21st Sunday in OT / C / 2019
Msgr. Patrick S. Brennan
I must admit that I am drawn with some interest to our Gospel today, on the one hand, and on the other, I would like to run from it as far as I can!
How so? Because the topic of our Gospel—how many or few will be saved—stirs up fiery passions, very strong opinions, and enormous disagreements. I remember early in my priesthood when, on the occasion of this Gospel, I said there was a possibility that all might be saved. Afterwards, I needed to be saved myself from the mob that attacked me! I’ve been more careful ever since.
When it comes to salvation, I guess we all have strong feelings—Google the question and see the many responses. For example: Yes, all will be saved. No, very few will be saved. Only Catholics will be saved. All will be saved except Catholics, and so on.
The question is explicitly dealt with in the NT, and today’s Gospel is the classic text. But important for understanding today’s Gospel is its historical and cultural context.
So . . . the Gospel begins by saying that Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem—always important, because Jerusalem means "the cross." Someone comes up to Jesus and asks him, "Lord, will only a few people be saved?" We have one Jew asking a question to another Jew. So the context is two Jews in conversation in the first century.
What would "the few" mean to people at this time? In the Jewish context, the "few" means the Jewish people—observant Jews. Those who follow the Law; the Chosen People. And the many—who are "the many"? The many would be the Gentiles—all the populations of the world. Behind the question is a presumption of exclusivity and superiority. When we understand this, the rest of the Gospel begins to make sense.
To make the point, Jesus tells a little story:
"Once the master has arisen and locked the door, then you will stand outside saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’ He will say in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from.’ And you will say, ‘You know us. We ate and drank with you.’ And he will say again, ‘I do not know you. Depart from me, all you evildoers.’"
The point Jesus is making . . . just being an Israelite doesn’t guarantee salvation. One’s status as a Jew is not enough. Even a Jew must enter through the narrow gate.
And what is that narrow gate? Again, we look to the context: Jesus is heading to Jerusalem where he will face the cross. The narrow gate is the cross. The narrow gate is faithful discipleship. The faithful disciple picks up his cross daily and follows Jesus.
In other words, none of us can depend on personal status to gain salvation. You might say, "But I’m a Catholic," or "I go to Church every Christmas and Easter," or, "I go to Church every day." Or "I’m baptized." Or my brother is a priest! And so on. The only criteria, whether for Jew or Gentile, are the cross and discipleship. The narrow gate.
The point of our Gospel is to warn us against any presumption regarding salvation—"I’m in, or I’m out." The Council of Trent back in the 16th century said that two things are to be avoided in this matter: presumption and despair. Not to presume you will be saved, but not to despair that you won’t.
Are they few who will be saved? Honestly, we don’t know. But what is important is the narrow gate: the cross and discipleship. And hope.