The Locked Door
August 24, 2004
Well this is a difficult passage. What does it mean when the Gospel tells us that we will come and knock upon the door of eternal life and find that it is locked? What does it mean that we will come seeking to enter in and be told that we are rejected? I thought that God was always willing to welcome us in. I thought that there would always be an open door when we came and knocked. Even a few chapters earlier in Luke’s Gospel Jesus says this very thing. “Ask and you shall receive. Knock and it shall be opened to you.” So what does this passage mean that tells us that when we try to enter, we will be refused. When we seek come in, the door will be locked.
To answer that question let us start with what we know is true. God’s will is to save us, to save every person in this church, to save every person in the world. God is always willing and open to invite us in to eternal life. But salvation is a two way street. It requires our participation. God’s intention is not the only factor. God will never change in God’s desire to save us. But two things can change: our circumstances and our very selves. When these things change we can find that the door in fact is locked.
How can we explain this? There are many stories that have resulted from the tragic events of 9/11. But one of the most poignant for me was a story that I experienced on 9/12. As you know during that time many people came to church and spent time in prayer. I encountered a woman leaving church. I said to her, “I am glad you came today to pray. We all need prayers.” “Some more than others,” she said. “Do you want to know who I was praying for today?” “Of course,” I said. “I was praying for all the spouses of the people that died in those twin towers who left for work yesterday morning angry at their husband or wife. They always thought that there would be time to make peace. They always thought that there would be another opportunity to be reconciled. Yet there was not. They will have to live with that for the rest of their lives.” Circumstances in our life change. What is possible today is not always possible tomorrow. The people with whom we need to be reconciled will not always be with us. The people we want to thank or tell them that we love them could be taken in an instant. When that happens the door is locked and we can no longer get in.
But it is not just the circumstances in our life that can change. We ourselves change depending upon our decisions. Every time we say no to an opportunity for life or growth it is easier to say no again. Every time we make a decision not to act we begin to build a habit that lessons our freedom. This can happen in a marriage or any deep relationship. The decision not to be honest moves us closer to living a lie. The decision not to be generous and forgiving begins to create a pattern of selfishness and inflexibility. Soon we can be living in a lifeless marriage, in a dead relationship. A similar thing can happen in dealing with addictions. Every time we pass up an opportunity to stop drinking, to stop using drugs, we feed the habit of the abuse that reduces our ability to live. Every time we say no to a good opportunity we reduce the chances of recognizing the next opportunity that comes along. God will never cease to provide opportunities. The grace of God will never dry up. But we can dry up. We can create a thick crust of insensitivity and habit that refuses to let the grace of God sink in. When that happens the door is locked and we are unable to enter.
This then is the warning of today’s Gospel. God will never change in God’s desire to save us. But our circumstances can change and we can change. God will never lock the door to shut us out. But the circumstances of our life can shut us out, and we can lose the desire to enter by the choices we refuse to make. The message of the Gospel, then, is carpe diem. It is a Latin phrase which means “seize the day.” The day is now. If there is an open door in your life, walk through it. If you need to forgive someone, do it. If you need to thank someone or tell someone that you love them, don’t wait until tomorrow. If there is an opportunity for change or growth, take it. God will never change, but our lives can change. So carpe diem. Seize the day. Today is the day of salvation.
Responsibility and Knowledge
August 26, 2007
There are two images in today’s gospel, and neither one of them is particularly encouraging. First there is the image of the narrow gate. Jesus says that to enter the kingdom we must enter through the narrow gate. Second, there is the image of the closed door. Jesus warns us to be careful lest we be locked out. Now how do these two images apply to our lives? They both point to an essential need. The narrow gate points to the need of personal responsibility, and the closed door points to the need for adequate knowledge.
