August 25, 2019
TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
I will send fugitives to the nations
Praise the LORD all you nations
Heb 12:5-7, 11-13
“for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines”
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate”
Another voice from the crowd calls out to Jesus, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Jesus answers, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” He seems to be saying Yes. So it is rather confusing when he later offers an expansive vision. People will come from the east and the west, and the north and the south to the table of God. This doesn’t sound like a narrow gate.
Nor does the passage from the book of Isaiah: “From them I will send fugitives to the nations … and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations.” The lands of Tarshish, Put and Lud, Mosoch, Tubal and Javan, and the distant coastlands, are around the Mediterranean. These roughly correspond to today’s Spain, the African nations of Libya and Lydia, the Caucusus and Turkey in Asia Minor, and Ionia, or Greece. For the ancient Israelites, this was the extent of the known world.
So the voice from the crowd questions Jesus. We do not know what prompted him to ask. Perhaps the best way to get at the matter is to put it in the context of Luke’s gospel project, and his likely readers. Luke is possibly the only biblical writer who is not Jewish. In any case, he is writing for Gentiles who are interested in Jesus and his movement, but are unable to convert to Judaism. An example would be the Roman Centurions in Luke 7 and Acts 10. The members of the Roman military were required to swear allegiance to the Roman gods, as a matter of discipline, and it would not do to profess faith in the God of the Bible. For Roman soldiers, the marks of circumcision would give away their competing allegiance. Luke is writing for such as these, showing them a way into the true faith, through the gate opened by Jesus.
These interested Gentiles are generally called “God-fearers.” Faithful Israelites are often described as “fearing God,” which refers to reverence, not what we think of as fear. But what is unusual in the present case is that Gentile, who are not Jewish, are called by this name. It means they are devout believers in the one God. Luke is writing for and to them.
When we read the gospel selection with this in mind, we can see that Luke shows Jesus with a message to them. The question about “only a few people” being saved will suggest to them the requirement of converting to Judaism through circumcision. Jesus’ answer about the narrow gate seems to confirm this. He tells a parable about trying to visit a place after the master of the house has retired for the night. Claims that “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets” will not suffice. Instead people will be welcomed from the four corners of the earth.
So what then is the “narrow door”? For Luke it represents repentance and conversion, like the Prodigal Son (15:11-32), Zacchaeus the tax-collector (19:1-10), and the Good Thief (23:39-43) — all found only in Luke’s Gospel. Beyond being part of a faith tradition, personal commitment is also needed. For Luke’s readers, he shows a way into the story of salvation with the (now expanded) people of God.
Viewing the gospels from the point of view of the reader intended by the original author is a fresh way to approach the story of Jesus. For those who are interested in Luke’s gospel, a story he extends into the Acts of the Apostles, you may be interested in my book just published this spring: A Light to the Centurions: Reading Luke-acts in the Empire (Wipf & Stock, 2019).
For reflection: The gospel writers have distinct points of view.
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.