August 25-26, 2001, Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C
I am not asking for a show of hands but how many people think they are going to heaven? How many people think all the people they know are going to heaven? I didn't need to see your hands because if everyone here knew that everyone was going to heaven there would have been much louder singing, and maybe even some dancing in the aisles as we gather to give thanks for that good news. But I think it is safe to say that there are people who are not sure if they are going to heaven. I wonder what they heard as they listened to today's Gospel. Did they here good news? Or did they hear their worst fears confirmed because if Jesus is saying that only a few make it to heaven, they are probably not in that select group?
Before we can hear the good news in today’s readings, I think we first have to look at what they are not saying. I believe that Jesus is not saying that only a few people make it to heaven for eternity. To understand why that is not what he is saying, we have to look at the context of this reading. In fact, we have to look at 3 separate contexts.
The first context is how Jesus speaks. Jesus is not making a prediction or sharing a divine view of heaven’s census here. He is using rhetoric, language used effectively and persuasively. He is making a point. Last week we heard Jesus say he came to set the world on fire. Fr. Butler remarked to me after mass that he wondered whether people who live in the West, in the middle of all those forest fires, were taking Jesus’ remarks literally. So what point is he trying to make with this rhetoric?
For that we have to look at the context of this story in the Gospel of Luke. For Luke, the journey to Jerusalem is symbolic of an ever-increasing conflict with the Pharisees and scribes. This story happens right after Jesus cast out a demon from a woman on the Sabbath. The synagogue leaders chastised Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. Jesus is using this rhetoric to let people know that the way to the kingdom is not rigid adherence to the law but a living out of the law as it is written in our hearts. The Sabbath was made to give humans rest; what could be more appropriate than giving this woman rest from this demon on the Sabbath. This story comes right after two little characterizations of the kingdom of God starting small but growing large, affecting all around it. And this story ends with Jesus saying that people will be entering the kingdom from all over the world, not just from the tiny nation of Israel.
And finally we have to look at the context of the Good News as announced by Jesus, and reinforced by the whole of Scripture. For Jesus, the kingdom of God was not about which individual goes to heaven or not. It is about the reign of God’s justice, mercy, and love at hand, here in this place and time. Jesus came to announce this good news, that God is merciful, and forgiving, and lovingly inclusive. John reminds us that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him.” And for Jesus, the kingdom is not just about when we die and go to heaven. He constantly proclaimed that the kingdom is at hand; it is something we can start to enter here and now.
So the point Jesus is trying to make is not that only a few people go to heaven but that those who think the kingdom of God can be entered because of your nationality, or your religion, or who your friends are, miss the point. The kingdom of God is only accessible to those who have the discipline Paul talks about in the second reading.
Discipline is not a very popular word in our culture. To many it is the opposite of , or even an obstacle to, that grand icon of our culture: freedom. But the truth is that true freedom only comes with discipline. The kingdom of God is true freedom where there is mercy and justice and peace and joy. And that mercy, and justice, and peace, and joy can only be experienced by those who subject themselves to God’s discipline. Unfortunately in our culture, it is almost to the point where Paul’s rhetorical question, “For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” requires an answer. If you read the recent Time magazine’s cover article about undisciplined children (Who is in charge), the answer seems to be, there are many sons and daughters whose fathers and mothers do not discipline them.
Jesus rightly characterizes the discipline that leads to the freedom of God’s kingdom as the narrow gate. It is not impossible but it requires effort. The irony is that if we look at the alternative, not going through that narrow gate requires much more effort and is much more painful than going through it.
Have any of you heard the stories about Michael Jordan making a comeback. They are based on the fact that he has been training since the beginning of the year. And sometime around March or April he was joined by Charles Barkley who is also contemplating a comback. Knowing those two individuals, I am sure that the training regimen is anything but easy.
Is it harder for Michael Jordan to go through the physical and mental preparation for a successful comeback than it would be to just show up on the court, out of shape, and endure the pain of failure? Is it harder for a child to endure the discipline of learning manners, and limits, and respect for others than it is to go through life disappointed because everyone doesn’t do what he or she wants, or to be shunned by other children and adults because he or she is just not pleasant to be around? Is the discipline of physical therapy harder than continuing to live with the original injury or ailment?
Is it harder to subject ourselves to the discipline of the commandments and the beatitudes than it is to suffer the pain and disappointment of a life lived outside God’s discipline? I think the answer is obvious on the intellectual level. The challenge is to make it obvious in our hearts and our guts. And we don’t have to wait till we die to start to enter into the kingdom of God. God’s discipline makes it accessible to us right here and now.
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.” The good news is that the narrow gate that we must go through is not a set of rules or a religion but a person: Jesus Christ. Jesus is the way, the truth, the life, the gate. We must enter the kingdom of God through Jesus Christ, who reveals to us a God who will go to the four corners of the world, who will stop at nothing, not death, not descent into hell, to bring all of us into the kingdom! How narrow is that?