(See the readings for the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 25, 2019.)
Jesus continues to journey to Jerusalem and to the cross. This is a journey he is determined to make, as St. Luke tells us: “He resolutely determined to go to Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51).
As Jesus makes this journey, we walk along with him as disicples. The Gospel passages for the past few weeks have seen Jesus teaching us different aspects of discipleship and living in the kingdom. He reminded us that we are children of God and we call him “Father.” He cares for his children, and we are encouraged to trust him and to seek him.
After this, Jesus begins to gives us some warnings about greed and materialism which lead us away from God and his kingdom. Life in the kingdom demands attention and willing participation; hence, Jesus urges vigilance and preparation.
Last week, Jesus spoke of the passion of his love and of the cost of discipleship. This theme continues this week, as Jesus says: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”
Faithfulness to the Lord and the Gospel lies at the heart of the teaching. All are welcome and invited to participate in the kingdom of God, for Jesus says: “And 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 universality of the invitation is foreshadowed in the words of Isaiah: “I know their works and their thoughts, and I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory. I will set a sign among them; from them I will send fugitives to the nations … to the distant coastlands that have never heard of my fame, or seen my glory; and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations … They shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations as an offering to the Lord.”
The invitation requires a response, which we give through living lives driven by and reflective of the Gospel. Jesus’ illustration of the master of the house refusing to open the door is a jarring exhortation to faithfulness. In the context of his mission, we see the rejection that has met him from the self-righteous, the indifferent and the obstinate. It seems that he is referencing these as the ones who were “first” but now are “last.” They willingly refuse to accept the gift of life that he freely offers.
Yet there are, and will be, many others who accept him and the Gospel, and this is a source of great joy. The words of Jesus might seem harsh, but they are meant to urge the hearer to respond.
This is akin to the exhortation in the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews, which serves as the second reading for the liturgy. In this passage we read: “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 … 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.”
Jesus’ words also allude to the mission of the Church to evangelize the world. In the words of the responsorial psalm: “Go out to all the world and tell the Good News.” All of us have a share in this mission of handing on the gift we have received. The more faithful we are to that gift, the more vivid will be our witness.
As we reflect on the “narrow” way, we might ask ourselves, “What area of my life do I hold back from the Lord? Is there something in my life that I refuse to be touched by the Gospel? Do I ever take the ‘wide’ road, the course of ease, pleasure or convenience? Do I ever ‘go with the crowd’ at the expense of the Gospel?”
One attribute of society today that might seem innocuous but may have hidden dangers is that of convenience. How much of our lives is governed by convenience? Tim Lu wrote an opinion column in The New York Times last year titled “The Tyranny of Convenience.” In the column he quotes Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter, who said: “Convenience decides everything.”
Lu elaborates: “Convenience seems to make our decisions for us, trumping what we like to imagine are our true preferences. (I prefer to brew my coffee, but Starbucks instant is so convenient I hardly ever do what I “prefer.”) Easy is better, easiest is best.”
He explores the hazards of this type of thinking, noting that “we err in presuming convenience is always good, for it has a complex relationship with other ideals that we hold dear. Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life. Created to free us, it can become a constraint on what we are willing to do, and thus in a subtle way it can enslave us.”
Living the life of faith as disciples is not always easy. There are demands of the Gospel that challenge us to live life differently than the world around us. Sometimes the demands of charity, love, mercy, truth and faithfulness involve a struggle, a commitment or a sacrifice. While it might not be convenient, it is nonetheless life-giving.
As Jesus journeys to Jerusalem, he invites us to walk with him as disciples, to learn from him and to join him in mission.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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