As a theological doctrine, universalism claims that all of us will be saved, or restored to holiness and happiness. The biblical version of universalism is more complicated. It says that while God wants us all to be saved, we all must work at finding a place in God’s kingdom.
One of the questions put to Jewish religious teachers in Jesus’ time concerned the number of persons who will be saved, that is, will share in the great banquet in God’s kingdom. The occasion for Jesus’ teaching about biblical universalism in today’s text from Luke 13 is the question, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Jesus does not answer that question. Instead he issues a series of sayings and parables that emphasize the difficulty involved in entering God’s kingdom, and he stresses the need for constant fidelity and vigilance throughout our lives. Thus Jesus reminds us that even though God wants all of us to be saved, we all need to work at it. Entry into God’s kingdom is not automatically granted, and we cannot presume on God’s mercy and do nothing by way of response to God’s invitation.
Jesus goes on to present a positive picture of people from all the nations of the world joining Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at the great banquet in God’s kingdom. Note the pivotal role played by historic Israel, as represented by the patriarchs in the scene. This vision is deeply rooted in the Old Testament. Today’s reading from Isaiah 66 provides a good example. That great book ends as it began, with a vision of all the peoples of the world streaming toward Jerusalem and acknowledging and praising the God of Israel. Likewise, today’s responsorial psalm (117) issues the call, “Praise the Lord, all you nations; glorify him, all you peoples.”
In Jesus’ vision the goal or destination of all the nations is the kingdom of God rather than the Jerusalem temple. While the destination has changed, the dynamic is similar. When we pray “Thy kingdom come,” we ask that all peoples may come to recognize and celebrate the absolute sovereignty of the God of Abraham who is the father of our lord Jesus Christ.
Will only a few persons be saved? The answer to that question remains hidden with God. The two great attributes of God in the Bible are justice and mercy. Which will prevail at the last judgment depends on God. Meanwhile we have to be satisfied with the guidance provided by Scripture. Today’s excerpt from Luke 13 offers at least the biblical version of universalism. It affirms that God wants all persons to enjoy eternal life with him. It insists on the pivotal role of historic Israel as God’s chosen people. And it reminds us that entry into God’s kingdom is not automatic. Rather, it requires faith in God, firmness of purpose and sharpness of focus and appropriate actions and constant vigilance. While the invitation to God’s banquet is extended to all, we all have to act upon it. How many will be saved in the end is a decision that rests with God.