The Narrow Door
When you were in school, did you prefer easy-going teachers to demanding ones? I have been in formal education for 24 years (more than half of my life) and I generally preferred the demanding teachers, because most often I found the easy-going ones not only shallow but very stingy with marks to maintain the class average because they wanted to please all students!
In the gospel reading of today, Luke presents Jesus as a demanding teacher. This portrayal of Jesus is very unlike Luke. For instance, Matthew uses the phrase “grinding of teeth” (NJB), or in other translations, “gnash their teeth” (RSV), five times in his Gospel, whereas Luke uses it only once. And that happens to be in the gospel text of today. Being consistent within the Gospel of Luke, what is the central orientation of the Word of God on this 21st Sunday? Let us focus on the “narrow door” – the image that seems to demand something from us as disciples of Jesus.
The Narrow Door: Don’t be afraid of being part of the minority
The gospel text of today begins with the words, “Through towns and villages he went teaching, making his way to Jerusalem” (Lk 13:22).The major part of the Gospel of Luke is a portrayal of the journey of Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. “Now it happened that as the time drew near for him to be taken up, he resolutely turned his face towards Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51) and he will triumphantly enter Jerusalem in Luke 19:28-48. During this journey Luke presents an image of Jesus who is on the move (Lk 10:38; 17:11) accompanied by a throng of people (Lk 14:25; 23:49), and Jesus would often tend to discourage them by calling their attention to a realistic consideration of their decision. The tone in today’s gospel text could be taken in that vein.
A man asked Jesus this crucial question: “Sir, will there be only a few saved?” (Lk 13:23). It is very similar to the question asked by many Catholics today: “Is there salvation outside the church?” During the time of Jesus, the question of salvation was under serious discussion (see for instance, Lk 10:25, Lk 18:18). The Jews generally believed that they will all be saved because they were Jews, because they were the chosen race. However, some contended that only the Jews who followed the Law meticulously will be saved. Without agreeing on any of the extreme positions, Jesus challenges the perception that people will be saved merely on the basis of their affiliation to a group. He invites us to be ready for surprises. But one thing is important: be ready to enter through the narrow door. Salvation may not be where the majority are.
Human beings tend to draw their individual identities from their group identities. When we are asked, “who are you”, we naturally tend to introduce ourselves in terms of the groups that we belong to: an Indian, a Catholic, a Salesian! Larger the group, we believe, more bombastic our identity is. Some of us may be proud to be Catholics because it is the largest single church, or because it is the well-organized church, or that it has a long history withstanding the test of time. Now, all these might mean nothing to our experience of eternal life. That is the surprise!
The Narrow Door: Make yourself small
When I served as a pastor in a parish in India, during Eastertide every year we undertook this elaborate activity of blessing the houses of all the faithful. There were over 500 households spread out in over 10 zones/villages. We had to walk long distances, and often the doors to the houses were rather narrow. We had to bend down, and as soon as you entered the house you found yourself in a dark space filled with smoke. It was really a humbling experience for us adults. But often, I noticed, children ran in and out of these houses as a matter fact.
Elsewhere in the gospel of Luke, Jesus uses the child as the image of greatness and invites us to imitate children in our attitude towards the kingdom of God. “He took a little child whom he set by his side, and then he said to them, ‘Anyone who welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me… The least among you all is the one who is the greatest’” (Lk 9:46-48). And again in another part of the Gospel, “Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. In truth I tell you, anyone who does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it’” (Lk 18:16-17). The gospel of today simply invites us to “welcome the kingdom of God like a little child” – to enter through the narrow door we have to make ourselves like little children.
The Narrow Door: You might have to squeeze yourself
There was a director of a funding agency from USA visiting Africa. He had to fly from Nairobi to South Sudan by a 6-seater chartered plane. He was a bulky man – unimaginably big. As they prepared for the take-off, the pilot had a tough time working out the seating arrangement in order to balance the weights across the aircraft. They managed. When they landed, that huge director could not come out of the plane. Probably due to sitting down for a few hours that contributed to water retention in the body, the director had become a little bigger and could not bring himself out of the door of that small aircraft. His companions had to literally pull him out of the plane! (The director was so embarrassed that after he returned to the US, I was told, he underwent an operation to reduce his size!)
This funny incident offers us another possible image of the narrow door. To go in to narrow doors, it is not that we have to be small, but sometimes we have to squeeze ourselves in – particularly if we make ourselves big! The second reading of today, from the Letter to the Hebrews reminds of this. It tells us that “Suffering is part of your training; God is treating you as his sons.” The message is very clear, “So hold up your limp arms and steady your trembling knees and smooth out the path you tread; then the injured limb will not be wrenched, it will grow strong again” (Heb 12:12-13).
Let us be challenged by the Word of God today, and be strengthened by the Eucharist, to be able to enter through the narrow door, so that we have life – eternal life!
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.