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THE ESCHATOLOGICAL SURPRISE

Read­ing Time: 10 minutes

 

21st Sunday of the year [C] – August 21, 2016

(Ref. Text: Luke 13:22–30)

Opening Words

After last Sunday’s mes­sage which ter­min­ated in Luke 12:53, the twelfth chapter of the Gos­pel accord­ing to Luke con­cludes with a neg­at­ive criticism/condemnation (cf. Luke 12:54–57) and an advice (cf. Luke 12:58–59). Jesus describes the crowd as hypo­crites because of their expert­ise in weath­er fore­cast and their inex­per­i­ence and non­chal­ance in soteri­olo­gic­al fore­cast as well. The inab­il­ity of the crowd to grasp the salvif­ic time in their midst indic­ates lack of enthu­si­asm and zeal in spir­itu­al mat­ters. Such prob­lem con­tin­ues even today. Most people are good at enti­cing the­or­et­ic­al, theo­lo­gic­al and philo­soph­ic­al for­mu­la­tions, but lack prac­tic­al approach to life and exper­i­ence of the com­mon popu­lace. This Sunday Gos­pel taken from the thir­teenth chapter of Luke, is an expa­ti­ation and con­sequence of not liv­ing accord­ing to Jesus’ teach­ings espe­cially as out­lined in Luke 12.

The foundation of Luke 13:22–30

In the pre­vi­ous twenty-one verses that pre­cede Luke 13:22–30, Jesus warns against the fol­low­ing: 1) per­sist­ence in unright­eous­ness and injustice, which def­in­itely lead to death (cf. Luke 13:1–5); 2) spir­itu­al infer­til­ity and empti­ness (cf. Luke 13:6–9); 3) reli­gious form­al­ity, rigid and mere observ­ance of the let­ters of the law and injustice (cf. Luke 13:7–17); 4) finally, he teaches what the king­dom of God is like (cf. Luke 13:18–21). This is the found­a­tion on which our read­ing is foun­ded. In Luke 13:22–23, as Jesus con­tin­ued his teach­ings and as he passed through the cit­ies and vil­lages, a cer­tain indi­vidu­al con­fron­ted him with the ques­tion con­cern­ing the num­ber of people that will be saved. The per­son who asked this ques­tion must have noticed the immense gap between the teach­ings of Jesus and the tra­di­tion­al teach­ings impar­ted by the Jew­ish authorities.

The Soteriological Question

As indic­ated above, the ‘someone’ (who could be any per­son) who wanted to know the num­ber of people that will be saved must have reflec­ted much on the teach­ings of Jesus. After listen­ing to Jesus’ words in Luke 12 and Luke 13:1–22, such inter­rog­a­tion became unavoid­able. As a Jew, he must have observed much diver­gence between what he has been taught and what Jesus is say­ing. What is the solu­tion to this con­flict? Inter­rog­at­ing Jesus became the only way out. The for­mu­la­tion of the ques­tion is very inter­est­ing. The per­son who asked this ques­tion did not say “how many people will be saved?” Rather, he asked, “will only a few be saved?” This is an inter­rog­at­ory con­clu­sion. This ques­tion implies the man already knows only few people will be saved. Why? He must have con­tem­plated wheth­er people have been prac­ti­cing god­less reli­gion and wor­ship. I think the man must have presen­ted as ques­tion what he has been nur­tur­ing in his mind. He must have reasoned with­in him­self: if what this man (Jesus) is say­ing is true, then, only few people will be saved. To clear his doubt, he decided to present the mat­ter to Jesus in form of an inter­rog­a­tion. In the Gos­pels, these soteri­olo­gic­al ques­tions are fre­quent (cf. Mark 10:17; Matt 16:26; 19:6.27; Luke 10:25; 13:22; 18:18.26. Cf. also Acts 9:6; 8:36; 16:30; 1Cor 9:18; 1Pet 4:17).