The Church of the Nativity was built in Bethlehem during the Middle Ages over the site where people believe that Christ was born. It is not a particularly attractive church. It appears more like a fortress than a house of worship. Its stone is rough. Its proportions are uneven. Perhaps the most notable thing about the church is its doorway. It is very small, only about three feet wide and four feet high. The crusaders who built this church designed the doorway in that fashion because they wanted to assure that who ever would come to visit the place where Jesus was born, would have to make an individual and conscious choice to enter and at the same time would be forced to bow as they came into the holy place.
The small door of the Church of the Nativity, like the narrow gate in today’s gospel, reminds us that if we are going to enter into the presence of the holy, if we are going to enter into the kingdom of God, we must do so with a conscious and purposeful choice. We cannot stroll into the kingdom unaware. We cannot walk in as part of a large group of people, holding onto someone else’s coat tails. We cannot enter into the kingdom on someone else’s merit. One day, each one of us will have to stand before the Lord and give an accounting for the lives that we have lived, for the decisions that we made, for the opportunities that we missed, for the gifts that we used and the gifts that we squandered. It will be our life on the line. No one else can answer for it. We must assume personal responsibility. This is why Jesus says that those who enter will enter by the narrow gate.
Jesus also warns us about the closed door. This image reveals the need for adequate knowledge. Those in the gospel who are shut out are surprised, because they thought they knew what was required to enter into the kingdom of God. They were mistaken. They presumed that because they ate and drank in Jesus’ presence, that certainly they would be welcomed into the kingdom. They were wrong. They did not have sufficient knowledge of what was required of them, and more was required than they expected. Because of that lack of knowledge, they found themselves on the wrong side of the closed door.
So these two images in the gospel remind us that each one must claim personal responsibility for our entry into the kingdom. We must also have adequate knowledge of what that responsibility entails. So how do we assure that we have this sufficient knowledge? By committing ourselves to grow in our faith. Faith formation is a life-long process. At every stage of our life, we face new challenges, new decisions, new possibilities. It is important that we have sufficient knowledge of our faith to guide us along each of those steps of our lives. We all agree that children need to learn about their faith. But adults need to learn as well. Do we really think that what we learned in the fourth grade is sufficient for the adult challenges in our lives? Growing in our faith is a life-long process.
Now there is a commercial in today’s homily and here it comes. Several years ago, we initiated in our parish the Gift Program, an inner-generational effort of faith formation for the entire parish. This week you received information in the mail about this year’s Gift Program. As you know, Gift is for everyone. It is for children and adults, for the young and the old, for those married and single. Whoever is a part of the parish is welcome to Gift, because growing in our faith is for everyone. We have installed a new bulletin board between the narthex and the banquet center that outlines the eight sessions of Gift this year. Each one of them addresses a particular aspect of our faith in a way that is age appropriate to both adults and children. I believe that the topics for Gift are relevant. There is one this year about Islam, one about deepening your prayer at mass, one about living with difficult people, one about understanding the Trinity. Not only does Gift deepen your knowledge of the faith but it does so in an atmosphere where we can grow as a community. Now I think you could benefit to participate in all eight of the Gift sessions but I ask you to target at least one or two of these sessions as ways to grow in your own faith. Please consider doing that.
Of course, the important thing is that you do grow in your faith. That can happen in ways other than Gift. But Gift is one simple and accessible way that you can assure that you have sufficient knowledge of the faith which we treasure. And that is important, because having such knowledge is for each one of us a personal responsibility.
The Gift of Dirt
August 22, 2010
Human science has achieved remarkable advances during our lifetime. There are many serious diseases that have been conquered. Animals have been successfully cloned, and with the progress that is being made on the human genome project, scientists are coming close to being able to engineer and initiate life. So it is probably only a mild surprise that at a recent scientific conference, a resolution was passed to assert that God was no longer needed. The president of the society made an appointment with God to deliver the bad news. As he was ushered into God’s presence, he first recounted all the achievements that human ingenuity had accomplished.
He ended by saying, “God, I would like to thank you on behalf of humanity for all the centuries that you guided us and were involved in our lives. But the truth is, you are no longer needed. It’s time for you to go.”
