Over the past few weeks we have heard about Jesus journeying up to Jerusalem to face arrest, suffering and death (see Lk 9:22,43-45). Along the way he was spurned by a Samaritan village, he sent out 70 disciples to proclaim the kingdom of God, he told the parable of the good Samaritan and he visited Mary and Martha. He also taught about prayer, hypocrisy, riches and vigilance.
As varied as these matters were, they all were addressed with a singularity of purpose, for the Good Shepherd was working to gather in lost sheep while demonstrating that he was the promised Messiah who would deliver the remnant of faithful from spiritual exile. His passion would reveal the deeper meaning of his teachings, and his death and resurrection in Jerusalem would point the way to the heavenly banquet in the new Jerusalem. This is what Ad Gentes , the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity, called the “narrow way of the cross.”
In today’s reading we hear that as Jesus made his way through “towns and villages” he was asked, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” It appears to be a fair question. In fact, haven’t we all, at one time or another, wondered the same thing? So, it is a bit bracing to read St. Cyril of Alexandria’s comment that Jesus “is purposely silent to the useless question.” St. Cyril pointed out that Jesus refocuses the man’s attention on the questions that should concern us. “He proceeds to speak of what was essential — namely, of the knowledge necessary for the performance of those duties by which people can enter the narrow door.”
Today’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah seems to present something of a paradox when put alongside the Gospel. Isaiah foretold of a time when God would widen the way of salvation to include Gentiles from “the nations.” This, in fact, had been his intention all along, as his covenant with Abram indicated: “All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you” (Gn 12:3).
Yet even more surprising was the declaration that some of those Gentiles would become priests. This gathering would establish a new family of God — the Church — free of ethnic criteria. These people, Jesus stated, will come from all four corners of the earth “and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.”
Yet each of them will have to enter through the narrow gate, and many will fail for lack of strength. In considering this, we must recognize that the graciousness of God’s call is not incompatible with the difficulty of the journey. All that is good and worthwhile requires effort, fidelity and sacrifice. Jesus warns that being born into the family of God does not exempt anyone from striving, by God’s grace, to be a true son and daughter of God. And, as the Letter to the Hebrews teaches, those who are sons will undergo discipline and experience trials, which eventually “brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness.”
Some of the Jews rejected God’s discipline. We, too, can turn away from God’s reproof and lose our way. Confession, prayer and holy Communion are essential for our spiritual health and growth. “Thus from celebration to celebration as they proclaim the Paschal mystery of Jesus ‘until he comes,’ the pilgrim People of God advances, ‘following the narrow way of the cross,’ toward the heavenly banquet, when all the elect will be seated at the table of the kingdom” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1344).
Carl E. Olson is editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.