The ques­tion wheth­er only few will be saved needs great­er atten­tion. Is there any resemb­lance between the reli­gion we prac­tice and the reli­gion we ought to prac­tice? Is our approach and inter­pret­a­tion of the Gos­pel mes­sages per­son­al, interest-ori­ented, or are they object­ive, self­less, and in agree­ment with the mind of Jesus and the authors? It is not enough to read the word of God and to know the com­mand­ments. The man who asked Jesus the ques­tion also read the Scrip­ture and knew the com­mand­ments as well. Fur­ther­more, the Jew­ish reli­gious lead­ers who read the Scrip­tures and who knew the com­mand­ments and even inter­preted them must have taught him. But as one of the crowd who have been fol­low­ing Jesus, he observed a great abyss between what he knew, what he has been taught and what he is hear­ing from Jesus. It is nat­ur­al that he sus­tains some doubt (theo­lo­gic­al doubt), which must be cla­ri­fied. It is also curi­ous why he decided to present this doubt to Jesus instead of present­ing it to the reli­gious lead­ers of his reli­gion. Jesus is gradu­ally mak­ing people to ree­valu­ate the tra­di­tion­al way of intend­ing and prac­ti­cing reli­gion. It is import­ant we find out the kind of reli­gion we prac­tice (cf. Jas 1:27). It is not everything said or done with and in the name of God or of Jesus that reflects true wor­ship and faith. Until he received a dif­fer­ent teach­ing (cf. Acts 9), Paul was con­vinced that killing non-Jews was doing the will of God (cf. Acts 22:4; 26:11; Gal 1:13–14). This is what his reli­gion taught him. Like the ‘someone’ of the crowd, Paul must have wondered if what he has known and done before his con­ver­sion could lead him to etern­al life. In fact, his zeal and com­mit­ment in pro­claim­ing the Gos­pel con­firms this.

Jesus’ Response

In his response to the ques­tion, Jesus did not just respond to the inter­rog­at­or, but to the entire people fol­low­ing him and to the con­tem­por­ary Chris­ti­ans as well. Respond­ing, Jesus said, “Strive to enter through the nar­row door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter but will not be able” (Luke 13:24). Jesus’ reply is not ordin­ary say­ing. It is both an advice and an admon­i­tion. The verb ‘strive’ needs to be cla­ri­fied. The Greek verb rendered as strive is agōnizomai. Ordin­ar­ily, agōnizomai means to con­tend for a prize, to struggle. It is a fam­ous verb in sports (cf. 1Cor 9:25). In every sports, ath­letes and par­ti­cipants struggle to emerge vic­tori­ous because they know they are con­test­ing for a prize. Every sport has set of rules and reg­u­la­tions guid­ing it, and every team is bound to adhere strictly to them. Any team or par­ti­cipant who viol­ates any of the giv­en rules is nor­mally sanc­tioned. Cur­rently, we are wit­ness­ing the 2016 Olympic Games hold­ing in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil (tagged Rio2016). For six­teen days (August 5–21, 2016), ath­letes from more than 200 nations will be con­test­ing for vari­ous prizes (Gold, Sil­ver or Bronze medals). In these Games, the guid­ing motto is ‘fair play.’ Every coach and each ath­lete puts in his or her best to ensure his or team emerges vic­tori­ous and wins the first prize. Sim­il­arly, ref­er­ees and their col­lab­or­at­ors guar­an­tee fair play and ensures the ath­letes main­tain discipline.

Meta­phor­ic­ally, agōnizomai refers to intense effort and com­mit­ment. In this sense, it means to strive earn­estly, try very hard, make every effort (cf. 1Cor 9:29). In Luke 13:24, Jesus’ use of agōnizomai should be under­stood in both senses, that is, lit­er­ally and meta­phor­ic­ally. As every ath­lete is com­mit­ted, struggles and makes every effort to win, so also every Chris­ti­an should do his or her best and show ser­i­ous com­mit­ment in the con­test for etern­al life. Hence, Jesus’ reply to the ques­tion of the man from the crowd does not spec­u­late on God’s plans and actions but states what indi­vidu­als should do so as to be part of those to be saved.

The Narrow Door

In his response, Jesus invited the ques­tion­er and all to strive to enter by the nar­row door because many would want to enter but will be denied access. What is this nar­row door? Where is it found? The answer to these inter­rog­a­tions and oth­ers resides in the trans­lated Greek word. As a noun, nar­row has many mean­ings. But the imme­di­ate mean­ing is not being wide or broad. In fact, a broad-minded per­son is a per­son who lacks tol­er­ance and flex­ib­il­ity. A nar­row-minded per­son is an indi­vidu­al with para­lyzed ideas. Para­lyzed because such per­son does not give room for a dif­fer­ent opin­ion oth­er than that which he or she knows. The Greek word trans­lated as nar­row is stenos. As stated above, stenos refers to space, hence, a nar­row space. Since it needs extra effort and care­ful­ness to pass through a nar­row space, in Luke13:24, stenos should be applied meta­phor­ic­ally. In this sense then, it means the strict and exact­ing con­di­tions required from any­one who desires to be saved. If the path that leads to etern­al life is nar­row, it implies the path that leads to destruc­tion is wide (cf. Matt 7:13). If you are walk­ing or driv­ing through a nar­row path, you need not to be reminded you should be extremely care­ful. Such care­ful­ness, ser­i­ous­ness, strict­ness and com­mit­ment exhib­ited at cris­scross­ing a nar­row path is also required in the jour­ney and quest for etern­al life. Striv­ing to enter through the nar­row door involves repent­ance (cf. Luke 13:3.5) and faith (cf. Luke 8:12). Since repent­ance and faith are very demand­ing because they imply hon­esty, truth­ful­ness and right­eous­ness, those aspir­ing for sal­va­tion should be com­mit­ted, strict and per­sever­ing. If ath­letes under­go hec­tic train­ing and struggle to win per­ish­able prizes, how much more those con­test­ing for unper­ish­able crown? This is the nar­row door. Do you think you can pass through it?

