21st Sunday in Ordinary Time. August 25, 2019.
Is 66:18-21; Heb 12:5-7,11-13; Lk 13:22-30
The right way of striving for heaven
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate.”
I recently saw a picture of gay pride parade in which a group of protesting Christians at the parade held a banner on the side of the road that read something like this, “Repent now of your sins of sodomy or go to hell.” The message is indeed true. No matter what the sins may be, whether they are homosexual actions, adultery, lying, stealing, incest, slander, murder, etc., no matter how deeply we may feel about these sins, or the excuses we may make for them, we would be choosing an eternity in hell if we chose to remain obstinate in these sins till death.
But why do we easily embrace and present the Gospel message by emphasizing and beginning with a warning about hell? When our primary focus as Christians is on avoiding hell, we become minimalistic, and we live in constant fear, greatly inhibiting the growth of our inner freedom.
Why don’t we begin with and emphasize more God’s loving invitation to us all sinners? Won’t it be more hopeful to also hold out a sign in such parades that reads, “The gates of heaven are open now and we all can and should become saints.” When we focus on God’s gratuitous invitation to us to be with Him eternally and the possibility for us to enter into heaven despite our sins and failings, we become more generous and free to respond to His loving invitation.
Jesus is asked in today’s Gospel, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” He did not first answer with a warning or a threat about going to hell. Rather He stressed that in Him the kingdom of God is open now for us all and that those who strive can enter into it, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”
It is only after He had stressed the opening of this narrow gate and the possibility for many to enter into it that He warned of eternal regret to those who would take this invitation lightly and shun the needed striving, “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 are cast out.”
The passage shows us that this narrow gate is all about Christ and a love relationship with Him that make us more like Him to the point that we do all things like Christ and for Christ. Jesus is the “gate for the sheep,” through which we must “enter so as to be saved.”(Jn 10:7,8) We can strive to enter through this narrow gate only because Jesus Christ has truly “loved us first,”(1Jn 4:19) and He readily died for us “while we still sinners.”(Rom 5:8)
Striving to enter through the narrow gate first means that we have to struggle to accept this divine love as a gift and not something that we can earn or merit. Because Jesus unceasingly “welcomes sinners and eats with them,”(Lk 15:2) we too can repeat these words to Jesus found in the parable, “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.”
The second level of our striving is to allow this transforming love to make us Christ-like in our being and in our actions. When we begin to abandon our self-will to fulfill the will of God the Father in all circumstances just like Jesus did, we become more intimately known to Him as members of His family, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, sister and mother.”(Mt 12:50) And Jesus never rejects His true family, in this life or in the next.
Jesus warns of eternal regret not only for those who reject His love, but also for those who accept His love but do not allow this love to shape and mold them more into His image and move them to act like Him. He will reject those who, though close to Him in this life, chose to act in a manner that is un-Christ like, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers.”
This striving to become more like Christ is not the work of our random human efforts, but our humble response to God’s providence in this life. The letter to the Hebrews tells us to “endure our trials as discipline,” because “God treats us like sons,” and “whom the Lord loves, He disciplines; He scourges every son He acknowledges.” Divine love is always acting to ensure that we are “conformed to the image of His Son” here on earth and thus avoid living in regrets now and eternally. Indeed, “For those who love God, all things work for good.”(Rom 8:29,28) In the trials and pains of life, the Father is treating us as His sons and daughters, lovingly molding us more into the image of His Only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. We respond to those painful moments by asking, “How is God inviting me to be more Christ-like in and through this event?”
We cannot enter into through the narrow gate if we do not let God transform us into His Son Jesus through the painful disciplining events of daily life. When we allow ourselves to be truly disciplined by divine love, we then can lead others through the narrow gate too, “Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed.”
I am reminded of a Missionaries of Charity sister who visited the sick in a hospital in Manila. She found one of the patients had been neglected and uncared for, with maggots already eating into the back of his head. She took him home to their home for the dying, washed him, fed him, and nursed him till his death. When I asked her why she decided to pick up this particular patient whom no one wanted to attend to, she replied to me, “That is what Jesus did for me, and so I do it to others for Him.”
She has found the narrow door and she is striving to enter through it. She is convinced that Jesus loved her into life when nobody else cared for her. Jesus’ love for her is so real that it has changed her to the point that she is ready to serve others like Christ and for His sake. She has gone beyond a fear of hell but has shown that generosity of those who know that they are children of the Kingdom made present in Jesus Christ and that in Him they have access to all graces. She inspired me to grow in my own life of selfless service in response to God’s love and not out of fear of hell.
We Catholics are so close to God in this life, especially through the Eucharist where Jesus Christ is really and substantially present in His humanity and divinity. Indeed, we are privileged guests at His banquet where He feeds us with His own body and blood. More than anyone else, we can indeed say, “We ate and drank in your company.” But are we going to take this love for granted? Are we going to resist the power of this love to transform us into Christ and move us to do Christ-like things for His sake?
The gate to paradise may be narrow and demanding but, in Jesus Christ, it remains open to us today no matter the past so that we have all the graces that we need to strive for heaven today. If we are going to enter into heaven and bring others with us, we must go beyond a mere fear of hell but strive to enter through the narrow gate now so that we can avoid regrets in this life and in the life to come.
Glory to Jesus!!! Honor to Mary!!!