God listened to this whole presentation very patiently. When it was over, he said, “Well, I understand your position. But I think that before we sever ties completely, it might be good for us to test whether you’re really able to make it on your own. So if you’re willing, I would propose a small contest. I’d like to see whether you would be able to create a human person as successfully as I have been able to do.”
“No problem,” said the scientist. “I’m confident that we can do it.”
“Now this won’t be easy,” said God, “because what I would ask you to do is to create someone just as I created Adam, out of the dust of the earth.”
“Well,” said the scientist, “we have not been able to do that yet, but I am sure that with a little bit of time we will succeed. So I confidently accept your wager.”
“Fine,” said God. “Go ahead. Start.”
So the scientist smiled and he stooped down and took a handful of dirt into his hands.
“Wait a minute,” said God, “Go find your own dirt!”
We are talented and good people. We have been able to accomplish many things because of our efforts and our abilities. But because of those very things it is easy for us to forget that all that we have and all that we have accomplished would be impossible had not God first blessed us—had not God first given us dirt. Because we are successful, it is easy for us to imagine that our ultimate union with God, our salvation, primarily rests upon our own good actions and works. We can forget that here, as in all things, we are totally dependent on God’s graciousness.
This is the idea we should keep in mind as we listen to today’s gospel, as we hear someone ask Jesus from the crowd, “Are there few who are going to be saved?” It is important to catch the implication of that question. The implication is this, “Are there only a few to be saved besides me?” You see the question is posed with confidence. The questioner is confident he is going to be saved, but he is wondering about everyone else. Why does he think he will be saved? Because he is a good person, because he’s a person of faith, because he is a part of God’s people. Jesus’ harsh response to this question, his insistence that we have to enter through the narrow gate, does not imply that salvation is rare or that God is stingy in granting it. It is meant to shock the confident questioner so that he remembers that his future and his salvation with God is totally dependent on God’s free choice.
This answer by Jesus is important for us as well, because we are good people. We say our prayers. We love our family and friends. Because of those good things which we rightfully and appropriately do, we sometimes forget that, despite all of our achievements, we are still radically dependent on what God has given us. Jesus’ command to enter through the narrow gate is not telling us we need to do more or we need to do something more difficult. It is calling us to a particular perspective, to a way of looking at our relationship to God. It is calling us to realize that everything we have, both our past, present and our future, depends on God’s free grace.
How much more richly would you and I live if we really adopted this perspective. When you wake up in the morning in a comfortable and secure house, you can feel some satisfaction that you are there because your hard work and savings have provided this place for you. But you also need to remember that it is only because God gave you life, abilities, and talents that you have been able to work. Therefore your house is dependent on God’s free gift. When you look at your children growing into responsible adults, you can feel pride that you sacrificed for them and guided them. But you also need to be grateful that somehow they made it through the dangers of high school and college and negotiated the temptations of society to live and to become the people that they are. That gift is totally dependent on God’s graciousness. When any of us look to the future, we can feel satisfaction that we have planned for retirement. We can look forward and feel secure because we are eating well and getting exercise. But whether we live another ten, twenty, or thirty years is not in our control. We are totally dependent on God’s will. Our future is in God’s hands.
Despite all of our efforts and achievements, we as believers must always live with gratitude. We must always claim our radical dependence on God’s goodness to us. To think that we are making it on our own is foolishness. It is like imagining we can make our own dirt.
The Balance of Humility
August 25, 2013
Tom Brokaw, who for years was the anchor on The NBC Nightly News, began his television career in a small station in Omaha, Nebraska. From there he went on to serve in Los Angeles and Washington, but his big break was when he was promoted to be the co-chair of The Today Show in New York City. From that time forward, his face had national coverage. It was plastered on billboards throughout the city. Brokaw became accustomed to people recognizing him on the street, coming up to congratulate him, and asking for his autograph.
