Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. As he made his way through the various towns and villages on his route, he stopped and taught those who came out to hear him. He was becoming quite a celebrity. Sometimes thousands came out. Yet he knew that most of these folks were merely curious. They were not truly seekers after the truth. In fact, someone along the way asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”
My guess is that this was a serious question. Maybe this person assumed that he or she was safely in and asked the question in a somewhat smug, self-righteous way. Or maybe this person asked because he or she was worried about being left out.
Of course, Jesus rarely answered a question directly. Instead, He turns the question back on the questioner. He says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and not be able to.”
What does Jesus mean by the narrow gate? Does he mean that the number of people who will get into heaven is limited? This is a frequent topic at the men’s bible studies that I lead. As an engineer and a logical person, I would like to give a precise answer. I’d like to say, “yes, 95% will be saved”. So, each one of us only has to be better than that bottom 5%. And, salvation then becomes a competition. But, salvation doesn’t work that way. We’re not in competition with our fellow man to get to heaven. In fact, the more of them that we help get to heaven, the better our chances are of making it also.
We can’t definitively say what Jesus meant when he said that the gate is narrow, but we do know that anything worth having in this world requires work. You want a strong body, you work for it. You want a strong marriage, you work at it. You want a strong company, you work at it. Why should it be any different in our spiritual life?
A few years ago Karen Phelps, a distance runner, wrote these challenging words, “On this particular day, I didn’t feel like running at all, but I made myself because running is a sport you have to practice every day. I wanted to win races, so I had a set plan for training. In short, I ran every day, no matter what.”
“One day,” she continues, “as I jogged along on my training run, it came to me that daily training was what my spiritual life needed. Do you know what I’ve learned? Sometimes you may not feel like praying or reading the Bible or going out of your way to help others. But if you’re in training--physical or spiritual--you’ll do it.” Karen Phelps is right on target.
Today, many seem to have convinced themselves that the Christian life is easy, that it requires only a minimal output of effort. We can turn it over to our priest or deacon and focus on our secular affairs with little or no thought of God.
A recent Gallup Poll found that fewer than ten percent of Christians in this land could be called deeply committed. And most Christians do not know basic Christian teachings and do not act differently because of their Christian experience.
The narrow gate suggests that Christ loves us whoever we may be and whatever we have done, but Christ expects that we will not stay where we are. Christ expects us to agonize, to strive mightily to live according to the standard he has established for us. He wants us to discipline us so that we will be fit to share eternity with him as we hear in today’s second reading.
About twenty years ago, Father Jim Willig came here for a mission talk. I still remember one thing that he said during that mission. He said: “The path to heaven is heaven and the path to hell is hell.” When I heard that, I thought that he had said it backwards. Everyone knows that partying and having a good time may be great now but it will land us in hell. Then, I thought about it a little and realized that that when I had followed God’s will for my life I found peace and joy. But when I did my own thing, in the long run, it brought me sorrow and pain. So, truly, the path to heaven is heaven and the path to hell is hell.
As members of St Francis De Sales parish in Lebanon, Ohio, we have it so easy that we might not have a sense of urgency about entering through the narrow gate. We might believe that we are good enough if we just come to church on Sunday. We might look at our friends and neighbors and think that we’re doing well spiritually because many of them don’t even go to church. We might watch the news or reality TV shows and think that we’re are pretty good. But Jesus tells us: strive, discipline, help others, and some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last.
“Lord,” someone asked, “will only a few people be saved?” Jesus answered, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate because many will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”