Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2013
“Lord, will only a few be saved?”
I was just speaking with someone last week about the idea of hell – and about how hard a concept it is for many of us who are younger to get our heads around. That Jesus would say to people knocking at his door something so harsh: “I do not know where you are from.” You can understand why they protested: “But you ate and drank in our company, you taught in our streets!” and we might add some more familiar protestations as well. “But I’m a good person, a spiritual person. I’m not perfect, but look, I’m a lot better than some and I haven’t killed anyone. Aren’t you a God who is good and merciful and full of love? How could you reject me?”
So many of us who are younger have grown up in what we might gently call an ‘entitlement’ culture, and for some the sense of entitlement reaches all the way to the gates of heaven. So often we hear people speak as though we are entitled to go to heaven by virtue of being born: as though everyone is on the highway to heaven: maybe not everyone is in the fast lane, some might take some detours, some may break down on the way, some may need to pay extra tolls, but that we will all get there eventually.
I like that idea. But unfortunately, it is not true. The Church formally declared that the teaching of universal salvation is heretical at the council of Constantinople in 453. And why? Because it simply does not match what Christ told us. Not just once, but many times. He told us that not all will be received into the home of our Heavenly Father. In the Gospel today he calls it a ‘narrow’ gate.
Now it seems that the older generation has an easier time with the whole notion of the narrow gate: maybe too easy a time with it. I have encountered a fair amount of fear in the confessional: fear that sometimes becomes the dominant force in the spiritual life: fear of being shut outside, being left at the door. Instead of worrying about my brother and sister, about thanking God for his many blessings, there can be the tendency to get hung up on one’s own salvation: whether Christ will open the door, whether I’ve done anything to offend him. The irony is that this illness of the spiritual life can actually cause the very thing it is trying to avoid: isolation from God: fear for our salvation can cause us to become entirely focused on ourselves and oblivious to the needs of those around us, or to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, making it difficult for God’s saving grace to be at work in us.
So what does a healthy Catholic understanding of the afterlife look like? Clearly it is not a perspective of entitlement.
We cannot join our protestant brothers and sisters in confidently proclaiming that we are saved. We don’t know. We know we are not entitled. We know that heaven is not guaranteed. We know that it is a narrow gate and that as our Lord seems to imply today, some who think that they are all set to go through will be surprised to find out that they are not prepared.
And yet it is not healthy for our relationship with God to be overshadowed by a preoccupation with our final destiny, with anxieties about the life to come.
Isn’t that the classic stereotype of Christianity today: that faith really doesn’t add anything to our lives but a fear about heaven and hell? That we can be good people and live just fine without religion, without this whole idea of the narrow gate, so why bother believing such a fearful thing.
Some portray Christ as a shepherd who comes in to a beautiful pasture where the sheep were just peacefully grazing and enjoying life and being good sheep, and then he fences off the good field, the heavenly grasses and says “From now on you can only get in here if you are part of my flock – envelopes will be arriving in the mail next week.” Well, I would resent that kind of a shepherd too!
So let’s look at the scene again. How important it is that we have the right scenery for this gate of ours. And the scenery is this: our world is a pasture that is in ruin. The sheep rebelled, breaking down its fences and trampling its fields. The meager tufts of grass have left the sheep tired and hungry, and now it is the night: we are at the mercy of countless wolves, and one thing is certain: we will not last the night. No one is getting out of here alive.
So that is the scene. It is into this pasture, the pasture of a fallen world, that Christ, our good shepherd enters. A deadly pasture.
Christ loves his sheep, and he wants to protect us. So he fixes the fence, and he makes a gate, not to keep out sheep, but to keep out the wolves, to keep out sin and death. And then he goes out searching for us, calling out to us, bringing together his flock to lead them to safety.
Christ tells us in another place in the Gospels that he knows his sheep because they hear his voice and they follow him, they listen to him. Our Gospel makes it clear that being a part of the flock, knowing Christ, is not a matter of externals: of geography, of culture, or race, or of history. It is not enough for us to smell like incense, to be seen in Church, to have the appearance of disciples. We all know that you can wear sheep’s clothing and remain a wolf within.
So we should be careful about trying to determine who we think will enter the gate and who will not. Christ reaches out to all of his sheep, to all people. Maybe they wandered for a time, maybe they were running with wolves for a while, maybe they were injured. Christ leaves the 99 to find the one lost sheep, sometimes he carries us to the gate. But he doesn’t force himself on us. He calls and he waits to see what our response will be. Whether we will listen and obey. Whether we will leave behind the wolves and enter through the narrow gate.
The gate is not a threat: it is a gift. Hell is not a threat, heaven is a gift. We do not lose anything in Christ, we gain everything: we gain what we would never have had: we are given the promise of leaving this pasture unscathed, freed from the slavery to sin, the darkness of ignorance, and freed from death itself. We can live a new day because of the gate, because of Christ – who did not come into this pasture to condemn, but to save us from sin and death.
The specter of Christ at the gate, of the last judgment, of the possibility of hell, should not make us afraid: it should make us grateful to Christ for inviting us to be members of his flock, giving us a way out of this pasture, for the promise of salvation. And it should remind us of what we should fear: the author of sin, and the prince of darkness. The one who seeks to infect us with his rebelliousness, who prowls in the darkness when we wander away from the flock, waiting to devour us.
I, for one, am glad that he is not getting in the gate.