His favorite story about this begins one day when he was browsing through Bloomingdale’s. He saw in the corner of his eye that a man was watching him. Brokaw knew the routine, and sure enough in a few minutes the man came forward, pointing his finger and saying, “Tom Brokaw. You’re Tom Brokaw, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am,” said Brokaw.
“And you used to do the morning news on WKTV in Omaha, Nebraska.”
“Yes, I did,” said Brokaw, waiting for the congratulations that were soon to come.
“I knew it!” said the man, “I recognized you as soon as I saw you.” Then he paused and said, “Whatever happened to you?”
We would say that in this story Tom Brokaw was humbled. His view of himself and his fame was knocked down to size. It is this “knocking down to size” that we might first think of when we hear Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel: “The first will become last.” What Jesus is saying could indicate that when we are overly proud of our success, abilities, or talents, we can be prepared to be knocked down to size.
Now to understand Jesus’ words this way is certainly valid, but it is not complete. Jesus not only says that the first will become last, he also says that the last will become first. He does not only say that the exalted will be humbled, but also that the humbled will be exalted. So instead of spending our time today discussing the various ways that our pretensions need to be knocked down, it might be more profitable for us to ask, “What do we need to do in order to be built up?” To answer that question, we have to understand what Jesus means when he talks about being last and being humbled.
Humbling ourselves does not mean that we negate our value or that we disdain our abilities and talents. Humbling ourselves means that we accept the truth of who we are. Accepting that truth is always a balance. On one hand we are people of tremendous worth. We are made in the image of God. We have been saved by the blood of Christ. We have talents and abilities that we can use to serve others and build God’s kingdom. Through our baptism, we share in the very life of God. On the other hand, we are imperfect people. We are sometimes selfish and demanding. We want to have our own way, and we have fits when we do not get it. We make bad decisions and refuse to learn from them.
Living in the truth of who we are means that we must accept that we are both valuable and flawed, both holy and sinful, both generous and weak. It is only by accepting all of this that we find humility. It is only by accepting all that we are that we come to see what it means to live in the truth about ourselves. If knowing that truth means that we take the last place, that is exactly where Christ wants us to be.
So the next time you are introduced to someone, don’t fall over yourself trying to mention all of your accomplishments. What is really important will in time emerge. When your friend or your spouse surpasses you in some ability or achievement, don’t waste your time making excuses. Simply admit that he or she might have a talent that you do not possess. When you mess things up, don’t get angry with yourself. Apologize for the mistake and move on, owning your weakness but at the same time claiming your value as a person.
It is living in the truth of this balance that we achieve humility. Living humbly is living honestly. If living this way gains us the last place in the minds of some people, so be it. Because when we live our lives in the truth of who we are, we rise to the first place in the eyes of others and in the eyes of God.
The Narrow Gate
August 21, 2016
Today’s gospel seems negative and discouraging. When someone in the crowd asks Jesus about salvation, he seems to say that entering the Kingdom of God will be difficult. He uses the image of a “narrow gate” through which a person must push him or herself in order to pass. The Greek word that the text uses only intensifies this difficulty. It implies an athletic contest of strength by which people might squeeze themselves through by brute force. It is no wonder that Jesus concludes by saying that many will not have the strength to enter.
So how are we to understand these words of Jesus that seem to indicate that only a few people will be saved and only those who are strong enough to push themselves through a narrow gate? How do we square these words with so many places in the New Testament where Jesus seems to indicate that salvation is open to all who can freely enter into the Kingdom of God?
I would suggest to you that we must pose two questions to this text. The first is, “With whom is the questioner in the story concerned?” and the second is, “Who is making the gate narrow?” The question that is posed to Jesus is very important because it sets the context for everything that follows. The questioner asks, “Will only a few people be saved?” Notice that the questioner is not asking about himself but about others. His question seems to be an attempt to vindicate what he thinks about others. What he thinks is already included in the question “Only a few.” This questioner has already concluded that only a few people will be worthy to enter God’s Kingdom. So notice, it is the questioner, not Jesus who first introduces the idea of “the few”, “the narrow”, the limited way to salvation. It is in response to this narrow question that Jesus brings up the “narrow gate.”
