Is there anything more hopeful than to bring a child into the world? Speaking for myself, gazing upon our newborn child filled me with joy and hope. Joy for what God had accomplished in my life and hope for many blessings to come.
Is there anything more terrifying than to bring a child into the world? Any new father will admit that he is terrified of the awesome responsibility that God placed into his hands and the mantle of fatherhood that God entrusted to him.
Some of those same emotions came upon me when I studied today’s readings. First, can there be anything more hopeful than Jesus’ revelation of heaven? In answering a question about salvation, Jesus gives a beautiful description of God’s heavenly kingdom. “People will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.” Who doesn’t want to be at the table of God in his kingdom? And Jesus makes it clear that all people, and all kinds of people, will be there. “All our brothers and sisters from all nations” as we heard from Isaiah in the first reading.
At the same time, can there be anything more terrifying than when Jesus makes it clear that at that same heavenly table, there will be some, many even, who will stand outside knocking and asking to join the feast, those who wail and grind their teeth after the master of the house has arisen and locked the door. Can you think of a more harrowing description of hell than to be separated from God and to hear Jesus say: ‘depart from me you evildoer’? Imagine the hopeless frustration that the human soul experiences when it is cut off forever from friendship with God.
Jesus our shepherd leads us to what we need to do to be admitted to God’s banquet. “Strive to enter by the narrow gate”. On some level we can understand that. We have seen narrow gates, perhaps even passed through one. Jesus is the gate, the narrow gate by which we attain heaven. Also, don’t be an evildoer. That’s a lot already, but is that all Jesus is saying?
If so, there wouldn’t be much striving required, but he told us ”strive to enter by the narrow gate”. Nor would we need strength, but Jesus said that many “will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” As with all Jesus’ teachings, there is more here than meets the eye.
One thing this passage reveals is that God chooses to save those who want to be saved. Salvation depends first upon God’s grace, then our cooperation and obedience. You have to want to go through the gate and accept that Jesus is the only gate. God’s gift of freedom to man is so sacred that God will not force you; take the initiative yourself and accept that there will be a struggle. In other words, we must be prepared to work diligently in order to prepare ourselves for heaven.
Many “will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough”. Spoiler alert – by ourselves we will never be strong enough. We cannot enter heaven solely on our own. Jesus reveals to us that though some will try to get to heaven through their own effort, this approach will not work. Upon meeting our Lord, after death, many will be surprised that for all of time they are excluded from God’s table.
This clear and somewhat surprising statement from our Lord should have the effect of causing us to step back and look at our lives and sincerely and humbly examine the path each of us is on. Jesus’ directness and clarity about what we will all one day experience is intended to be shocking. In no uncertain terms, Jesus makes it alarmingly clear that the road to heaven is arduous and the gate of heaven is narrow, and not everyone will make it in.
“Many will not be strong enough”. Being invited to enter the narrow gate is God’s grace, and the readings today make it clear that everyone is invited. We in our lives struggle to overcome and reject all things which separate us from God. That which separates us from God is sin. We strive to enter the narrow gate by living our faith with hope and all the virtues, identifying ourselves with Jesus Christ, and depending on grace rather than our strength. It is a constant fight against ourselves, a daily effort to begin again, a daily struggle for conversion, correction, forgiveness and forgiving. Each of these serve as striving to enter by the narrow gate when accepted with joy and love of God and of neighbor.
The reading also makes it clear that it is not enough to claim a certain “familiarity” with Christ as did those in the Gospel who exclaim, “We ate and drank in your presence and you taught in our streets.” As Catholics, we should avoid the tendency to feel that living a life in accord with Catholic ethics is our goal. Going to Mass and receiving the sacraments is to be in Jesus’ presence; studying and reflecting on scripture is listening to his teachings. These are vital but checking those boxes is apparently not enough to avoid hearing Jesus say, ‘I do not know where you are from.’
To enter into the intimacy of the table of the Lord… begin living in intimacy with God here and now. Our goal is not to pick out Jesus from a crowd but to know him personally. Show God your love by spending time with him. For most of us, this begins with prayer. If you are not speaking with God in prayer every day, strive to begin today. If you have a habit of daily prayer, do things that experience has shown will deepen your prayer life – a devotion to the Rosary or Divine Mercy, or reading spiritual books and listening to worthy podcasts.
It takes true humility to face the truth and to admit we are relying more upon ourselves than upon Christ. The “narrow gate” is that gate through which the humble enter. Pride and self-sufficiency lead us to attempt to make our own path to Heaven. But this path is never the correct one.
One day the moment will come when you meet our Lord face to face. What will that encounter be like? Will it be one where He greets you with open arms saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into your reward.”? Or will it be one in which He says, “I do not know you.” Now is the time to face your life of faith with honesty, striving to live closely with God and to rely on the strength of our divine Lord.