Isaiah 66, 18-21 + Psalm 117 + Hebrews 12, 5-7, 11-13 + Luke 13, 22-30
Understanding the question in light of the times is not difficult. It was a very measured world. There was only so much to go around, and when it ran out, that was all there was. It worked that way with food and everything else, and there was never really a “lot” of anything for those people. So the question brought to Jesus is not unusual for someone who was trying to figure out how this message of Jesus was going to work out.
If you look at the long history of our faith, most of the great spiritual writers were of the opinion that few would be saved. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and many others believed that not many would “get to heaven.” This may have been based upon their judgement of their times, their own lives. Their expectation carried on until just about my time. Many of us who are over 60 remember very well the catechesis of our age which insisted that we might not get to heaven, that it was very, very difficult, that only the most heroic, people like the saints, especially the martyrs were the only ones sure to be saved.
The consequence of this was a lot of scrupulosity, very narrow minded, rigid and almost paranoid spirituality that led us to hope that at best we might must slip into “purgatory”. That would be our best hope! “O Lord, I am not worthy.” was the style of prayer. “Have Mercy on us, O Lord.” was the theme of our spirituality.
Then sometime around the late 1960s, perhaps stirred by the Holy Spirit through the Vatican Council, things changed. Personally I don’t think the Council had anything directly to do with it. There were other factors at work at that time in history as the wealth of the world was increasing along with literacy, and a kind of world view that was marked by secularism. At any rate, the change is noticable. Now, instead of “few” being saved, “few” if any are lost. Heaven has become a kind of all-inclusive place where everyone will be found. When you come to think about that idea, you ought to begin to wonder then why did God bother to send Jesus and what in the world was his suffering all about. If everyone was going to be saved, and I mean everyone, none of that would have been necessary.
Perhaps both ideas miss the point. Perhaps what Jesus would reveal to us is that it is not a matter of few or all, but rather that another question ought to be asked. The issues is not, “how many”, but simply how, and that is how he responds. The fact of the matter is both “few” and “all” lead to trouble. Thinking that “few” will be saved leads to a kind of odd and unhealthy spirituality. This plenty of evidence for that case. Thinking that “everyone” will be saved leads to a very secularized existence that lacks any kind of real and deep spirituality. There is more than enough evidence to support that as well
The response of Jesus leads each of us to ask the right and only question: “How am I going to be saved?”
Now the “narrow” gate or “narrow” door does not mean you have to squeeze through a tiny opening. There was a gate into the city of Jerusalem that was very small. It was a way of protecting the city and keeping invadors on camel or horseback from riding on in with their weapons. The only way through that gate was to simply dismount and walk through. There was a way in, but it took some doing. It’s like any other thing great an noble we might want to accomplish. There is a way. It takes practice. You can’t just cruise your way along, do your own thing, or wait for someone to do something for you.
If you want to be a great musician, you practice, and that means you sacrifice a lot of free time, pleasure, and anything else that keeps you from practice. If you want to succeed at athlectics, you practice. You spend hours on the court, on the course, and you listen to the coach doing what he says. A lot of people these days have “coaches” or “trainers”, and nothing comes of it if you don’t follow the instructions.
So it is with us and the Kingdom of Heaven. There is a way to be included. Forming our lives into the life of Christ is our narrow door. It’s not a life of pleasure and self-serving interest. It takes practice: a life time of it. Engaging in that practice will keep us from getting caught up in the secularization of this age, and lead us into a deep and profound spirituality that this world lacks today as it chases after every shallow and silly idea that comes along. Only Christ and His way, His Life of Sacrifice and Love is the answer to the question.