The Twenty-first Sunday of the Year (C)
The question posed to Jesus by someone in the crowd is a poignant one: “Lord, will only a few people be saved” (Luke 13:23)? This person seeks to know the number of those who will be saved and, perhaps, even the names of those who will be saved.
The Lord avoids answering this question directly, saying in reply, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough” (Luke 13:24). By answering in this manner, by speaking of the narrow gate and of the difficulty of coming to salvation, Jesus turns the question on the asker as if to say, “What is it to you? What is important is that you be saved.”
What, then, can one do to be saved? Salvation is, first of all, a gift of God; it is the gift of the forgiveness of sins and the restoration of God’s friendship. Saint Paul teaches us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).
Yet, though salvation is the gift of God, it can also be lost or even refused. The Apostle also instructs us, saying, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). The gift of salvation, then, is not something that is simply received once as though it were though over and done.
The Lord God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth,” Jesus Christ, who died for us that we might be saved (I Timothy 2:4). Indeed, when the Lord Jesus walked among us, he called everyone to enter his kingdom, especially those who are sinners. So fundamental to his ministry is this call that in Saint Mark’s Gospel the first words spoken by Jesus are these: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Jesus invites us sinners “to that conversion without which one cannot enter the kingdom, but shows them in word and deed his Father’s boundless mercy for them and the vast ‘joy in heaven over one sinner who repents’ (Luke 15:7) [Catechism of the Catholic Church, 545].” This first conversion leads one to the waters of baptism, but we know that this conversion must also be ongoing until the very moment of death; each of us is constantly in need of conversion, of a greater turning towards the Lord. It is by this continual striving to enter through the narrow gate that we work out our salvation, being constantly “drawn and moved by grace to respond to the merciful love of God who loved us first” (cf. I John 4:10) [Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1429].
This is what Jesus means when he tells us to “strive to enter through the narrow gate.” In Paul’s language, we work out our salvation by the choices we make each day of our lives. He allows us to choose to live in his love or to reject his love. He honors and respects our freedom and will not force us to love or serve him; he will not force us into a friendship with himself. Even so, he continually offers his friendship to us. This is why he says there will be those whom he does not know who will say to him, “Lord, open the door for us” (Luke 13:25).
The gate to salvation, to heaven, to friendship with Jesus, is narrow, because it is the way of love and of selflessness. Those who enter through the narrow gate are those who follow Christ Jesus and seek to imitate him in all things.
Because salvation is found in the Truth, “those who obey the prompting of the Spirit of truth are already on the way of salvation;” they are preparing to enter through that narrow door. Likewise, those who disobey the Spirit of truth are not on the way of salvation but on the way of perdition [Catechism of the Catholic Church, 851].
“We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves” [Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1033]. For this reason, Saint John writes, “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (I John 3:14-15).
If we die in the state of mortal sin, that is, outside of friendship with God, we will be forever separated from him because of our free choice against him and against his will. This state, this eternal separation from God, “in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs,” we call “hell,” where, in the words of the Savior, “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” (Luke 13:28) [Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1035].
To be cast out of the kingdom, it is necessary to willfully turn from God through mortal sin and persist in it until death, but those who find themselves in mortal sin can repent of their sin. They are invited to hear again the Lord’s invitation, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” The Lord Jesus calls them to seek the grace of God through a sacramental confession, that they might be freed from their sins, restored to friendship with God and set again on the path to life.
We see, then, the great seriousness of the Christian life; we want to be among those who attain salvation, who live forever in the joy of heaven. We, too, cry out to Jesus, saying, “Lord, open the door for us.”
Notice what those who are not known by the Lord say to him: “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets” (Luke 13:26). They are those who looked to Jesus for what he could give them; we might say they were simply along for the ride. They are those who heard his teachings and saw his acts of love but allowed neither to impact their lives or hearts; they refused to change their hearts and would not give themselves to Christ.
There are many today who would seek to speak these same words to the Lord, yet they would receive the same response: “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers.”
Many have believed in Christ and have celebrated the holy festivals in his honor. Frequenting the churches, they also hear the doctrines of the gospel, but they remember absolutely nothing of the truths of the Scripture. With difficulty, they bring with them the practice of virtue, while their heart is quite bare of spiritual fruitfulness. These will also weep bitterly and grind their teeth, because the Lord will also deny them [Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, Homily 99 in Ancient Christian Commentar on Scripture, New Testament Vol. III: Luke, Thomas C. Oden, et al, eds. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2003), 230].As we hear the word of the Lord we would do well to sincerely consider how well we know the Lord and how serious and purposeful is our prayer at the Holy Mass.
Dear brothers and sisters, do we truly listen to the Word of God proclaimed in our midst and seek to interiorize it, or do we simply endure it? Do we truly prepare ourselves well before the Holy Mass by keeping the hour fast and turning our hearts to the Lord, or do we simply show up? Do we say our responses with conviction and sing to God with the heart of one who loves, or are we simply physically present? When we approach Holy Communion, do we know who it is that we are about to receive, or do we simply approach as mindless lemmings? Do we receive his Precious Body in our hands or on our tongue with devotion and humble love, or do we treat the Eucharistic Lord as just another token?
Listen, dear friends, to the words of Saint Augustine about those who were not known by the Lord:
You see that they did not value their food very highly, and yet it was with reference to it that they said they belonged to Christ. Christ is the food that is eaten and drunk. Even Christ’s enemies eat and drink him. The faithful know the Lamb without spot on which they feed, if only they fed on it in such a way that they are not liable to judgment! The apostle says, “Whoever eats and drinks unworthily is eating and drinking judgment upon himself (I Corinthians 11:29)” [Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 308, A.6 in Ibid.].Let us not be found as enemies of Christ, but as those counted among his friends.
How, then, are we to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord in a worthy manner? We do so by preparing ourselves, both physically and spiritually, to receive Holy Communion.
If we examine our consciences and find that we have not kept the hour fast, we should not approach the Sacrament. If we find that we have not quieted ourselves to receive, we might well consider not approaching the Sacrament. If we are conscious of serious sin we have committed which has not yet been confessed – if we have destroyed another’s reputation; if we have engaged in sexual activity outside of marriage; if we have used contraception or helped procure an abortion; if we have missed Mass on a Sunday or holy day – we should not present ourselves to receive Holy Communion. By receiving the Precious Body and Blood of the Lord when we are not in a state of grace, when we are outside of his friendship, we compound our sin with the sin of sacrilege.
Friendship with Jesus requires a continual conversion of heart and mind. It requires that we listen to him in all things and seek to follow faithfully after him. It means that we live in communion with him and with his Church.
In short, friendship with Jesus – like any friendship – is not possible without a conscious effort and desire to please him. Let each of us, then, seek to enter well into these holy mysteries celebrated at his altar, that we might know the Lord and be known by him. Amen.