1Corinthians 9:24–27

This text needs some con­sid­er­a­tion because in some sense, it elab­or­ates Luke 13:24. In his effort to encour­age the Cor­inthi­an Chris­ti­ans to imit­ate him in his zeal for the Gos­pel, Paul con­cludes his thes­is with this won­der­ful ref­er­ence to the com­mit­ment of the ath­lete. This ath­let­ic meta­phor is fre­quent in Paul (cf. Phil 3:12–14; 2Tim 4:7–8). After the Olympic Games, the bien­ni­al Isthmi­an Games were the next in import­ance. Cor­inth in fact, was the locus of this game. Paul’s sojourn in Cor­inth dur­ing his second mis­sion­ary jour­ney (cf. Acts 18), may have coin­cided with the Isthmi­an Games, and this must have con­trib­uted to his using it in address­ing the Cor­inthi­an Chris­ti­ans. Just as ath­letes dis­cip­line them­selves, struggle and con­test (agōnizomai) to win what Paul rightly describes as cor­rupt­ible or per­ish­able crown, Chris­ti­ans should imit­ate them in liv­ing accord­ing to the Gos­pel so as to win incor­rupt­ible crown.

In describ­ing the ded­ic­a­tion of the ath­letes, Paul says they exer­cise dis­cip­line in every way. The Greek term rendered as exer­cise is egkrat­euomai. This verb means to exer­cise self-con­trol, con­trol one­self, and abstain from some­thing (cf. 1Cor 7:9). If ath­letes who are con­test­ing for eph­em­er­al prizes con­trol them­selves and abstain from cer­tain things, what do you think a per­son who desires to inher­it the king­dom of God should do? Con­tinu­ing, Paul explains that he is also run­ning and in run­ning, he does not run aim­lessly and does not beat the air. His reas­on is that he also dis­cip­lines him­self to avoid being dis­qual­i­fied after preach­ing to oth­ers. This means he strives to enter through the nar­row door. Think about this.

The Soteriological Disqualification

If an ath­lete infringes any of the reg­u­la­tions guid­ing a par­tic­u­lar dis­cip­line, even if such ath­lete arrives first, he or she is dis­qual­i­fied. Sim­il­arly, the inab­il­ity to pass through the nar­row door (not respect­ing the rules of the game) auto­mat­ic­ally leads to dis­qual­i­fic­a­tion from the basileia tou theou (the king­dom of God). The words of Jesus in Luke 13:25–27 should be of ser­i­ous con­cern to every Chris­ti­an. I can­not stop reflect­ing on the grav­ity of these words: “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me all you evil­do­ers.” This means that Jesus is both the saviour and judge of human­ity (cf. 2Cor 5:10). Des­pite the sup­plic­a­tions of these unworthy ser­vants, the mas­ter refuses to open the door to them and invites them to leave. They ate and drank with the Lord, and they remem­ber the Lord pro­claimed the Gos­pel in their streets and vil­lages, yet, these memor­ies will not be enough to grant them access to the etern­al house. Read­ing the Bible; hear­ing the word of God; being able to offer series of bible cita­tions; the capa­city to mes­mer­ize people in vari­ous ways; going for evan­gel­iz­a­tion; being a pray­er war­ri­or; end­less vigils, proph­esy­ing; heal­ing; rais­ing the dead and work­ing oth­er mir­acles; singing down the angels; and speak­ing in strange and incom­pre­hens­ible lan­guages are all good and admir­able, but they are not signs of faith­ful­ness, and do not guar­an­tee auto­mat­ic behold­ing of God’s shek­i­nah (cf. Matt 7:21–22). As we do these things, we must keep to Paul’s words in 1Corinthians 9:27 – “I dis­cip­line my body and keep it under con­trol, lest after preach­ing to oth­ers I myself should be disqualified.”

