Brief synopsis of the readings: Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God promises to gather “the nations of every language. They shall come to witness my glory.” All will come “to the Temple of the Lord.” In Luke’s Gospel someone asked Jesus: “Sir, will there only be only a few saved?” Jesus replied that they should “enter by the narrow door, because I tell you, many will try to enter and will not succeed.” He then spoke about someone coming to a home after the master has gone to sleep. He knocked on the door expecting to be invited in, but the master refused. Jesus concluded this encounter saying: “Yes, there are those now last who will be first, and those now first who will be last.
At first glance, these readings appear to be opposed to each other. Isaiah wrote this shortly after the return from Babylonian exile. Brief recap: around 587 BCE the kingdom of Babylonia conquered Israel, destroyed the Temple, and drove their leaders into exile. Forty eight years later the Babylonians were themselves conquered and the Israelites were allowed back to Jerusalem.
The return to Jerusalem holds a revered place in our history, but any large event, good or bad, calls the question: “Now what?” Nobody can reverse history and our ancestors knew they couldn’t go back to 587 BCE. Not everyone was exiled to Babylonia, and not all those who were exiled returned.
Much of this part of Isaiah concerned itself with their identity going forward and this reading gives us an expansive look forward. God isn’t God just for this small group of people who fled Egypt: God is God for all people, for “all nations.”
But how do we read this against the backdrop of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel? Jesus proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God and spent a fair amount of his ministry teaching what it takes to be included in this Kingdom. And the question of whether only a few would be saved has taken up a disproportionate place in our history.
When Jesus was asked how many would be saved it would have been easier for us if Jesus and said: “Not to worry. Everyone gets in.” But he didn’t. Instead he talked about the narrow gate and talked about how some who expected to be invited in will instead be locked out.
In the 2000 years since Jesus spoke these words I’m afraid we’re misunderstood the meaning of the narrow gate. At the time many cities (including Jerusalem) had several gates. The rich and important people entered through the main gate, and the smaller gates were reserved for the poor and servants.
If you’ve seen the iconic 1982 movie Gandhi you’ve witnessed something like this. In 1915 Gandhi traveled by ship from South Africa to India on a 3rd class ticket. When the ship pulled into port it was met by a large contingent of officials and press because an important person was on board. He walked down a large and ornate gangplank surrounded by other VIPS’s and flashbulbs.
Meanwhile a 46 year old little known attorney walked down a much narrower gangplank to nearly no notice. The gangplank accomplished the same job: it provided a walkway from the ship to land.
We misunderstand Jesus’ reference to the “narrow door” when we think it means that only a few get in. Any door can admit an infinite number of people if they are patient enough. But I think even this misses the point.
If the VIP’s in 1915 had been told that they had to exit the ship by the 3rd class gangplank they would have objected, and perhaps they would have refused the insult. Even today when we board an airplane the first class passengers board first and exit first: they take for granted that they are better and more important than the rest of us in the back of the plane. Next time you’re on a flight imagine if the pilot announced that the first class passengers needed to stay in their seats while the rest of us exit.
When Jesus talked about the narrow door I believe he was talking about the importance of humility instead of importance. Almost from our beginnings as Christians we’ve wondered who is saved and who isn’t, and we’ve set up the criteria that we think God uses. But we’ve also decided that there are certain “shoe ins,” those we think are guaranteed salvation. For some it’s kind people like Mother Teresa or Francis of Assisi, for others it’s smart people like Thomas Aquinas. For others it’s important people, like the Popes.
But what if we’re wrong? I think salvation is open to all, but if we’re all required to enter salvation though the narrow door, are there people who are so insulted that they demand entrance through the main gate? Jesus ends his teaching by talking about how the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Are there those who refuse salvation out of a refusal to humble themselves and enter by the 3rd class gangplank? I hope not.
And yet we live in a world that regularly develops hierarchies based on education, place of birth, and skin color. I recently finished a book about immigration to the United States in the 1920s (The Guarded Gate by Daniel Okrent). Xenophobes of the day divided Europeans into three classes: Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean and it was believed that intelligence decreased as they traveled south. In 1924 the United States dramatically restricted immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. Last year American President Donald Trump described Haiti and the nations of Africa as “[expletive deleted] countries” and asked why we weren’t welcoming more people from countries like Norway.
When Jesus talks about those who will be refused entrance, even over their objections that they “once ate and drank in your company,” maybe he is talking about those refuse to get in line for the narrow door.
If we are to read from Isaiah and understand that God wishes to reach out to all people, we need to understand that God does not respect the divisions we make among ourselves. I like to think that Isaiah proclaimed a Kingdom where all of us want to be included so much that we enjoy our neighbors in line.