Following Jesus is hard. Real discipleship requires conscious effort.
In this week’s Gospel reading, Luke struggles with a problem that vexed a number of New Testament authors: Why do only some people accept Jesus’ message, while others treat it with indifference or hostility? Gospel narratives like the parable of the sower take up this question, as do a number of Paul’s letters. Luke responds to the question with Jesus’ parable of the narrow door: It is a struggle to follow Jesus, and relatively few will develop the faith and inner strength to do so.
‘Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.’ (Lk 13:24)
How have you striven to follow Christ?
How has your struggle to follow Christ advanced the salvation and freedom of another person?
Whereas in Matthew Jesus gives this teaching near the beginning of his ministry, Luke sets it nearer to the end, on the road to Jerusalem. For Jesus and his disciples, this is a journey of increasing faith in the Father’s promises and obedience to the divine will, even in the face of hostility and rejection. For the disciples, every step of the journey required an increasingly conscious effort to follow Jesus into the unknown.
This is the narrow door. It was easy to follow Jesus, one suspects, when he was a popular preacher and healer in his native Galilee. It probably made intuitive sense to follow his example and teaching when people responded positively to it. When Jesus started to arouse hostility, however, his followers came to realize the struggle their discipleship would require. Superficial encounters with Jesus were not sufficient. It was a form of “false discipleship” merely to be a spectator, to eat and drink in his company and hear his teaching. True discipleship consisted in following Jesus’ example. As Jesus traveled toward his fate in Jerusalem, this meant sharing his obedient faith, even when it started to look absurd.
As C. S. Lewis pointed out in his book Mere Christianity, false Christianities continue to tempt Christ’s disciples today. Some worship the church instead of the God it exists to serve. Others attempt to co-opt Christ for political or social goals that have little to do with the Gospel. Still others follow when it is fashionable but fall away as religion goes out of style. To give but one example: Throughout its history, the United States has experienced several “great awakenings” that have packed its churches, but these tend to sputter out over time. (Some scholars suggest that we are living through the collapse of one of these awakenings even now.)
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” Discipleship requires conscious effort. It is not enough to notice Jesus as he passes by; one must be willing to sacrifice everything to go where the teacher leads. The “narrow gate” is the Gospel—with its call to faith, to generosity, to forgiveness and to justice, especially for the poor. A disciple who endeavors to live according to this standard will not just arrive at God’s feast but will be a herald through whom God will invite many more. Just as Jesus’ struggle and obedience made it possible for his disciples to do the same, everyone who strives today to enter through the narrow door makes it a little easier for another to follow. Our faith and struggle continue Christ’s work of salvation.