Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 66:18-21 | Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13 | Luke 13:22-30
Oh God, who calls the minds of the faithful to unite in a single purpose, grant your people to love what you command and to desire what you promise that amid the uncertainties of the world our hearts may be fixed on that place where true gladness is found. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
The first reading describes the intention of God the Father as he began working with these people. You hear this theme throughout all of scripture, but it’s he wants to call people together. He wants to get people to come to him and to understand and to grow and to become who he’s always intended them to be. It’s so interesting to imagine who those first responders were to that invitation to come and dwell with him and listen to him.
I don't know if you’ve ever wondered about what I’m about to say, but I’ve been thinking a lot about what were the people like when God was calling his people for the first time into a people that he said, “I’ve got this plan for you, and I want to take you out of a place of slavery and bring you to a better place.” What was their morality like? How sensitive were they to the things that we have grown into to make us more and more like God our Father, compassion, understanding, love. My sense is that they were very, very far from where we are today, and then we hear in the book of Hebrews, we hear that not only is God calling us into a place of goodness and wonder, but he’s saying, “As I bring you to this place, I have to ask you to go through something. It’s called discipline.” Discipline, what discipline would sound to me like is some energy and effort on our part that goes against the way we normally think or the way we normally look at things. So it’s clear that, if you’re going to journey with God, if you’re going to come with him on this journey to freedom, you’re going to have to change, and discipline comes from the same word as disciple, learner. And so you’re going to have to learn things about the way you have been, and you have to go through a process of changing that, and that is never easy. And so when there’s pain in that experience, what the author to the book of Hebrews is trying to say is, “No, go through that, because that’s God’s gift to you, to take you through something painful, and if you endure the pain, you’re going to find this promised place, this promised land, this salvation.” Always there is this, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, this longing for a place we aren’t yet in that we can one day reach.
So when we look at the ministry of Jesus, and he’s the one who’s come to fulfill everything in the Old Testament — he’s the one that’s there to say, “Okay, this is the final chapter of the whole lesson that started with Adam and Eve and their struggle to know what’s right and what’s wrong. And what he’s trying to do, Jesus, he goes from town to town and village to village, and he teaches, and he preaches, and he’s trying to say something that is radically, radically different. And so when asked, “How’s it going? What’s the success rate?” I think that’s an interesting question. I thought of that question about are there a few people saved or a whole bunch of people being saved. He doesn’t give an answer of how many. He talks about how you become one of those who are in his kingdom, in the place he wants us to be, on the journey to someplace even greater than we could ever even imagine. In fact I had this image, when I was preparing this homily, that as Jesus leaves a town, you wonder what he’s thinking, and you say — if I were walking with him, I’d say, “Well, how do you think it went there? Do you think they got it?” Because when I give a talk, sometimes that’s what people say who know my work and wonder about people who are there that don’t know it. They say, “You think they understood?” Well, it’s interesting. His image of understanding is really fascinating, and he gives us an insight, a really beautiful insight as to what he was really doing. He wasn’t trying to correct behavior. He wasn’t saying, “Do more of what you’re supposed to do. Be disciplined so that you will not choose what you want to do but do always what the law demands you do.” That was the problem with religion at the time that Jesus walked this earth. It was almost like people were robots to the law, and they didn’t know God. In fact it was even considered to be blasphemous to think that you could have an intimate relationship with God. That’s interesting if you think of the ego of the world saying, “No, don’t get people connected to God. That’s going to be dangerous. No. Just make God a kind of formidable, frightening figure that condemns the minute you cross with him your disobedience. Once he knows your disobedience, he’s angry, and he’s ready to kill you and destroy you.” That’s the kind of God that a church that was running the world then, the Judeo-Christian — well, was running the Jewish world — the temple, it was all about discipline, following the rules and laws and doing what rituals demanded of you in order to receive some kind of mercy from God. It was all in what you did, what you did, what you did. And Jesus calls that the wide gate, the one everybody was taking. Everybody’s walking that way. Do what you’re told. God will bless you in this world and in the next, and Jesus comes to contradict that, not the promise but the way, the doorway, the thing you need to enter into.
