For the communities of Dignity/NoVA at Emmanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Arlington, VA and Dignity/Washington at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC.
Readings: Is 66:18-21; Heb 12:5-7, 11-13; Lk 13:22-30
When I first looked at the scripture readings for this weekend a few weeks ago, I must admit that I wasn’t terribly inspired. These readings – and especially our Gospel reading in which Jesus speaks of the challenges of entering the Kingdom – aren’t what I would call “comforting.” In fact, they reminded me of that saying that the purpose of the Good News, the purpose of the Gospel is “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” After listening to Jesus speak about what seem to be limitations on who does and doesn’t get into the Kingdom of God, is it any wonder that we might feel a little unease, a little discomfort? And, it’s not surprising, then, that this discomfort is reinforced with Jesus’ own words in which he says that there will be “wailing and grinding of teeth” among those who don’t make the grade, those who are left out and are not admitted to the feast, that eternal banquet about which we pray and sing so often.
As I thought more about it, I realized that there were probably two things going on with these passages that contributed to my reaction. First, I think most of us prefer to focus on those parts of Scripture which do, indeed, comfort us in our own afflictions. It feels good to hear the Sermon on the Mount when it speaks about all those who are “blessed” in one way or another; it feels good to hear passages in which God is depicted as all-loving and all-merciful and all-forgiving. Second, I also realized that I tend to gravitate towards and identify with those passages that have a more social dimension, ones in which Justice prevails, where Jesus especially turns the tables on prevailing social norms and values – doing so not just for the sake of doing it, but doing so because those tables needed to be turned upside down in a world and society that seemed always to be getting things not quite right. Today’s readings, however, are much less social and much more personal. They speak to us not only collectively, but also to you and me as individuals.
Why do I say that? Well, I think it’s because there’s really a question behind the question that’s put to Jesus in the Gospel passage we just listened to. As Luke writes, “Someone asked him, ‘Lord, will only a few people be saved?’” I would wager that this “someone” wasn’t really looking for a number or some other measurement about who would and would not be saved. The question behind this “someone’s” question was probably, “Lord, will I be saved?” This is not to say that the question about “how many” wasn’t important to Jesus’ listeners. During Jesus’ day, there were two concepts in popular rabbinical teaching that were probably at work in the background. The first is the teaching of the rabbis that “all Israelites have a share in the world to come”; and the second is a passage from what’s called the 4th Book of Ezra, which is not part of the “Canon” of scripture, but which states, “…this age the Most High has made for many, but the age to come for a few.” (4 Ezra 8:1) Stating that all Israelites would have a share in the Kingdom of God was the expected answer to this common question put to Jesus. But Jesus’ answer differs from the traditional answer. That traditional response understood that the “few” would be all Israelites, God’s chosen people; and that “the many,” those who would not be saved, were those outside the community of Israel.
Like so much of what Jesus did, even in this question his response is unexpected. Not only does he not answer the question by saying whether few or many will be saved, he answers it a highly unusual way. Instead of saying that entrance into the Kingdom was based on who you knew, or what community you have been a part of in this life … he states that the heavenly feast is also open to non-Jews, non-Israelites. “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.” Now, he doesn’t say in this passage exactly who those people will be – and so doesn’t answer the question, “Will I be saved?” – but he does suggest that old presumptions are out the window. I guess this is one of the reasons why I always find it a bit offensive when those from some Christian traditions ask, “Are you saved?” or will declare with absolute certainty that they “are saved.”
The truly scriptural answer is – we don’t know. We certainly hope we will be welcomed to God’s kingdom, but it’s beyond presumption for any of us to declare it as a foregone conclusion. What we DO know, however, is that we are called to live lives in which – to use Jesus’ word – we “strive” to follow him and his teaching as best we can. The verb that Luke uses when reporting this answer of Jesus is an interesting one. Jesus advises that one must “strive to enter the narrow gate.” The Greek verb agonizomai, “strive,” is used to describe what is required in athletic training. It’s that discipline to which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews is referring. It’s that discipline that, “…seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” In this context, discipline means not punishment in response to a crime or offense, but rather is the discipline of training and preparation. It’s the discipline that frees us from unnecessary baggage and burdens, that allows us to travel lightly in this life so that we will be able to enter unencumbered through that narrow gate and be recognized by Jesus as his true friend, his true follower, his true disciple.
So what do we do here and now to train ourselves so that Jesus will recognize us and claim us as his own? How do we live our lives today so that we are not turned away and the door not closed in our face? Fortunately, ours is a rich heritage with many, many spiritual traditions and practices. Hopefully, some of these have a place in our daily lives as we exercise and strive to grow as disciples of Jesus. As with physical exercise, there’s probably no one single path, no universally-applicable routine, that all of us follow. But there are, I think, some common indicators that can help us see how effective our training and exercise are. I’d like to end with a brief story that might serve as just one such indicator. When I first read this story and thought about the world of today – so filled as it seems with conflict and division everywhere we look – it occurred to me that we have quite a ways to go on our journey to the kingdom.
A Hasidic rabbi asked his students how to determine the hour of dawn and to know when night ends and day begins. One answered, “Is it when from a distance you can distinguish a dog from a sheep?” “No,” answered the rabbi. Another offered, “Is it when you can distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine?” Again the rabbi said, “No.” “Then tell us,” asked the students, “how can you know when night ends and day begins?” “You’ll know that the sun has risen,” said the rabbi, “when you can look into the face of every other human being and have enough light to recognize that person as your brother or sister. Up until then, it is night, and darkness is still with us. Only when you can see every other person as your brother or sister, only then will a new day have dawned.”