Most often, we tend to think of the words of the Lord as being comforting and welcoming, embracing all who approach Him. And for the most part, that is precisely what He is. But we can all too easily overlook the starkness of some of what He says. Today is one of those days when the Gospel does not comfort or console us – rather, it challenges us very deeply indeed, pulling us out of our complacency.
The Gospel today contained these words of the Lord, responding to a man who asked Him if many would be saved – “Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” (Lk.13:24)
Jesus goes on to describes some of these people – they are those who think they have been close to Him throughout life but who, at the last hurdle, fall and are rejected by the Lord as ‘unknown’ to Him. He adds that “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Lk.13:30)
I had a feeling of dread as I listened to the words. What if He is describing me? What if I think I am doing alright in terms of my discipleship of the Lord – and yet at the end, He will not even recognise me and He casts me out?
Like those Jesus mentions in that Gospel passage, I have listened to the Lord, been in His company and followed Him; but this, by itself, did not save them. What, then of me?
What if my following of the Lord is all too superficial? What if it is habit or sheer routine – but little more than that? What if I am complacent without even realising it? What if I am not strong enough?
Despite the starkness of the words and of this passage, there is some consolation, some glimmer of light toward which we must keep going with trust in Him.
First of all, He asks that we ‘strive’ – to strive is to keep trying to do something, no matter how difficult it might prove to be. In other words, we are to persevere. He does not ask that we necessarily succeed – only that we continually make the effort. In other words, that we keep going and do not give up even (in fact, especially) when it costs us most dearly to do so. The Lord does not judge the result, but the effort. Complacency is antithetical to effort. If we are complacent, we are no longer even trying – we are simply going through the motions. We have become a dead thing with only an appearance of life and vitality. So we must persevere, we must keep going no matter what. That is the effort the Lord is looking for.
Second of all, what can those words about the first and the last possibly mean? They are about humility and they are about love. If we truly humble ourselves, we place the worth and needs of others above our own. We take that lower seat at the table, giving preference to the other. Put another way, we love our neighbour, regardless of who our neighbour might be. We seek their good above our own, and we do so always with loving compassion and free of judgementalism.
It is by doing all this – day in, day out, over and over again and never giving up – that we might begin to bear some faint resemblance to the Lord. And if He can see at least something of Himself within us, then He cannot say He does not recognise us.
Note well that none of this comments on the mercy of the Lord nor seeks to place any limit upon it, for there is no such limit. Instead, it comments upon ourselves and our ability, our willingness, to love and to give; to take up our Cross daily and to follow Him, particularly when it is most hard to do so.
Christianity is not easy. It was never easy. Indeed, it is the hardest thing of all because it calls us to go against ourselves in so very many ways – to cast off what matters most to us (whether self-love, ego, pride, powers, status, wealth, reputation, possessions or anything else) for love of God and of neighbour.
Truly, it is a narrow door – but if we cast off that baggage, we can pass through it.
And He awaits us on the other side of it.