You Strive To Enter

APOSTLES ANGLICAN CHURCH
Fr. John A. Roop

21 August 2022 — Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

You Strive To Enter: A Homily on Luke 13:22-30

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A family is huddled together in the pouring rain atop the roof of their home as the flood water rises cutting off any hope of escape. Just then, they see in the distance the Rescue Squad boat approaching, and they all begin to yell, “Save us! Save us!”

In a fiery stump speech, a political candidate tells the gathered crowd that the United States is headed for ruin. “The only thing that can save this country” he says, “is a return to the fundamental values of faith, family, and conservative democracy.”

A big sister is tickling her young brother and he’s laughing so hard that he can barely catch his breath. As his mother walks by he gasps out — through laughter — “Save me, mom! Save me!”

A financial advisor speaks very candidly with his client: “If you want to retire with any sense of security at all, you will have to save more now toward your future retirement.”

A co-worker unexpectedly pitches in to help you with an impending and nearly impossible work deadline. “Thank you. Thank you. You really saved me,” you say.

The evangelist looks searchingly at the crowd and earnestly asks: “Brothers, sisters, are you saved? If you were to die this very night, do you know where you’d spend eternity?”

In the suffrages of Morning Prayer we say:

O Lord, show your mercy upon us;
And grant us your salvation.

O Lord, save your people;
And bless your inheritance
(BCP 2019, pp. 21-22).

The word save in all its various forms has a broad semantic range, a variety of possible meanings determined by context: from rescue to set aside for later use, from temporal aid to eternal destiny, from humorous to deadly serious. If we miss the context, we might easily miss the intended meaning of the word.

Jesus is heading toward Jerusalem: one final time, one final confrontation with all the powers — human and spiritual — arrayed against him. Not that it hasn’t been before, but everything now seems intently focused, serious, weighty, fraught even. Some one in some crowd in some village along the way asks Jesus, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”

And there it is, that word saved. Of the range of possible meanings, what did this man mean, in this moment, in this context? Miss that, and we might just miss Jesus’ answer. We might unintentionally twist it to mean something other than what the man asked and what Jesus answered.

Fortunately, we don’t have to guess what this man meant; we have the whole history of Israel to tell us. The someone who asked the question was almost certainly a man, a Jewish man, living in the second temple period under Israel’s occupation and domination by Rome. And Rome was just the latest in the long line of Jewish overlords: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome. We know the nature of Jewish hopes and longings stirring at this time in Israel, not just from the New Testament but from other historical documents as well. We know what this man meant by salvation. It is on display in the Psalms.

1 Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered;*
let those who hate him also flee before him.

2 As the smoke vanishes, so shall you drive them away;*
and as wax melts before the fire, so let the ungodly perish before the presence of God.

3 But let the righteous be glad and rejoice before God;*
let them also be merry and joyful.

4 O sing unto God, and sing praises unto his Name; magnify him who rides upon the heavens.*
The Lord is his Name; rejoice before him.

5 He is a father of the fatherless and defends the cause of the widows,*
God in his holy habitation.

6 He is the God who gives the solitary a home, and brings the prisoners out of captivity,*
but lets the rebellious dwell in a desert land (BCP 2019, Ps 68:1-6, p. 351).

This is salvation: God arising, scattering his enemies — Rome this time — delivering his people — righteous Israel — out of captivity, establishing his Kingdom in which the righteous rejoice and sing praises, in which the orphans and widows are defended, in which the solitary is given a home.

This man who asked this question on this day knows precisely what salvation looks like: it looks like Kingdom come, it looks like wrongs righted, it looks like enemies scattered, it looks like the righteous vindicated. The question is not what salvation will look like when God arises to deliver his righteous people. The question is, Who will get in on it? The question is the identity of God’s righteous people. The question is whether God’s salvation is for the unwashed masses or for the righteous remnant only. The question is: “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”

There were lots of “special interest groups” in first century Israel who were only too ready to answer this man’s question, most notably the Pharisees, the Zealots, and the Sadducees.

Will those who are saved be few?

Yes, say the Pharisees: few indeed, only the purest of the pure, only those who observe the tiniest minutiae of the Law perfectly, only those who clean the inside of cups and saucers and tithe of mint and cumin, only those who rest on the Sabbath and hound those who don’t — only people like us. As for the tax collectors and sinners, they will find themselves outside the Kingdom, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Will those who are saved be few?

Perhaps, say the Zealots: the kingdom belongs to those who study their Torah and sharpen their swords, to those who pray the Psalms and slit Roman throats, to those who will not wait for God to arise but who arise themselves and take the Kingdom by force. As for the collaborators, the sycophants, the spineless, they will find themselves outside the Kingdom, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Will those who are saved be few?

Saved? ask the Sadducees. There is no salvation coming, not one that we can depend on. The best we can do is to go along to get along, to carve out a niche — a good life — for ourselves amidst the Roman occupation, to prosper and profit from it and above all to maintain our prominent status in the social order. As for the Pharisees and Zealots, as for the rabble rousing masses, if they are not careful they will anger Rome and get us all thrown out of Rome’s kingdom where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Will those who are saved be few? How does Jesus answer this man’s question?

Honestly, Jesus doesn’t answer the question — at least not at first. Instead, he redirects it. And, he redirects the man’s attention from external to internal, from others to himself.

Will those who are saved be few? “You strive to enter through the narrow door,” Jesus says to the man and to all those listening. Later in one of the final recorded encounters between Peter and Jesus (John 21:20 ff), Peter asks about the Apostle John’s future. Jesus answers, not unkindly but pointedly, “What is that to you? You follow me.” Jesus’ answer here is the same. Will those who are saved be few? What is that to you? You strive to enter through the narrow door. Don’t worry about the speck in your brother’s eye; you take the log out of your own eye. If you are offering your gift at the altar and remember your brother has something against you, you go and make it right. Less talk about “those people,” less talk about “those others,” less talk about “your brother” or even “your enemy;” you focus on you. You repent. You make amends. You strive to enter the narrow door.

