TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
Jesus passed through towns and villages,
teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem.
Someone asked him,
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
He answered them,
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough.
After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door,
then will you stand outside knocking and saying,
‘Lord, open the door for us.’
He will say to you in reply,
‘I do not know where you are from.
And you will say,
‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’
Then he will say to you,
‘I do not know where you are from.
Depart from me, all you evildoers!’
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.
This Sunday’s Gospel is just as disturbing as last weekend’s, when Jesus talked about bringing fire to the earth and divisions among families. This text is also an apocalyptic or future oriented sermon from Jesus, but in the Gospel of Luke’s full text it is divided from last week’s text by another curious incident that explains the anger of Jesus and the division he caused. The story in point is Luke 13: 10-21, in which Jesus is teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath, and a profoundly crippled woman comes into Jesus’ line of vision. Luke notes parenthetically that she had suffered for eighteen years. Jesus immediately heals her, and Luke reports that “she began praising God.” However, the chief of the synagogue is described as indignant, complaining that there were six days on which “work ought to be done” and he scolds the crowd to come on those days for curing, and not the Sabbath.
One can imagine Jesus’ rage on many levels, not least of which being the cruelty of making a long-suffering woman wait another day for relief. The overarching obscenity here is the entire theological basis of worship: if the Sabbath is not a fitting day for God to break the chains of suffering of a faithful child of Abraham, then what exactly was the purpose of the Sabbath in the first place? Jesus indulges himself, so to speak, in pointed sarcasm, observing that his critics water their precious animals on the Sabbath with impunity.
This is the context of Sunday’s Gospel. Jesus is back on the road heading for Jerusalem and the final showdown, perhaps energized by the previous synagogue encounter, to tackle the paralysis of his Jewish faith head on. This is, as I mentioned, an apocalyptic text, meaning that in some way it provides a picture of future days or even the final days. Thus, the question of “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” is very appropriate, as it is now quite evident in Luke that the battle lines are being drawn between the status quo and the arrival of the Kingdom. All the same, Joel Green comments that the question about who will be saved in the future is answered by Jesus in the present text, “Strive to enter through the narrow door.”
Green concedes that Jesus’ answer is not exactly comforting to the questioner. Green writes that “asked concerning how few are being saved, [Jesus] remarks instead about on how many will not be saved.” (Joel Green, p. 530) Jesus goes on to warn that his followers must strive now, for “seeking to enter in the future is futile.” Appropriate for this Olympics week, the word strive has overtones of athletic struggle.
Not to be lost here is the reality that once the door of opportunity is closed, there will be many left outside who really believed they had a chance, or even the right, to make the final cut. (This passage always troubles me personally.) The expectation of the Christian reader—then and today—is that the first to be admitted [to the messianic banquet of salvation described by the Prophet Isaiah) would be the children of Abraham. However, Luke depicts Jesus as extending the cohort of expectations, making room for those who by faith and deed demonstrate that they have truly embraced his words, his preaching. The Good Samaritan type comes to mind. Note, too, that the teaching here in this reading is directed to “you,” i.e. those in his immediate hearing, and in the present tense, a clever way of saying “the future [judgment] is now.”
The image of salvation as a heavenly banquet is common in both testaments. Green points out that along with the expected cast of elders in the new banquet kingdom—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob—the guest list includes the Hebrew prophets. In Jesus’ day the classical prophets were remembered, of course, if not imitated in the breech. But in their own times, given their powerful and disruptive moral message, the prophets of Israel fared poorly in terms of treatment by their confreres of religious heritage. Some were killed, others moved about in the margins of the mainstream life of Israel. Luke reminds his readers often that Jesus, and John the Baptist for that matter, were of the prophetic stream and vision. Luke is strongly implying in our Sunday text that those who fail see and heed Jesus in his prophetic role will be excluded from the banquet in favor of those who listened. [In the next Lukan sequence, Jesus describes Jerusalem as “the city that kills the prophets….”] (Luke 13:34)
The inclusion of peoples from all four points of the compass may be a reference to the Christian mission among the Gentiles, at least a generation old when Luke composed his Gospel. It may also be a reference to the apocalyptic scene from Isaiah 60, read each year on the Feast of the Epiphany, where nations stream from the entire earth to worship in Jerusalem, bearing gifts on their camels. The idea of unclean Gentiles admitted—welcomed! —to the eternal banquet of salvation was indeed an incredible gesture of God, and many despised Jesus for daring to suggest it. When George Washington and the American colonists upset the British at Yorktown in 1781 and essentially guaranteed our freedom as a new nation, legend has it that the British band played “The World Turned Upside Down.” For many in Israel in Jesus’ day, and many more of all faiths or no faiths today, the core message of the Christ would indeed turn the world upside down.