So who is making the gate narrow? Not Jesus, but the person who is questioning him. Jesus is only responding to the man’s narrow question, saying if you will, “Well, if access to salvation is as narrow as you think it is, it will indeed be difficult to enter into God’s Kingdom”. It is the man who questions Jesus who narrows the gate, because of his judgment towards others. He thinks only a few are worthy to enter. It is his choice to envision the way to the Kingdom as one that is negative and limited.
Now when we look at the gospel from this perspective, it is not really a discussion about how many people will actually be saved. It is rather a warning to us about our own judgments and prejudices. Each time we judge another person as unworthy of salvation, we narrow in our own minds the gate through which salvation comes. Each time we reject another person because of their mistakes, their lifestyle, or their disagreements with us, we limit our ability to see the immensity of God’s love. Now God of course will continue to be God. God will continue to be merciful and gracious. God will continue to save the sinners and the lost, but our prejudice can blind us to the power of God’s grace.
So it is with a sense of irony that this gospel warns us that the gate we envision is the gate we will use. Each time we reject another person as unworthy of God’s love, the gate before us tightens. Each time we refuse to forgive someone who has offended us, the way before us lessens. We must therefore be careful to enlarge our mercy and our compassion. If we are unwilling to do so, then one day we might discover that our way of salvation is through a very narrow gate, a gate that is so narrow that we do not have the strength to enter.
The Narrow Gate
Aug. 25, 2019
Will only a few be saved? A number of years ago, a Christian group in Alabama presented a news release which attempted to answer this question. The headline read: “Forty-six percent of the people in Alabama are going to Hell.” Do you think that’s a reasonable number? I don’t. But what is even more doubtful is the method that this group used to calculate the forty-six percent. They began with the total population of Alabama and then subtracted those people who were registered in Christian churches that demanded an acceptance of Jesus as our personal savior. They believed that only by doing that could you escape hellfire.
The biggest flaw, however, in this group’s mathematics, was their willingness to use what we do, our actions, as the basis of salvation. Eternal life is God’s free gift to us. It is not based on our works or accomplishments, but only on God’s mercy and love. The summation of all that we do—our prayers, coming to church, our service, our generosity—is not what gets us into heaven. It is only when we trust in God’s mercy and accept God’s love that we know we are saved.
This is why Jesus says in today’s gospel that we should enter through the narrow gate. What does it mean to enter through the narrow gate? It means that we live our lives knowing and claiming God’s sovereignty over us and embracing every moment as an opportunity to accept God’s love. Heaven is not about us. It is about God’s decision to save us. It is when we accept that reality that we are on the road to glory.
So today is the day we should enter through the narrow gate. Today we should accept the power of God’s love which surrounds us. If you are fortunate to be in a strong marriage, have healthy children, live comfortably, you can of course say, “I worked hard for this. I’ve made good decisions. I’m a responsible person.”
But we enter through the narrow gate when we say, “All that I have comes from God’s hands. God is the one who has given me my life, my abilities, my relationships. God is the one who has guided me in my wise decisions.” So although I have done my best, it is God who is to be praised. If your life is in disarray, if your relationships are broken, if your health deteriorating, if you’re coping with depression or addiction, of course you could say, “I should have made better decisions. I could have seen this coming.” But you enter through the narrow gate when you say, “Despite my faults and sins, I believe that God still loves me. This gives me the power and hope to move ahead knowing that God will not abandon me.” Those who enter through the narrow gate understand that God is in charge. Those who enter through the narrow gate realize that for all they have done or failed to do, it is God’s action that is definitive. And God chooses to save us. What we need to do is to accept that salvation with humility and trust.
So today let us enter through the narrow gate. Because the day will come when the door is locked and we will hear others outside knocking to get in. But there will be no need for us to be afraid, because we will already be inside.