Have you ever missed an airplane flight?
If you have, you know the sinking feeling as you approach the gate, see the closed door, and realize that you are now in a world of trouble. Today’s Gospel reading takes that one step further and asks us to contemplate what it would be like to miss out on heaven, having that door shut on us forever. “There will be wailing and grinding of teeth,” Jesus says, and he tells us that the wailing will last for eternity.
When the people of Jesus’ time heard this, they wanted to know how many people were going to be saved. Today we might ask the same question; we want to know if we are going to be among those on the inside or those left on the outside. Jesus doesn’t respond with a number or a percentage. Instead he tells us to “strive to enter through the narrow gate.” And then he ominously adds that “many…will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”
So what are we to do if we don’t want to have the door to eternity shut on us, to have the master say he never knew us? The answer is as simple as it is challenging. Following the example of Jesus, we need to sacrifice our own wants and desires in order to live our lives for God and for others. Each time we stretch ourselves to love others we build up the strength and virtue needed to pass through the narrow way. Jesus warns us that it will not be easy, but he also encourages us that it is not impossible, for it is love that enables us to find our way and Jesus himself, who has promised never to leave us, is that Love Incarnate.
Unpack the First Reading
One of the last chapters of Isaiah is the one we see in this reading, too, that the divine plan includes all the nations and not simply Israel. In this section of the last chapter of the book of Isaiah, that theme, the comfort God will supply for the righteous among all the nations, is paired with the judgment that he will exact upon the unrighteous. “Lo, the LORD shall come in fire,/ his chariots like the whirlwind,/ To wreak his wrath with burning heat/ and his punishment with fiery flames” (Isaiah 66:15).
St. Peter says that “the present heavens and earth have been reserved by the same word for fire, kept for the day of judgment and of destruction of the godless” (2 Peter 3:7), and then, as does Isaiah, goes on to speak of the “new heavens and a new earth” that will follow that final conflagration. It is in that world-made-new that the nations who have warred throughout history will finally be at peace. And to those who have remained faithful to God, from every race and nation he promises, “As the new heavens and the new earth/ which I will make/ Shall endure before me, says the LORD,/ so shall your race and your name endure” (Isaiah 66:22). St. Peter admonishes all Christians as to how to live in light of this mystery: “Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought (you) to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire” (2 Peter 3:11-12).
Unpack the Second Reading
We have discussed before the likely audience of the letter to the Hebrews, those Jews who now face persecution for their Christian faith and long to return to the habits of their previous way of life. It would have been easy for these Jewish Christians to imagine that they were perhaps being punished by God for leaving the faith of their fathers to enter upon the Christ Way. The author here reminds them that even on the natural level the pain of discipline is a necessary part of the maturation and growth of children. And so, the children of God ought to expect that struggles will come as the normal means of growth in faith, too. As we know, in Christ the discipline of suffering has even been made redemptive, when we make of our suffering a way of sharing in his. In this way, pain is turned to righteousness. We, too, can mistakenly think that the gift of undeserved suffering as a sign of divine disapproval, when, in fact, it is an invitation to enter upon a “straight path” to be more fully conformed to our suffering Savior and to grow in intimacy with him.
Unpack the Gospel
It is a very sobering picture of the final judgment that Jesus paints for us in this Gospel text. Those who find themselves outside the heavenly gate seem to have sufficient faith to call Jesus “Lord.” They can even, in some measure, boast of having enjoyed the Lord’s company, but their evildoing makes admittance to the Father’s house impossible. It is not enough to profess faith in Christ’s lordship, although that is critical. It is not sufficient to eat and drink in the Lord’s company, as we do at every Mass.
The Gospel imperative is that we are to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48). That means much more than just being in the right place on Sunday morning. It means placing ourselves entirely at the disposition of God’s grace and so surrendering ourselves to it in such a way that we become what St. Peter calls “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4, RSV). What we are called to is a high degree of holiness or sanctity.
The Second Vatican Council in the fifth chapter of its Constitution on the Church speaks of this as a “universal call.” It is not just a task for the consecrated and ordained; it is the common Christian vocation of the baptized. And answering that call is the only thing in life worth doing. Everything else must be measured in light of it and subordinated to it. This might sound like overstatement until we recognize that the soul of sanctity is love. It is love that makes us like God and love alone is worth the whole of our striving.
Reflect & Discuss
Watch the short Opening the Word video on the "Community" page of StMichael. FORMED.org. Then reflect on the following questions and discuss them with a friend:
In the Gospel reading, Jesus answers the questions about people being saved by talking about the “narrow gate” (verse 24). But then he says that many will not be strong enough to enter through it. What do you think Jesus means when he says this? How do you become “stronger”? And what kind of “strength” is Jesus talking about?
The presenter, Jim Beckman, uses a quote from St. Augustine to help clarify what the Gospel reading is teaching. The quote contrasts two cities: The City of God is characterized by a love for God even to the point of self-denial and contempt of self, while the City of Man is characterized by a love for self which leads a person to neglect giving God the honor and love he deserves and ultimately to what Augustine calls “contempt of God.” When you hear those words, how would you assess your own state? Are you more in the City of God? Or more in the City of Man?
Reprinted from Opening the Word Leader Guide with permission from Augustine Institute.