And then Jesus tells this troublesome and unnerving parable.

Luke 13:24–30 (ESV): 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 25 When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ 26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ 28 In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. 29 And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. 30 And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

Now, let’s start by getting a few things straight. Jesus is not speaking to you or to me or to us in this parable. His words are certainly for us; they have meaning for us that we must prayerfully discern. But, they were not spoken to us. They were spoken to some unnamed Jewish man in some unidentified town on Jesus’ way to Jerusalem some two millennia ago. Nor is Jesus’ answer directed to questions we might have: Will just a few make it to heaven? How can I be sure I’m among them? Is it possible that I can do all the right works and believe all the right things and still find myself outside looking in, beating on the door to no avail? Get this: blue is an appropriate answer for the question, What color is the sky?, but a terrible answer for, What day comes after Tuesday? Answers make sense only relative to the questions they address. Jesus answers this man’s question, not ours. And this man wanted to know if the Kingdom of God — the restoration of God’s righteous rule in Israel — was for the masses or for the remnant.

So, in that context, Jesus’ answer means something like this. The Pharisees are placing their hopes in their works of righteousness, their fastidious keeping of the letter of the Law, and their exclusion of everyone not as righteous as themselves from the people of God. Surely, they think, that will ensure their presence in the Kingdom of God. But, no. This agenda will land them outside, knocking on the door. The Zealots are placing their hope in their own power to cast down the mighty from their thrones, to send the rich empty away; surely that agenda will create the Kingdom of God in which they will exercise their authority. But, no. This will land them outside, knocking on the door. The Sadducees are placing their hope in the status quo, keeping their heads down and appeasing their overlords so that they may prosper in this kingdom. But, no. This kingdom will fall and this agenda will land them outside, knocking on the door.

So, Jesus, what I hear you saying is that indeed it will only be a remnant — only the few — who will be saved. No. It will be Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and the prophets and — get this! — multitudes from the east and the west, from the north and the south who will gather for the great Kingdom banquet. Many of the first and foremost who expect to be seated at the head table will not gain admittance; many of those who dare not hope for an invitation will be compelled to come.

And what makes the difference between inside and outside? The text immediately following tells us. Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and says:

Luke 13:34–35 (ESV): 34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ”

What makes the difference between inside and outside? If I may dare to paraphrase our Lord again:

You were not willing. You had your own kingdom agendas, ones that excluded me. You were not willing to come to me, not willing to let me shelter you from the coming storm. You refused to enter by the narrow door, and now that door is closed. You chose your own darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth rather than the light and joy of my feast. No matter how you knock and seek entrance, the door will not and cannot open because you locked and barred it from outside.

In the idiom of Jesus’ day, weeping and gnashing of teeth connoted sorrow, anger, anguish. But, it also connoted madness. To reject Jesus and his Kingdom invitation was sheer madness and resulted in self-imposed imprisonment in a kingdom of madness. To mix metaphors, this is not a case of someone accidentally missing the boat, but rather of someone who was given a free ticket and luxury transportation to the dock taking a hard and critical look at the ship and saying, “I’d rather not.” There comes a moment when the ship sails and boarding is no longer possible. Or, imagine the family huddled on the roof as the flood water rises telling the men in the Rescue Squad boat, “No thanks. It looks crowded in there.” Sheer madness.

This is, I believe, what the text meant, or should have meant, to those who first heard it and to those who reflected on it in the middle part of the first century leading up to the destruction of the Jerusalem that Jesus wept over. It is a sobering text, and it spoke of the possibility of real loss, of certain loss for those who steadfastly refused to accept Jesus and his agenda, who simply would not go through the narrow door of discipleship.

And what of us? What of today? I said earlier that Jesus’ answer was not given to us and was not intended to address our questions. But, it is for us, and it does enfold some of our questions within it. Perhaps more importantly it prompts us to ask the right questions and even questions us itself.

Will truly upright and moral adherents of other religions really miss out on the Kingdom of God — the good Buddhist, the faithful Muslim, even the ethical and charitable atheist? we want to know. “You strive to enter through the narrow door,” comes the answer. What about those who have never heard of Jesus? Surely they won’t be condemned? “You strive to enter through the narrow door,” comes the answer. Surely, love wins in the end and no one will be able to resist the love, grace, and mercy of God. Surely, if there is a hell, it must be empty? “You strive to enter through the narrow door,” comes the answer.

We cannot say more than Jesus has said, but we also dare not say less than Jesus has said. Real loss is possible. One may exclude oneself from the great Kingdom Banquet through a determined refusal to accept Jesus’ invitation. Some who are confident of admittance on their own terms apart from Jesus will be shocked to find themselves outside in the dark. Some who are allowed in will be shocked — and I think delighted — by some others who are there, by seeing the last made first. And some who are seated at the head table will be shocked that they got in at all. Loss is shockingly tragic. Grace is shockingly wonderful.

Will those who are saved be few? No. In this parable, Jesus speaks of reclining at the table in the Kingdom of God. We find out in Revelation that the table is spread at the marriage supper of the Lamb and that the multitude invited will be from every family, language, people, and nation. St. John saw it in a vision:

Revelation 19:6–9 (ESV): 6 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,

“Hallelujah!
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
8 it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure”—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

9 And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.”

Many — a countless multitude — will recline at this table through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Many, but sadly, not all:

Revelation 22:14–15 (ESV): 14 Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. 15 Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

“Dear Lord,” we start to ask, “will…” and he stops us there. “You strive to enter through the narrow door,” comes the answer. Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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