 “Will only a few be saved” is a ques­tion that can­not be ignored by any ser­i­ous minded Chris­ti­an. In keep­ing to his didact­ic style, Jesus answered the ques­tion with a story with which he invites all to do everything pos­sible to enter by the nar­row door and on time. Fail­ure to do so and on time will res­ult in the fol­low­ing embar­rass­ment: I do not know where you come from. Which means please go away because I do not know you! Go where you belong (cf. the par­able of the ten vir­gins in Matt 25:1–13). We must avoid this embarrassment.

Maybe Jesus could not recog­nize us. This is what those who refused to enter by the nar­row door and on time think. This is why they went fur­ther to reveal their iden­tity to Jesus. Remind­ing Jesus that they ate and drank in his pres­ence and that they saw him teach in their streets could not and will not change the situ­ation. This not­with­stand­ing, they are still per­sonae-non-grata, intruders and there­fore, dis­qual­i­fied. Jesus also explains why they are not recog­nized and there­fore unworthy for etern­al life: they are work­ers of iniquity (evil­do­ers accord­ing to some trans­la­tions). The time they should have used to enter by the nar­row door, they wasted it in evil deeds. They saw Jesus teach in their streets, but they do not know what he taught and there­fore, did not live accord­ing to those teach­ings. Too bad! An atti­tude that is very alive among Chris­ti­ans today.

The Eschatological Surprise

Behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” This is the con­clu­sion of the Gos­pel. The dis­qual­i­fied can­did­ates, that is, those who thought they are the right people to be saved will wail and grind their teeth while Abra­ham, Isaac, Jac­ob, the Proph­ets, and even people from east and west, north and south are in the king­dom, enjoy­ing the pres­ence of the Almighty (cf. also Matt 8:11). Abra­ham, Isaac, Jac­ob, the Proph­ets rep­res­ent that sec­tion of the Israel­ites who truly believed in the king­dom. On the oth­er hand, can­did­ates from East, West, North and South rep­res­ent the Gen­tiles who truly believed and believes in God (cf. cf. Ps 107:3; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8). Being a reli­gious lead­er does not guar­an­tee one access to heav­en. It might even be the easi­est rout to the king­dom of destruc­tion. Again, being a Chris­ti­an or a believ­er or whatever, does not mean a per­son is among those that will be saved. Sal­va­tion must be mer­ited by our oper­a­tions and not by what or who we are. Listen to what F. J. Sheen has to say on this “I am… cer­tain that there will be three sur­prises in Heav­en. First of all, I will see some people there whom I nev­er expec­ted to see. Second, there will be a num­ber whom I expec­ted to be there who will not be there. And, even rely­ing on His mercy, the biggest sur­prise of all may be that I will be there.” This is eschat­o­lo­gic­al surprise.

Conclusive Reflection

Reli­gious form­al­ity, spir­itu­al infer­til­ity, shal­low­ness, favour­it­ism, empti­ness and hypo­crisy. These are the major defects of today’s Chris­tian­ity. And the by-products of these are injustice, fals­ity, eye-ser­vice, impres­sion­ism and unright­eous­ness. The prot­ag­on­ists of the Gos­pel com­plained they ate and drank in Jesus’ pres­ence. But were these the require­ments for sal­va­tion? They saw Jesus teach in their streets. But was this enough to earn them etern­al life? These are wrong ways of liv­ing the Chris­ti­an life. How many people read the Gos­pel and the entire Bible? Yet, evil and iniquity abound in our world. We kill each oth­er. We fight one anoth­er. We do all sort of things in the Church and in our vari­ous Reli­gions, all in the name of God, when in real­ity we are after wealth, money and power. With the con­di­tion of things today, we can­not cease ask­ing are they few who will be saved? Am I among those few?

Dear friend, endeav­our to enter by the nar­row door and on time. Do not be con­soled or rather be deceived by the say­ing that God is mer­ci­ful. Again, do not for­get that some that are last will be first and some that are first will be last (Luke 13:30). “Listen­ing to Jesus’ teach­ings and shar­ing fel­low­ship with his people are not by them­selves any guar­an­tee of etern­al life, for that comes only through per­son­al faith in Christ.” If you believe that life ends with phys­ic­al death, then you need not worry because when you die, there will be no own­er of the house (God) to send you away. But if you believe that life is not ter­min­ated but trans­formed, or even if you are not sure, then the only option is to endeav­our to take the nar­row door oth­er­wise, you are damned. The choice is totally yours. Have a nice week! Sha­lom!

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