and suffering are not glorified, but neither are they to be endured dumbly, uncomprehendingly. Those who bear them–and which of has not, does not, or will not have to bear them?–those who bear them should do so out of strong conviction that even these evils, are not outside God’s plan and love for us. These are not easy words to hear, and they can too easily be turned into trivializing and infuriating platitudes, which alienate more people than they attract. But in the end, do we not also have to decide, each of us for ourselves, whether these words speak the truth, provide us with an assurance of faith–not sight–faith that even our darkest hours can be illumined by God and by Christ’s Gospel? What good is a religion if it does not enable us to deal with suffering, pain, and death? As no one else can face these evils for us, so also no one else can believe and hope for us: It is to each of us that the words are addressed: “So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight the paths you walk on, that your healing limbs may not be dislocated but healed.”
Intensely personal, then, and globally significant is the faith we profess and the life we are struggling to live. We are not asked to choose between the two: to reduce religion to what we do with our personal solitude nor turn it into something so objective that it does not require our faith, hope and love. Keeping these two dimensions together, in some integrated fashion, is the only way in which both the height and depth and the breadth and length of what God has given in Christ can be respected and realized.
21st SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – AUGUST 26, 2001 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
In today’s Gospel Jesus turns up the heat as he himself heads toward the final drama of his life in Jerusalem. Anticipating what lies ahead for him, he also warns those who wish to follow him that they also will face hard choices.
He is asked whether those who will be saved will be many or only a few. His reply is that the gate into the kingdom is narrow, not an entrance through which dozens can enter at once, but a small passageway. The metaphor stands for the difficulty of the passage, for what it must cost, so much that only a few will be willing to pay for it. When those who come late wonder that they are left outside and argue: “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets,” they will be told that this kind of boast does not suffice, and that the way of discipleship that Jesus has been outlining and embodying is also required.
St. Luke was writing his Gospel with his Church in mind, of course, and these sayings of Jesus were recalled as lessons for the Christians of his time. Just as it had not been enough to claim the privileges of Israel in order to enter the Kingdom, so also it was not now enough to claim the privileges of Christianity to enter it. As St. Matthew put it in a parallel passage: “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of the Father.” There will be many who will come from far and wide who will enter in place of those who were sure they would have privileged seats at the final banquet. Those who thought themselves first will find themselves last, those considered last will be first.
It is a direct enough message for us today, not needing much exegesis. What it needs is reflection on how seriously we take the call to discipleship, on whether we do not in fact often “coast” on the assumption that the Gospel demands are not meant to be taken all that seriously, on the general cultural view, and hope, that the gate is very broad and the gatekeeper not too exigent, that we won’t have to be “carded” when we come to the door. It may be a good time, as we return from a lazy summer, to be reminded that it cost Jesus to fulfill his mission, that it cost his disciples to begin to stumble after him, that ever since, whenever Christianity has made a difference in the world, it was because there were people who took him and his call seriously.
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 22, 2004 – Blessed Sacrament
The evangelist, St. Luke, has structured a central part of his narrative around the theme of Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem, the holy city where he knows he must accomplish God’s will. Along the way he gives various instructions to his disciples as to what is required of them.
In today’s Gospel, the journey-theme is invoked again, and the urgency of decision is evoked by the question posed to Jesus: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” You will note that Jesus does not give a direct reply, a proper caution to us not to presume to know who will or won’t get into the Kingdom. Behind the question may have been the assumption that the person who asked the question would himself be inside looking out, and wanted to know how many would be there with him.
If Jesus virtually refuses to answer that question, he uses the moment in order to stress the urgency of the decision that his listeners have to make. He contrasts a large crowd pouring, many at a time, through wide city gates, to a narrow gate through which you can only pass one-by-one and with some effort, that is, deliberately. Many, he says, will not be strong enough for that. More than this, the gate is going to be closed soon, and some are going to find themselves outside because they have waffled, and then it will not be enough for them to say that they have known Jesus casually.
That the emphasis is here upon the claims that Jesus makes and upon the necessity of a clear and forceful decision in his regard is indicated when the scene suddenly shifts to the eschatological banquet, the Kingdom come, and many of those who heard him preach and call to conversion are going to find themselves outside, not feasting with Abraham, Isaaac and Jacob and all the prophets, and, almost worse, astonished to see their places taken by the despised or even hated Gentiles! Some of the people who are last will be first, and some who are first will be last–another expression of the reversal of expectations that Jesus and his message represent and effect.
Besides the immediate meaning of this passage, there are lessons also for us. We may be tempted to count on our own acquaintance with Jesus in the form of our being Catholics, of receiving the sacraments regularly, and following other church customs and duties. Our Christianity can become casual and presumptuous. We see this happen even in our marriages, in our friendships. We can even imitate Thomas Jefferson and pick and choose our own version of the Gospel, tailoring Jesus to our size, leaving out or explaining away the parts that make us uncomfortable and place us under judgment.
A gospel passage like today’s, then, should make us stop and think, and consider how seriously, how strongly, we take our Christian commitments. In his own time, Jesus and his message forced the people who heard him to a decision, and there is no reason to think that he does not want to do the same thing today.
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 26, 2007 – Blessed Sacrament
The sayings of Jesus in today’s Gospel stress the seriousness of discipleship. He is asked by someone whether only a few people will be saved. Instead of answering the question, he stresses two things. First, the door, the entrance-way into the Kingdom, is narrow. That is, that there are strict requirements, and getting through that doorway requires effort: “Strive to enter by the narrow door.” And, secondly, one has to act before it is too late, before the master has locked the door. In this respect, the imagery makes a point similar to the one Jesus makes in some extended parables about the need to act while there is still time.
In both respects, then, the Gospel reminds us that our Christianity, our following of Christ, is supposed to be taken seriously. We have in recent decades played down this aspect, willingly forgetting aspects of Jesus’s teaching that fit uncomfortably with a vague kind of “I’m OK, you’re OK” religious life, with a taken-for-granted Christianity. We are perhaps not comfortable, for example, with the element of judgment that is implicit in today’s reading, where some will be admitted into the banquet of the Kingdom and others, even those familiar with Jesus and his teachings, will be excluded.
But it is impossible to deny this decision-forcing character of the teaching and work of Jesus. In fact, in his own time, he became an object that divided people from one another (as we heard in last week’s Gospel of a household split apart because of him); he himself made it clear in many different ways that to follow him was to make a choice that divided the lives of people–before Jesus and after Jesus, one might say. Which world do you want to live in? he asked: this world or the world of the Kingdom that is now dawning? From where do you borrow the criteria by which to evaluate how you are living your life? How do you define who are the first and who are the last? And are you prepared to have your assessment turned upside-down?
Questions like these have today lost none of their relevance to the lives of those who want to claim to be following Jesus. He made a difference in his world, and he wishes to make a difference in our world. He makes a difference in a world, of course, only if there are people who live differently because of him, in imitation of him, for his sake. It is not enough for us to eat and drink with him, which we could interpret as sharing in his sacraments; it is not enough to listen to him teach, as we do each week. He will want to know, he wants to know now, whether we are leading lives worthy of the Kingdom he announced and brought. That is the criterion by which he judges and will judge. It is one that requires decision and effort, and sooner rather than later, because it is the character and quality of our whole lives that is at stake. In the end, it is we who decide how many or how few are those who are being saved.