Friday, August 19, 2016

Will Many Be Saved? 21st Sunday in OT


If Jesus was walking through your town and you had ten seconds as he passed to ask any question you wished, what would it be?  “Why is there evil in the world?” “How can I be saved?” “What is heaven like?”

In this Sunday’s Gospel, an anonymous bystander gets his chance to ask Jesus one of the “big questions”: “Will only a few people be saved?”  Jesus’ answer is complex, indirect, and very well worth examining!  The Readings leading up to the Gospel help prepare us to understand Jesus’ response.

1.  The First Reading is Is 66:18-21:

Thus says the LORD:
I know their works and their thoughts,
and I come to gather nations of every language;
they shall come and see my glory.
I will set a sign among them;
from them I will send fugitives to the nations:
to Tarshish, Put and Lud, Mosoch, Tubal and Javan,
to the distant coastlands
that have never heard of my fame, or seen my glory;
and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations.
They shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations
as an offering to the LORD,
on horses and in chariots, in carts, upon mules and dromedaries,
to Jerusalem, my holy mountain, says the LORD,
just as the Israelites bring their offering
to the house of the LORD in clean vessels.
Some of these I will take as priests and Levites, says the LORD.

This is a famous and extremely important passage that essentially ends the Book of Isaiah, which was and is by far the most influential of all the books of the prophets, both in Judaism and in Christianity.  The Fathers called Isaiah the “Fifth Gospel”, and it is the only Old Testament book (besides the Psalms) which seriously rivals any of the Gospels for “air time” in the Lectionary: it’s read in Masses for Sundays and Feast Days more often than Mark and just shy of Matthew.

Isaiah is quoted in the New Testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls far more than any other prophet, showing that the theological perspectives and expectations of the people of Jesus’ day were profoundly shaped by this book.  For that reason, it is of great significance to examine the way this book ends (which is our First Reading).

It is probably intentional that the opening and closing oracles of the Book of Isaiah include grave rebukes against the present generation of Israel for corrupt liturgical celebration (1:10-17; 66:1-4) as well as a more positive vision of a glorious future in which all humanity will be joined in worship of the LORD in Zion (2:1-5; 66:22-23).  The arc of narrative of human history in Isaiah begins with the inadequate worship of ethnic Israel in the present and moves toward the perfect worship of all humanity in the future.  Isaiah’s vision of the destiny of mankind is well summarized by the last oracle of the Book (which comes right after our First Reading):

Is. 66:22 “For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before me, says the LORD; so shall your descendants and your name remain.  23 From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the LORD.

Isaiah’s oracle represents a restoration of God’s creation intent for humanity.  As Adam was created homo liturgicus and first priest in the Garden of Eden at the beginning of time, so at the end of time all humanity will be reunited in its intended destiny to praise God.

Now let’s look at the First Reading more closely.  It relates a series of events.  God speaks first of (1) gathering in the nations and setting his sign among them.  From these ingathered nations, he will (2) send “fugitives” to still further nations who do not know him.  There, these “fugitives” will preach about God’s glory.  Then, it appears that (3) these further nations will bring Israelites with them as they make pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and (4) from among these mixed pilgrims the LORD will appoint some for priestly ministry.

This conclusion of Isaiah may be understood as vision of the missionary expansion of the Church.  First, the “nations” (Gentiles) are gathered to God—this takes place already in the apostolic period, especially through the ministry of St. Paul.  Then, members of these ingathered Gentiles are themselves sent out to further Gentile nations to preach God’s glory.  This would correspond to the Church’s missionary efforts after the apostolic era, even down to the present day.  Among these distant nations to which Gentile “fugitives” go to preach the Gospel, there are persons descended from the Ten Tribes of Israel, whose identity is known only to God.  These persons respond, along with other Gentiles, to the Church’s preaching, and in this way they are reconciled to the LORD and restored to his covenant, in fulfillment of God’s promises to all Twelve Tribes.  This is described under a figure by Isaiah, who speaks of Israelites (“your brothers and sisters,” that is, the ethnic relatives of the prophet) being brought back to “Jerusalem” by the Gentiles as an “offering” to God.  Finally, some among this mixed multitude of Gentiles and Jews that comes to “Jerusalem” on pilgrimage are appointed to priestly duty, indicating that in the age to come, the priesthood will no longer be limited to the tribe of Levi, as it was under the Old Covenant.

