St. Luke and the Prophet Isaiah rival one another in their expansive thoughts on the prospect of salvation for the worldwide community. St. Luke even stretches the words of Jesus a bit when he claims that the saved will come from all four corners of the earth and be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven. The Evangelist writes, “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.” St. Matthew cites the same quotation from Jesus Christ but a bit more cautiously: “I say to you, many will come from the east and the west and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven(8:11).” Obviously St. Luke does not allow any hesitation about the generosity of God toward all peoples – north, east, south and west. These kindly thoughts were of course provoked by a disciple’s anxious inquiry, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
The goodness and kindness of God toward mankind, while heightened in the New Testament, was certainly anticipated in the Old Testament. The first reading at Mass this Sunday from the Prophet Isaiah is a wonderful celebration of the universal call to the nations to accept God’s invitation to enter into community with him here on earth so as to enjoy eternal happiness with him in Heaven. Isaiah writes, “Thus says the LORD: “I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory…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…” So not only all nationalities but also all classes of people will be invited to enter the Kingdom. Isaiah cites those “in chariots” as well as those “upon mules.” So the universal salvific will of God is well established in both covenants. Eternal happiness is clearly offered to the many and not simply to the few.
When Pope Benedict insisted that the words of consecration at Mass in the English language should read “…which will be shed for you and for many” rather than “for you and for all” as it had read for a number of years, many took exception to his decision. The Greek Scriptural word for many is “hoi polloi,” a word that means not only “many” but more so the “masses,” the “crowds,” or even the “throngs.” God’s salvific Will is still broad. No limitation was intended.
Still the Gospel according to St. Luke does anticipate the later sober words of St. Paul, “God is not mocked. As a man sows thus shall he reap.” St. Luke thoughtfully stresses the need for mankind to cooperate with God’s generous offerings. “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.” Jesus again emphasizes the necessity of a proper and effective response to God’s generosity, “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.” Again Jesus solicitously warns, “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
Those who sadly miss out and fail to enter the eternal kingdom have nothing to blame but their own lack of effort. God is never outdone in his generosity but mankind is often shamed by his spiritual sloth. Jesus cites those who “will not be strong enough.” Clearly great effort is required for entrance into the kingdom. Authenticity in repentance, perseverance in prayer, persistence in charity, diligence in study, and determination in justice are all vital elements in a realistic and practical Christian life. And accepting the present opportunity to enter is urgent because the narrow door will not remain open indefinitely.
The present day believing community does not favor this message of effort and cooperation being needed to enter the Kingdom. Talk of an individual’s worthiness is too judgmental, too disapproving, too negative for the modern ear. Yet Jesus clearly states that there will be penalties for those who shirk their responsibilities once God’s final call is heard. Strive indeed to enter through the narrow gate. The consequences for neglect of God’s summons are considerable!