In the readings this Sunday, the Lord describes a danger: our tendency to make light of judgment and not be sober that one day we must account for our actions. In the first reading (from Isaiah), the Lord sets forth His desire to save us, but we must understand that our will, our assent, is essential to our salvation. In the second reading (from the Letter to the Hebrews), God sets forth a plan whereby, having accepting Jesus, we can make a daily walk with Him in a kind of delivering discipline. Let’s take a detailed look at the readings, hear their urgent warnings, and soberly lay hold of the solutions offered.
I. The Danger that is Described – “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” He answered them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough” (Lk 13:22-30).
There is a similar text in Matthew’s Gospel, in which the Lord says, Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Mat 7:13-14).
The Gospel is a call to sobriety and away from an unbiblical way of thinking (that is antithetical to the long testimony of sacred tradition). Many people today assume a kind of universalism that presumes that most, if not the vast majority, will go to Heaven. However, as we have reviewed many times on this blog before, that is not what Scripture says. In fact, it says quite the opposite.
While no percentages given, no exact numbers, we ought not to interpret the text such that Jesus’ words “many” and “few” come to mean nothing or even their opposites. Jesus is teaching us a sober truth: given the tendency of the human heart toward hardness, stubbornness, and obtuseness, many are on a path that rejects His offer of a saving relationship, His offer of the Kingdom and its values.
Although many today consider the teaching on judgment and the existence of eternal Hell untenable, this is largely due to the tendency to refashion God and the faith according to modern preferences rather than to cling to what is true and has been revealed.
In doing so, they reduce God to an affirmer, an enricher, a facilitator, or merely one who takes care of us. (These are all accurate descriptions, but they only partially describe Him.) Absent from these representations is the true essence of God as absolutely holy, just, pure, and undefiled; and as the one who must ultimately purify His faithful, with their consent, to reflect His utter purity and glory. Those who attempt to “refashion” God into something or someone more palatable are the ones to whom He says, “I do not know where you are from.”
Those who set aside Hell also attempt to refashion human freedom, which God has given us as our dignity so that we can freely love Him and what He values in a covenantal relationship, rather than serving Him as slaves. I have written more on this topic here: Hell Has to Be.
For now, let it be said that the reality of Hell is taught clearly and consistently in Scripture. It is taught to us in love as an urgent warning about the seriousness of our choices, which build to a final decision. No one loves you more than does Jesus Christ, yet no one spoke of judgment and Hell more than He did.
Some today also object to any “fear-based” argument related to the faith. This is not a reasonable posture to adopt when dealing with human beings, because each of us responds to different types of appeals. While an appeal to fear may not be rooted in the highest goals, it remains an important approach rooted in well-ordered self-love.
Jesus certainly saw fit to appeal to the fear of punishment, loss, and Hell. In fact, one could argue that this was His primary approach and that one would struggle to find many texts in which Jesus appealed more to perfect contrition and a purely holy fear rooted in love alone. In dozens of passages and parables, Jesus warns of punishment and exclusion from the Kingdom for unrepented sin and for the refusal to be ready. Here are several examples:
- Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it (Matt 7:13-14).
- The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth (Mat 13:41-42).
- Therefore, keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch!” (Mk 13:35-37)
- And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with carousing, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come on you unawares. For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch you therefore, and pray always, that you may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man (Luke 21:34-36).
- But about that day or hour no one knows …. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. … Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him (Matt 24:36-39; 42-44).
- The lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looks not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, and shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 24:51).
- Then the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. “Lord, Lord,” they said, “open the door for us!” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.” Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour (Matt 25:10-13).
- Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat …” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Matt 24:41-42, 46).
- Whoever looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, and cast it from you: for it is profitable for you that one of your members should perish, and not that your whole body should be cast into hell (Matt 5:28-29).
- Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca,” is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell (Matt 5:22).
- And if your foot offend you, cut it off: it is better for you to enter into life halt or maimed, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched (Mk 9:45-46).
- Friend, how came you in here not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen (Matt 22:12-14).
- Then said Jesus again to them, “I go my way, and you shall seek me, but you shall die in your sins: where I go, you cannot come. … I have told you that you will die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins” (John 8:21, 24).
- So by their fruits you shall know them. Not every one that said to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name? And in your name have cast out devils? And in your name done many wonderful works?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers” (Matt 7:20-23).
- He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).
- He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day (John 12:48).
- Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star” (Rev 22:14-16).
The goal in all these appeals, fear-based or not, is not to make us scared per se, but to encourage us to be sober, to develop a sense of urgency in following the call of God, and to summon others to saving faith. “Sinner, please don’t let this harvest pass and die and lose your soul at last.”
The text says that salvation is not attained by everyone, that some are not “strong enough,” that many are on a road that does not lead to glory. We are urged to be awake, sober, and urgent in securing salvation for everyone we meet.