Thus, in light of Christ, we can recognize that conclusion of Isaiah to be a prophecy of the missionary expansion of the Church, through which both Gentiles and Israelites will become reconciled to God.

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 117:1, 2:

R. (Mk 16:15) Go out to all the world and tell the Good News.
Praise the LORD all you nations;
glorify him, all you peoples!
R. Go out to all the world and tell the Good News.
For steadfast is his kindness toward us,
and the fidelity of the LORD endures forever.
R. Go out to all the world and tell the Good News.

Psalm 117 is the shortest of all the Psalms, and the entirety of it can be quoted here (RSV):

1 Praise the LORD, all nations!

Extol him, all peoples! 

2 For great is his steadfast love toward us;

and the faithfulness of the LORD endures for ever.

Praise the LORD!

Thus, this shortest Psalm is basically just a command for “all nations” to praise the LORD. 

I believe that many of the Psalms were composed in the age of David and Solomon, as their superscriptions claim.  During the Davidic-Solomonic period, the kingdom ruled from Jerusalem became a Near Eastern empire, assimilating several surrounding Gentile nations (Edom, Ammon, Moab, Arabia, Aram/Syria) and receiving tribute from others.  The commands in many of the Psalms for “the nations” to praise the LORD are not empty rhetoric.  In ancient times, embassies and other representatives of the vassal nations incorporated within the Davidic empire were often in Jerusalem, and would have paid a visit to the royal sanctuary (eventually the Temple) in order to pay their respects to the LORD, the patron deity of their suzerain (the Davidic king).  So Gentiles were present in the Temple courtyards in ancient times, and the Levites chanted to them various commands to praise God. 

This Psalm reminds us that the international character of the Church was foreshadowed in the Old Testament already in the international character of David’s kingdom.  The Church is David’s kingdom, because Jesus the Son of David rules over the Church as King.

3.  The Second Reading is Heb 12:5-7, 11-13:

Brothers and sisters,
You have forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as children:
“My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord
or lose heart when reproved by him;
for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines;
he scourges every son he acknowledges.”
Endure your trials as “discipline”;
God treats you as sons.
For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline?
At the time,
all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain,
yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness
to those who are trained by it.

So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees.
Make straight paths for your feet,
that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed.

At this time in the Church year, the Second Reading is moving semi-continuously through the end of Hebrews (chs. 11-13).  Hebrews appears to have been addressed to Jewish Christians who were under pressure to return to Judaism, perhaps even under physical persecution from relatives and officials.  The author of Hebrews helps his readers understand theologically the difficulty they are experiencing.  It is not a sign of God’s hatred, nor of a curse.  Rather, it is a sign of God’s love, who acts as a Father toward his children.  Christians should not become discouraged in the face of hardship and opposition, but should be invigorated by it, knowing that God permits it for the perfection of their faith.

In the Gospel, Jesus is going to teach that the way of salvation involves struggle: one must “strive” to enter the “narrow gate”, and not all will be “strong” enough.  This suggests there will be persecution and opposition along the path to salvation, and this Second Reading helps us to understand that such painful experiences are not contrary to the love of God the Father.

4.  The Gospel is Lk 13:22-30:

Jesus passed through towns and villages,
teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem.
Someone asked him,
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
He answered them,
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough.
After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door,
then will you stand outside knocking and saying,
‘Lord, open the door for us.’
He will say to you in reply,
‘I do not know where you are from.
And you will say,
‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’
Then he will say to you,
‘I do not know where you are from.
Depart from me, all you evildoers!’
And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth
when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
and all the prophets in the kingdom of God
and you yourselves cast out.
And 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.
For behold, some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last.”

