Jesus is asked a question in this morning’s Gospel reading: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” (Luke 13:23b). It might be helpful to know why such a question was asked as we try to understand Jesus’ response.
The Mishnah, sometimes referred to as the “oral Torah,” is the first major work of Rabbinic Literature. In it the writer maintains that all Jews will find a place in God’s Kingdom. Being a descendant of Abraham is all one needs in order to find oneself seated at the banquet table of God’s Kingdom. However, the Pharisees were of a different opinion. They taught that only the remnant of Israel, those who scrupulously observed the Law, would be saved. So when someone in the crowd asks Jesus if only a few will be saved, that person is essentially asking, “Jesus, do you agree with the Judean rabbis or with the Pharisees. Once again, someone is testing Jesus.
In what should be a familiar pattern for us by now, Jesus does not answer the question directly. Rather, he counsels that each person should be concerned about whether he or she will find a seat at the table, whether they will even get into the dining room. Of course, the language Jesus uses here is metaphorical. As is so often the case in St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us through the images of table fellowship. This is also grounded in the culture of the times. If you sat at table with someone, you are essentially declaring that the other person is a member of your family – THE in-group of this culture. Every Israelite thinks of himself as part of a group, not as an individual. So Jesus’ answer to the question flies in the face of the usual expectations.
Although Jesus does not explicitly answer the question which was posed, his later comments make sure that we are all on the same page: “And 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. And people 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. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:28-30). In other words, one does not have to be a Jew to gain entrance into God’s kingdom.
The “narrow gate” of which Jesus speaks is another graphic image that helps us to understand Jesus’ point. Anyone who lives in Chicago and drives the Eisenhower Expressway will understand the image immediately. When the expressway was built, one Chicago suburb did not allow the engineers to build four complete lanes within the boundaries of that township. So the traffic is forced to reduce from four lanes to three, causing significant traffic jams on any given day and at any given hour. This is the best way to envision the narrow gate of which Jesus speaks. While Jesus would not have known of 20th or 21st century traffic jams, he certainly knew of the difficulty that was caused by the narrow gates that dotted the wall around the city. They were frequently congested as people sought to enter or exit the city.
Just as people today use GPS tracking devices and radio reports to help them navigate the traffic patterns of their route, those of us on a spiritual journey must be diligent in our search for the most opportune way for us to enter into God’s Kingdom. We have to use all the resources that God has given us to turn toward God now, rather than later, to navigate the path and to avoid the pitfalls that stand in our way.
The Eucharist is one such resource. God gives us his very self, the body and blood of Jesus, in order to sustain us on this journey. As we come to this feast, we give praise and thanks to God for making sure that God is present in our lives through our prayer and our sacraments.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Adminstrator