Many today think of Hell as a place only for the extremely wicked (e.g., serial murderers, genocidal maniacs), but Scripture teaches that there are many other paths that lead away from Heaven (and toward Hell): lack of forgiveness, preoccupation with cares of the world, and sexual sins such as fornication, homosexual acts, and adultery. Wealth also creates difficulties that make it hard to enter the kingdom. Some people cannot and will not endure persecution, trials, or setbacks related to the faith and instead choose to deny Christ before others.
The fact of the matter is, many people just aren’t all that interested in Heaven; they reject many of its values such as forgiveness, chastity, and generosity. They aren’t strong in their desire. They aren’t “strong enough” to make the journey.
II. The Divine Desire – The first reading (from Isaiah) assures us that God wants to save us all. If there is resistance to Heaven and being in relationship with God forever, it comes us, not God. I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory. … that have never heard of my fame or seen my glory; and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations. … Some of these I will take as priests and Levites, says the LORD (Is 66:18-21).
Other texts in Scripture also speak of God’s desire to save us all and of His extending the offer of saving love to all:
- “As surely as I live,” says the LORD, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ez 33:11)
- God our Savior … wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. … And for this purpose, I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles (1 Tim 2:3-7).
- The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare (2 Peter 3:9-10).
- Seek the LORD while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; And let him return to the LORD, And He will have compassion on him, And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon (Isaiah 55:6-7).
God is not our adversary in salvation; He is our only way. He wants to save us, but He respects our choice.
III. The Discipline that Delivers – If, then, we are stubborn and stiff-necked (and we are), and yet God still wants to save us, how is this to be accomplished? The first step, of course, is to accept the Lord’s offer of His Son Jesus, who alone can save us. We do this through faith and baptism as well as through the daily renewal of our yes, by God’s grace.
The second reading (from Hebrews) also spells out for us a way in which God, by His grace, works to draw us deeper into His saving love and path:
My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges. Endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it (Heb 12:5-7).
In this passage is a kind of “five-point plan” for remaining in God’s saving love:
(1) Respect God’s Regimen – My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord … The Greek word translated here as disdain is ὀλιγώρει (oligorei), which means more literally to care too little for something or to fail to accord it proper respect. The word translated as discipline is παιδείας (paideias), which refers to the training and education of children so as to bring them to proper maturity. Hence, the text is telling us that God’s discipline for us is not punitive per se but is developmental and necessary for us; we ought not to make light of our need for this sort of training and discipline. While we may like to think of ourselves as “mature” in the face of God and His wisdom, we are really little children in great need of growing up into the fullness of Christ.
(2) Reconsider When Reproved – … or lose heart when reproved by him. Here, too, analysis of the Greek text is helpful. The word translated here as reproved is ἐλεγχόμενος (elenchomenos), which more fully means to be convinced with compelling evidence that one is wrong or to be compelled to make a correction in one’s thinking. Although we may bristle or feel discouraged when corrected, we ought to remember that God is all-wise, and we must remain open to being convicted by the truth He brings to us. The truth may at first challenge us, but it ultimately sets us free.
(3) Remember His Regard – … for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges. … God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? God does not discipline us for His own sake, to show power or to demonstrate who is in charge. He disciplines us because He loves us and wants to save us. He is our Father, not our taskmaster. We are His children. We ought to remember the regard, the love, He has for us and be mindful that He does not punish for the sake of His ego, but for the sake of us, His sons and daughters.
(4) Remain Resolved – Endure your trials as “discipline.” Our flesh wants to rebel and our fragile ego bristles easily, but we must endure; we must be resolved; we must persevere and remain on the path God sets out for us.
(5) Receive the Reward – At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.
This Sunday we have a sober teaching from the Lord, who describes a danger about which we must be sober. And while the readings also describe His divine desire to save us, there is also a need for a discipline that delivers us.
We ought to be sober about what the Lord teaches. There are too many people today who are not sober about the fact that many are going to be lost. Because of this, they often do not attend to their own souls let alone the souls of others.
If your children or grandchildren are away from the Church, not praying, not receiving the sacraments, awash in sinful habits, locked in serious and unrepented mortal sin, do not take this lightly. The Lord warns and warns and warns. Do not brush it off or take refuge in false, unbiblical notions that presume nearly universal salvation.
The Lord demands from us a sober and biblical zeal for souls, rooted in the comprehension that we humans tend to stray and that we mysteriously do not seem to want what God offers. Being sober helps us to be urgent, and urgency makes us evangelical enough to go to those we love and say to them, “Sinner don’t let this harvest pass and die and lose your soul at last!”
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Sober and Serious about Salvation—Homily Notes for the 21st Sunday of the Year