So I want you to imagine when he talks about — and this is very hard to grasp the first time you read this passage, but what he’s talking about, one might say, well, the narrow — the wide gate is the easy gate, and it’s painless, and then the narrow gate is really hard. No, I don’t think that’s it. One is obvious, and one is hidden. The narrow gate is hidden, and when he says it’s hard for a rich man to find that narrow gate, it would simply mean a man who is rich at the time that Jesus was preaching was the man who followed the rules and laws to the letter of the law, because that’s why they were rich. So there’s an acceptance of this misconception of what God wants from us. “Do what I say. Do it perfectly, and I will bless you.” And then there’s something hidden that Jesus came to reveal, because human beings are not made simply to be robots to external rules and laws. It gives us freedom from the anxiety perhaps or wondering what life is like and whether it’s right or not, and you know if you’re doing the right things, that’s it. I think for me, growing up as a younger person, I would think, “Well, as long as I’m doing what I’m supposed to, I’m doing fine. If I go to confession, go to mass every Sunday, don’t ever have any kind of sexual contact with anyone before marriage, all that, well, then I’m in.” Okay? And that just took a whole lot of discipline. Another word for that is repression.
Then Jesus comes along and said, “No, there’s another way.” I would describe it this way: The wide is doing what you’re told. The narrow gate is becoming who God intends you to be. It’s that simple. And how do you do that? Well, the frightening thing is you can’t become who you’re intended to be, you can’t develop the unique thing that you are, the unique person that you are and the role that you’re going to have in this world and in your family of origin and in the circle of your friends. When you become authentically who you are, you’ve got a gift for each of them, but if you’re all following the same robotic life and just doing what you’re told, nobody’s changing really. So what you find in that narrow gate is not just a way to salvation promised to law-abiding citizens. No, it’s a very intense, wonderful journey of being transformed. Notice I say transformed, because I don’t think you can sit in a room and say, “Okay, I’m going to become myself. I’m going to work on this.” Well, you don’t know what that self is. At least I didn’t. Who I see myself as now at almost 80 is nothing like I’d see myself when I was 30. A few things are the same but very few. The goals I have now are not the goals I had then, and those goals back then were not bad. I wanted to be a good priest, do everything right and not make mistakes and please everybody. That’s not a bad thing, but this inner journey is something really different. And to go inside to see what’s there, to become conscious of what you’re really doing, what you’re really feeling, what you’re really longing for, that’s not something you can do on your own. It has to be done with someone. So that’s the very heart of the message of Jesus.
He came into the world to replace the temple, the laws, the rules with the personal presence of God inside of you. What does that look like? It looks just like Jesus. He was you, human completely and filled with divinity, and one of the phrases that they use about him is that he grew in age and wisdom. He wasn’t just, poof, coming into the world as a little boy with all the knowledge of God. No, he had to remain 100 percent human. That was the core of his message. If you take that away from him and make him too divine, you ruin it. The thing you want to think about, when you think of Jesus as God, is he was so close to him, and that presence of God made him more and more and more like God until he was completely like God at the very end when he was absolutely filled with nothing, nothing but mercy and forgiveness and compassion. So much resistance in Jesus’ life to his end, his failure, his being ridiculed and humiliated, and he despised it. That was a phrase from the scripture last week. He despised the shame of the cross, but he surrendered to it. Why? Because the final thing that God was doing inside of him, that he’s doing, thank God slowly, for all of us, and did it in a way slowly for God, is to limit, is to diminish the importance of our seeing my life, my world as I want it to be but surrendering to what it really is. It’s not hard to surrender to what is wonderful and beautiful. It’s really hard to surrender to what doesn’t seem to make sense at the moment, and those are the times of change, transformation, pain. To give in to failure, when you have the responsibility to save the world, it’s mindboggling. He wasn’t just trying to do a good job and failed. No, he felt he had the world on his shoulders, and he was there to transform it, and he didn’t think dying would be that advantageous until it happened. And then everyone saw it, well, was shown it, and a very small percentage saw it for what it was, the key, the core surrender of your mind, body, spirit to a plan that is not yours but God’s.
And when you see it, when you feel it, when you endure it, and you see the fruit of it, you begin to sense the fruit of it, that’s when you know. That’s when you’ve already made the crossover. You’ve already went through the opening. You’re already on the other side of believing that the more important thing is not my success in the way I see it but success in the way it’s always been planned, the way I was intended to do my life. And I think you’d say, “Well, what does that feel like?” Well, just imagine being unconscious, lying in a tomb, waking up and standing up and resonating every piece of energy you ever longed to have, while you were alive, to transform people and going out there and being so incredibly successful. Resurrection, Jesus walking around for 40 days, which could have been 40 months. It just means a very long time, and everywhere he went, he did exactly what he hoped he could do before his death and resurrection. But he couldn’t, because he hadn’t yet completely gotten through the narrow gate.
Father, your wisdom, your love, your patience, your forgiveness, all of it so beautiful and so important for us to grasp to know how intimate you long to be with our journey here on this earth that you created for us, so please awaken our consciousness more and more to this intimacy that is not just a gift. It is that, but it’s essential for making our journey to the place that you promised for all of us, a place of great blessings and peace, joy and love. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.