The Narrow Gate

21st Sunday, Ordinary Time Today’s readings present a certain tension. On the one hand, there are images of salvation reaching to all parts of the world – the gathering of "nations of every language" to see God’s glory (Isa 66:18); the coming of peoples "from the east and the west and from the north and the south" to feast at the kingdom banquet (Luke 13:29). These images correlate well with the divine plan set forth in 1 Tim 2:4: God "wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth." On the other hand, Jesus speaks about the need to enter through "the narrow gate" and the reality that many will not be strong enough to do so (Luke 13:24). How is this tension lessened, if not fully resolved? The second reading, from the letter to the Hebrews, provides an important clue. The author makes the provocative point that God "disciplines" and "scourges" those whom he loves. To ’discipline’ and ’scourge’ . . .; these words strike our ears as distasteful, if not downright abusive. How do we make sense of them, especially when we consider that God is one who does the disciplining? The Greek word that translates the substantive "discipline" is paideia. It refers to the upbringing, education, formation, and nurturing of children. Paideia thus entails teaching, rigorous training, disciplined practice – in short, hard work. What does paideia involve for God’s children, for Christian formation? A minimal list would include: daily prayer, active participation in the Church’s sacramental life, study of God’s Word and the Church’s teaching (including its social tradition), works of charity, and ascetics. Such formation is hard work and a lifelong task. Hence Jesus’ image of the narrow gate. In fact, only God’s grace makes possible our advancing through the course. But the hard work is necessary because we are called by Christ to be "the salt of the earth" and "the light of the world" (Matt 5:13-14). It is through following in Jesus’ footsteps of self-giving love and service – through teaching, feeding, healing, reconciling – that others will be attracted to the grace and energy that animate us. The call to enter the narrow gate is thus, paradoxically, the vocation to be instruments of drawing the nations to God’s love and salvation. Thomas D. Stegman, S.J.

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