The Gospel today begins with our first reminder since the end of chapter nine, that Jesus is continuing to teach and minister along the road towards his suffering and death in the city of Jerusalem. Someone asks a question: Will there only be a few who are saved? Now that is a good question, if ever there is one! But as we perhaps have come to expect from Jesus – of the 183 questions that he is asked across the four Gospels, he only gives a direct and absolute answer three times. And this is not one of those occasions! Jesus does not seem very interested in statistics and numbers to satisfy mere human curiosity. In our Gospel from Luke, chapter 13, verses 22 to 30, he does answer indirectly, with this exhortation to enter by the narrow gate.
Jesus also tells us that God will shut out evil doers who it seems, are not known to God – leaving us with the potential criteria of doing good as the key to entry. Not that Jesus teaches any form of salvation by good works – the good works help to identify those people who are clearly striving to enter the kingdom. There is only one way into the kingdom, and Jesus is urging people to enter into the kingdom as he holds open the gate. The gateway is not very wide, so there is no question of people just happening to enter in by chance. No – it will take energy and commitment to enter the kingdom.
Israel is being given by the work and teaching of Jesus this final chance. But one day soon, the door will shut, and by then it will be too late. If the invitation of Jesus is refused there be no further opportunity.
Not that we should lift this passage out of context and develop a whole theology of salvation based only on it. The urgent warnings that Jesus offers to his contemporaries were very specific to the crisis that existed at that time. But we should also be cautious of assuming that the larger question of eternal salvation is not relevant to this text. For surely human life is so much more than just a game; surely we are not mistaken in the strong sense that all of our moral and spiritual choices really do matter; surely the rest of the New Testament has not misled us badly so that we do understand that the gate of the kingdom of God does remain open to us – but it is possible to stroll straight past this same gate. Hopefully we will hear these urgent warnings amidst the wonderful invitation that Jesus offers to us, to live a life of goodness, meaning and justice in the kingdom, rather than discovering too late the extent of our mistake.
Perhaps it is best to allow the sayings of Jesus to retain their mystery and ambiguity. Although at least these two points do remain clear: Jesus cautions his followers to strive to enter by the narrow door, and he warns them that in the end there will be many surprising reversals. Many who presume they will enter, in fact will not, and others who seem to be excluded from God’s friendship will take their place. Strive, therefore, as one who dares not presume on God’s grace. Strive as though admission to the kingdom depended entirely on your own doing, but know that ultimately it all depends on God’s grace.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 7.30am and 9.30am (13 mins)
Sunday 21, Year C.