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John R. DonahueAugust 13, 2001

Number of years ago I was participating in an ecumenical dialogue in the then-divided city of Berlin. At the dividing line were the remnants of the colossal Brandenburg gate, through which Hitler’s armies marched. On a visit to the Pergamon Museum of Antiquities in East Berlin I sat before the monumental Babylonian Ishtar gate, through which the Judaean exiles were marched as captives. Isaiah, in the first reading, envisions return from that exile. Broad gates are for armies and characterize oppressive power. Jesus says that we must enter by the narrow gate. Narrow gates lead into gardens and humble homes; often we must even stoop to enter them. One enters narrow gates usually by invitation, broad gates by force.

Jesus then shifts the metaphor of entry into the house, when people will knock and be refused admittance. He then goes on to challenge the whole concept of religious privilege. Even table companions who listened to his teaching will be excluded (Mt. 7:21-22 identifies these as unfaithful Christian disciples). The “few” recalls the prophetic heritage where a remnant will return to God in repentance (e.g., Is. 1:20-22), who are called by Zephaniah a people humble and lowly who seek refuge in the Lord (3:12). Jesus also attacks those who lay exclusive claim to the heritage of Abraham and the prophets. Instead, people will come from the four corners of the earth to eat in the kingdom of God, echoing Isaiah’s vision of the eschatological banquet (Is. 25:6-8) and the command from the first reading to gather “nations of every language.”

The Gospel presents a paradox of exclusion and inclusion. Neither familiarity with Jesus nor membership in a chosen people assures admittance to the banquet, and yet Jesus includes a small remnant who enter by the narrow gate, perhaps bowed down and straggling in the procession (the last shall be first). This recalls both Mary’s hymn that the lowly will be exalted and Simeon’s prediction that “this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel” (Lk. 2:34), as well as Luke’s concern that it is the marginal and suffering people of the world whom Jesus will welcome (Lk. 4:16-30). Christians today overly concerned about impressive gates and religious identity may find some surprising table companions at the messianic banquet, and they should not wait to issue an invitation: “Just come in, not by the grand entrance, but by the little gate at the side of the church!”

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