We have long past the mid-point of the liturgical year and we are now marching more quickly with Jesus along the path of his final journey in the Travel Narrative (Luke 10-19).  This journey of Jesus will culminate in his death, and the readings for the past several Sundays have been somber in tone.  This Sunday is no exception.

The questioner asks, “Will only a few be saved?”  Jesus—as is typical of him—does not give a direct answer.  Instead, he responds with a command: “Strive to enter the narrow gate!”

In essence, Jesus is telling the questioner: “Do not worry about abstract questions like the exact number or percentage of people who will end up being saved.  Such knowledge will not be revealed to you, and in any event would do you no good, one way or the other.  Your concern should be for your own salvation, because the path of salvation is not easy.”

Jesus says “strive to enter the narrow gate, for many will attempt to enter, but will not be strong enough.”

This clearly teaches that the path of salvation will involve struggle, and not everyone will be successful.  In fact, many will not be successful.

How different an attitude this is from what passes as Christianity in America!  A great disservice has been done to the Faith by a variety of groups.  First, there are some Protestants who teach “salvation by faith alone” in such a way that the path to salvation appears to be an easy matter of believing, without growth in holiness or an ascetical struggle.  This is clearly wrong—a denial of Jesus’ preaching.  Then, there are theologians in universities and seminaries who have been teaching for generations that basically everyone is going to heaven almost despite themselves, and few if any will end up in hell.  This view has no real basis in Sacred Scripture or the Church’s tradition.  I cannot make the argument here, but Ralph Martin does it brilliantly in his recent book, Will Many Be Saved?  What Vatican II Actually Teaches and ItsImplications for the New Evangelization.  It is heartening that Martin’s book is endorsed by many of the “top brass” of the American episcopate, indicating that prelates at the highest levels have realized how dangerous the “easy salvationism” really is for the health of the Church.  Finally, there is the liturgical abuse by which scarcely-practicing Catholics, and sometimes open dissenters and publically immoral persons, are virtually canonized at their funerals, with all the congregants being assured that—despite the deceased’s evident lack of any concern for experiencing communion with Jesus while alive—he or she is now surely in heaven “with the Lord.”  This kind of liturgy is a powerful misteaching tool: it misteaches lay Catholics that everyone will go to heaven almost despite anything that a person does or believes.  But is that what Jesus taught?  Certainly not!  Instead, we should read Matthew 25 at everyone’s funeral!  It would lead to a much healthier Catholic culture!

Jesus’ words are particularly aimed at his own generation.  He describes people knocking on the door of the heavenly wedding banquet, saying, “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.”  Yet, they will find themselves cast out as evildoers, while Gentiles from the north, south, east, and west will take their place at the “table in the kingdom of God.”

The first meaning of Jesus message was to his own contemporaries, that they should take seriously the opportunity he is offering them to repent and follow him now.  Casual acquaintance with Jesus during his earthly ministry will do nothing for their eternal salvation.

Nonetheless, there is a secondary spiritual sense to Jesus’ words that apply especially to those of us who attend Church and believe we know Jesus.  We “eat and drink” with him, and he teaches us in our Churches.  We are familiar with Jesus.  We think we know him.  We have had “X” years of Catholic schooling, or we went to the University of Saint “X,” or our mother prays the rosary often, or maybe even we ourselves pray the rosary occasionally, so we think we “know” Jesus.  We are on the inside track.  He’ll recognize us when we get to the pearly gates.

God forbid we are in for a shock!

Jesus’ teaching is a rude shock for any who presume their salvation!  Those who do are likely to find themselves displaced at the heavenly banquet by others they don’t recognize. 

The appropriate response to this Gospel is repentance, and a resolution to “deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow Jesus.”  We need to stop living lives aimed at pleasure, submit fully to all Jesus’ teachings as transmitted by his Church, re-read Matt. 5-7, and adjust our lifestyles accordingly.

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