August 26, 2019
Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) on August 25, 2019 at St. Austin Parish and Cristo Rey Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Isaiah 66:18-21; Psalm 117; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; and Luke 13:22-30.
In our gospel passage today, Jesus is asked if only a few people will be saved. He doesn’t give a direct answer. Instead, he gives two sides of a paradox. First, he encourages those people who have been traveling with him to strive to enter heaven through “the narrow gate.” Our reading from Hebrews today expands on the idea of why we should work hard and not assume that it’s easy to get into heaven. But Jesus also declares that people “from the east and the west and from the north and the south” will recline at the table in the Kingdom of God. That sentiment ties into our first reading from Isaiah.
How many people will be saved? The answer is unclear. Our best bet is to be true disciples, to each have a personal relationship with the God who has shown us love and mercy beyond our comprehension. Let’s celebrate that!
In my priesthood, I’ve always worked on or near a college campus. I’ve had the following conversation on several occasions.
An undergraduate makes an appointment to see me, but she won’t explain why. When she arrives, she has brought a friend with her. It turns out that the student grew up Catholic, but she’s been going to her friend’s church for a while. She feels very welcome in the new community, but she’s uncomfortable with a few points of their theology. Whenever she tries to express her concerns, her new church friends – who know the Bible better than she does – cite Scripture to back up their church’s claims. So, although this student has never met with me before, she wants me to go “head to head” with her friend in debating theology, and then she’ll try to decide who makes the better argument.
Obviously, I don’t think that this is a good way to approach religious disagreements. So, my first job is to try to turn this into a friendly discussion. I start by turning the conversation to our individual life stories. Where are each of us from? How have we all come to be living here in this neighborhood? How do we experience God in our lives? What has our experience of church been like over the years: the good, the bad, and the ugly? If the student has been hurt by the Catholic Church in any way, I apologize for whatever went wrong.
Eventually, we turn to theology. The Catholic student becomes very quiet, as the friend and I continue speaking. The student’s new church emphasizes the importance of each of us declaring that Jesus Christ is our personal Lord and Savior. Without doing this, her friend explains, there is no possibility of salvation. The friend cites many Bible passages to back this up. For example, at the Last Supper, Jesus declares, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to Father except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus also teaches, “Whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father” (Matthew 10:33). Eventually, we usually come to today’s passage: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.”
I ask the friend a few questions in as friendly a manner as I can muster. When Jesus spoke at the Last Supper, was he saying that those people currently living anywhere in the world who had never met him were condemned to eternal hellfire? The friend is usually quick to explain that if someone has not heard the gospel, God will probably forgive them for not believing in Christ. I press on. What about people who have heard about Christianity? Will all practicing Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists be barred from entering heaven? Does it make a difference how well the gospel was preached to them? Usually, at this moment, both the student and her friend start to squirm. The friend’s church says that all are welcome, but its answers to these questions don’t seem to reflect the God of Love.
I explain that that we need to look at the Christian Tradition as a whole, not just select a few Bible verses to “proof text” our claims about faith. We will get much further in understanding the Word of God if we study the great Scripture scholars who have come before us.
Yes, Jesus Christ is our personal Lord and Savior, and we should not be afraid to proclaim that publicly. We have an obligation to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). But as a whole, the Bible emphasizes other themes more strongly and more often: God’s love and mercy for all people. An obligation to care for those who are poor and outcast, whether or not they believe in God. Look at what Matthew says at the Last Judgment (25:31-46): he makes it sound as if entry to heaven has nothing to do with belief, but how we treat our neighbors in need. I usually conclude by asking the student’s friend to read the rest of today’s gospel passage: “People will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.”
The fact of the matter is, the Catholic Church is not comfortable placing limits on God’s mercy. You might notice that in nearly 2,000 years, we have never declared that any person is, for certain, in hell. As the Church declared at Vatican II, “We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any [person], created as [that person] is in the image of God. [Our] relation to God the Father and [God’s] relation to [people] are so linked together that Scripture says: ‘He who does not love does not know God’ (1 John 4:8)…. The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against [people]… because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion.”
At St. Austin’s Parish, we reach out to people who’ve never heard the saving message of the gospel. We collaborate with people of other faiths. We strive for greater unity among all Christians. We stretch out our arms to anyone who feels hurt or alienated from the church. Here, all are welcome! No one here is perfect.
But even as the Church does not place limits on God’s mercy, we also don’t want to be overly presumptuous. Jesus Christ is Lord, but the Bible implies that not all baptized people will necessarily receive entrance into heaven. Salvation is a gift from God; we cannot “earn” it. We’re all works in progress. In our relationship with God, we never take the first step on our own. That first step comes from Holy Spirit – the grace that’s already inside each of us – always inviting us into a closer relationship with God. As R. Alan Culpepper once wrote: “Strive as though admission to the kingdom depended entirely on your own doing, but know that ultimately it depends on God’s grace.” Or, as an Episcopalian priest friend of mine says, “The Gospel is saving, not so much in the sense that if you hear, or believe, the right parts, you’ll go to heaven and if not, you’ll go to hell; it’s saving in the sense that it saves us right now from condemning the poor, the outcast, and those who differ from us…. And, of course, by saving us from the worst of human nature, the Gospel also saves those whom we would victimize and oppress.”