The Salvation Question

The readings for Sunday, August 21, 2016,Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C, are
Isaiah 66:18-21; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; and Luke 13:22-30.

Luke’s ongoing catechesis is still under the heading, “The Journey to Jerusalem.” Thus Luke begins, “Jesus passed through towns and villages, teaching as he went, making his way to Jerusalem.” That journey is a journey to a difficult ending — the cross. In view of the cross, Luke places difficult instruction within the framework of the journey. One of those difficult instructions — a real troublemaker — is the theme of this Sunday’s Gospel. A question: “Lord, will only a few be saved?” Jesus does not answer with a direct “Yes” or “No.” Instead he says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not have the strength.” Should we conclude from this statement that salvation is severely limited, only for and to the few? Matthew has a similar instruction.

What is the context? There are two little parables immediately preceding. They are the parable of the mustard seed and of yeast hidden in three measures of flour. The mustard seed is very small, yet it “became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” In the second parable the yeast works on the flour or dough until all is leavened. The yeast penetrates all the flour. The word “all” is the key to the question of limited or unlimited salvation. Luke comes down on the side of limited salvation at this point but not consistently in his Gospel. Think of the parables of Luke 15. A man has a hundred sheep. One gets lost. He leaves ninety-nine sheep in the desert to go after the lost sheep. A woman has ten silver coins, loses one, sweeps the whole house until she finds it. Then throws a big party. The wasteful, wandering son is next. He leaves home, blows his inheritance, comes to his senses, returns to his father, not as a son but as a slave. But the father receives him with open arms and restores him to sonship. What is Luke teaching in these parables? God is so crazy in love with us that he will go to any length to get us back.

Luke adds another parable. After the master of the house locks the door, “you will stand outside knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’ He will reply, ‘I don’t know where you are from.’” The people wanting entry attempt another approach, “We ate and drank in your company, and you taught in our streets.” Same reply from inside but with a sentence of condemnation, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!” The original setting as a saying of Jesus would have been a warning to Jesus’ contemporaries that they are missing an opportunity which will not be repeated. The parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus, also from Luke, instills a similar teaching. After death it is too late to shape up.

A third parable follows — the heavenly banquet. The concept is much older than the Gospels. At least at one time, probably by Jesus, this banquet parable was addressed to those who rejected Jesus and his mission. Luke accepts that theme but turns it into a subject very dear to him (and to Paul) — a justification of the Christian mission to the Gentiles (non-Jews).

Luke speaks first to the theme of rejection of Jesus by his own people, even though Luke well knows that all the first Christians were Jews. He writes, “And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out.” Why does he include the prophets? Because from the early Christian point of view the prophets “predicted” everything about Jesus — including his rejection. One might say that if the three worthies — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob — made it into the kingdom of God, understood as eternity with God, the rest of us have a good chance of getting inside before the Master locks the door. The history as depicted in Genesis of these three ancestors of the Israelites/Jews contains some unfavorable material. They were sinners just like we are. Maybe Luke has had second thoughts about the way this gospel reading opened with an emphasis on a very limited salvation. In the next part he weakens even more the concept of limited salvation.

Here Luke speaks to a favorite theme — the conversion of the Gentiles. He writes, “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.” Sounds universal! So Luke began with limited salvation and ends with almost unlimited salvation.