Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
In our gospel today, Jesus proposes two tragic metaphors: the first is the image of a narrow gate, of which our Lord says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”
The good news is that the gate is open. Everyone is allowed to enter. No one is turned away. But the tragedy is that few actually do enter, not due to a lack of desire, but rather due to the lack of strength.
The second tragedy is one of confusion. Our Lord describes a master of a house who has locked the doors, separating those within from those outside. Those outside were surprised at the cold denial of the master when they asked for entry. But the master’s denial was firm: “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers.”
The great tragedy again is that those who were outside wanted to enter, and they seemed sincere in their entitlement. They thought they’d be welcomed But, in the end, they were strangers who were barred from entry.
Both of these images are challenging. We might want to pass through the gate to heaven when our time comes, but we might be surprised at how narrow the pass actually is. I get that sense sometimes, especially at funerals. From the way people speak about the deceased, you’d think that the gate to heaven is wide and that everyone goes to heaven. All someone has to do is die—and everyone does that eventually. But that’s not the impression Jesus gives us today. He says the gate is narrow.
Lest we fall to that same fate as those unfortunate souls in our gospel passage, we dare not be presumptuous about our relationship with our Lord. While we still draw breath in this life, we ought to do all we can to cultivate a relationship with our Lord that allows us to pass through the narrow gate and enter into that blessed place beyond the locked doors.
Returning to our metaphors, in the first image, many tried to enter the narrow gate, but lacked the strength. How do we gain the strength necessary? Two considerations:
First, imagine a sheep or mule that tries to pass through a narrow gate. It would be impossible if it was too large to squeeze through, or if it were already burdened by a harness, saddlebags, or equipment.
Likewise, if I’ve been fattened—spiritually—off of my own ego, if I’ve indulged in a lifetime of addictions, bad habits, and vices, then I may not be lean enough to squeeze through the narrow gate.
Or if I’m weighed down by baggage—spiritual baggage—then the strength I do have is wasted, and I’m left weak to make the final push through. If I’m holding on to the weight of past offenses against me, by bitterness or hatred, or any other chip on my shoulder, then I too could be stuck in place. Even worse, I may end up blocking the way of others trying to pass through. I could be holding them back. I must be lean—spiritually. Blessed are the poor in Spirit, says the Lord, theirs is the kingdom of God.
Now, discarding those things that weigh me down allows me to direct my strength to the essential task, but it doesn’t necessarily give me the strength to push through.
And so, the second consideration is that we must work on our leg strength, again metaphorically. Imagine weightlifters who repeatedly lift heavy weights, week after week. Their muscles undergo a process of being broken down and healing again. After every iteration, their legs become stronger and stronger, and more capable of lifting heavier weights.
Likewise, our cultivation of spiritual leg strength is also a process. Our first attempt through the narrow gate might end in failure. That’s where the sacrament of confession enters in. We do our best to live righteously, day by day, but we at times fail. Repeated attempts at holiness are necessary. We are working toward that singular success that matters most; that moment when we cross the threshold of this life and enter the next.
As to the second parable, those who were outside thought that they were in a certain relationship with the master of the house that permitted them entry. They themselves said, “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets”.
Likewise, we might feel like we’re in a right relationship with our Lord that allows us an easy entry into the halls of the blessed. After all, we’re here at Mass, where he teaches us in these streets. We listen to his voice, as he speaks to us through Sacred Scripture. And we eat and drink in his company at this wedding feast.
Yet the parable, the master said to the outsiders, “I do not know where you are from.” How do we come to know our Lord—truly—so that he does not deny knowing you or me?
How does anyone come to truly know another person? The best I can tell you is that conversation must eventually move beyond pleasantries. Strangers can be polite to one another. But between those who are intimate with one another—those who know each other—conversation and company must connect at a deeper level.
I doubt that the master and the outcasts were connected at that deeper level. Are we? A sign that we might not be is if we believe in a Jesus that does not exist. What do I mean?
Often, when we think of Jesus, we might call to mind his infinite mercy, love, forgiveness, and compassion. He is all of those things. But can I reconcile that image of him with the figure who speaks the words of judgment and condemnation that we hear today? Can I reconcile that loving Jesus with a man who literally attacked people with a whip, and in the eyes of the world, seemed to vandalize the Temple by destroying the property of merchants?
If I can’t—if I reduce him to a figure that is all pleasantries, who speaks of mercy without a final judgment, then I’ve invented my own “domesticated” version of Jesus, who affirms everyone and challenges no one. But that kind of uncontroversial Jesus would never have been crucified; and therefore, he would never have died for my sins, and I would remain, unredeemed.
“My” Jesus would be nothing more than a figment of my imagination, and the real Jesus would be someone completely incomprehensible to me; someone I never knew; and he never knew me.
Knowing Jesus, and being known by Jesus, demands that we allow the conversation to get uncomfortable at times, in order to connect at that deeper level, beyond pleasantries, arriving at true knowledge of him, this crucified Lord enthroned on a cross [gesturing to the crucifix], whose glory is revealed in thorns.
Ultimately, this is the narrow gate: the Cross. I’ve said this before: the crucifix is both riddle and answer, from which all we need know about God and creation can be gleaned. Jesus spoke about the narrow way at other times in different ways: “Take up your cross and follow me,” says the Lord, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God,” and so on.
Through the grace of the Mass, may our Lord strengthen our efforts and reveal himself to us anew.
Hans Memling’s, “Last Judgement Triptych” (central panel) (c. 1467–1471). Muzeum Narodowe, Gdansk, Poland.