Before the set lectionary reading:
Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. 23Someone asked him, ‘Lord, will only a few be saved?’ He said to them, 24‘Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. 25When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, “Lord, open to us”, then in reply he will say to you, “I do not know where you come from.” 26Then you will begin to say, “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.” 27But he will say, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!” 28There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. 29Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. 30Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.
Gospel: Luke 13:31-35
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ 32He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox (insult, not lion?) for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” 34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’
Some friendly Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod is out to get him. “Listen,” he replies, “I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” Jesus is working against the powers that destroy life, by casting out demons and performing cures. He makes it clear that Herod’s plans are of no importance in all this. First he says, “ Go and tell that fox.” It is an insult ; foxes are sly and unlovable. And they are small. He continues, “Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.”
This is looking forward to the crucifixion. Jesus calling from God is what will determine events and outcomes, not Herod’s agenda.
Jesus laments over the tragedy of Jerusalem who will not listen. Unless Jerusalem repents and listens, ‘its house is left to it.’ This means, I think, that it will live its life in some way removed from the presence of God until it again welcomes those who bring the message of God. (Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord is a quotation of Psalm 118, which was used as a welcoming song to pilgrims. (Fitzmyer Luke Vol 2 p 1037).
We inherit strong traditions of a vengeful God from the Hebrew scriptures. Even Jesus is still presented in this light in many churches. In the reading this week, it should be clear what Jesus is about. Casting out demons and performing cures, he is on the side of the small person against the powers that oppress and destroy. In response, one such power wishes to destroy him. This is not someone bringing us a picture of a vengeful God. This is someone who laments over us.
I want to reflect on this at length, because our inherited reading and understanding of this text, and ones like it, is to see the closed door as a ticket to hell. We do this in contradiction of all the love Jesus demonstrates.
The lament over Jerusalem is what drags us into the text. It is not merely a theological statement about Jesus and his mission. This is because the lectionary reading begins with the words, “At that very hour…” This phrase connect Jesus words about Jerusalem with the previous paragraph (pericope), which the lectionary rather artificially leaves out.(verses 22-30) We could say the lectionary verses are chosen to point at Jesus, but the verses before it point to us. They tell us, essentially, that what is said about Jerusalem applies to us.
The compassion and sadness of Jesus’ lament for Jerusalem also infuse this story. These saying of Jesus are not condemnatory. They are not ‘forensic’ either. He does not answer the question of whether only a few will be saved. He answers, instead, “Strive to enter through the narrow door…” There is a clear warning here about the need to take our response to Jesus seriously. It is not a message of exclusivity, for in a Jewish setting he says “people (by implication, Gentiles) will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” It is also a message of challenge to our expectations; “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
The lament, combined with the warning, steers us away from an easy universalism. I mean, that it is foolish to think that we can live how we like, and everything will be OK. At some point, the door shuts.
But there is nothing vindictive about this in the text, none of the schadenfreude that infects so many churches. There is only sorrow. So we should read this text in the spirit of John’s Jesus who came not to condemn, but to save the world. (John 3:17)
Since Jesus clearly believed the way life is lived has consequences, how do we understand his insight today. How do we not drift into the morally repugnant notion that God assigns some people to eternal punishment? This is what people outside the church think we believe. It is clear that many, many church goers are of the same opinion.
A colleague told me of sitting down with a bereaved family to plan the funeral. “Tell me about you father,” he said. “What are the good things you remember and cherish.”
There was an uncomfortable silence. Finally, the son said, “We’re just glad the old bastard’s finally dead.”
Apparently, from that unpromising starting point, things actually went very well, but that’s not our concern here. Instead, how do we think the Dad felt about himself? Perhaps there are kinds of narcissim or psychopathy which would not be worried by the attitudes of others, but I think it is likely that the Father was miserable, and hated the old bastard too.
In one sense, there is nothing remarkable about what Jesus said. We know that how we live affects who we become. We know it can have devastating and miserable results.
It is true that luck and circumstance can have devastating effects on our lives, and can also offer us enormous, unearned good fortune. But what we do with our lives can negate good fortune, or cause remarkable transformation of tragedy.
We also know that what we do often becomes largely irreversible. The door to various opportunities in life does shut. If we are fortunate, it closes slowly and gently as we get older, and it becomes too late to change careers, or we are locked into the role of a parent, which will never fully leave us. If we are unlucky, or unwise, we may act so as to be jailed for decades.
All this, of course, can slide into the heresy of the ‘self made man.’ I use the word ‘man’ deliberately. It becomes individualism cut loose from our essential corporate humanity. Often it will be exacerbated by unrealistic positive thinking, or self judgment (not to mention societal prejudice.)
It can culminate in bitter, twisted, violent men as life fails them, and dreams do not materialise. Jesus’ said
When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, “Lord, open to us”, then in reply he will say to you, “I do not know where you come from.” (28)
This image is a picture of life turned to ashes, where the inevitable disappointments of life, become the sum of life.
This not all Jesus is saying, of course. The theology of Jesus, and the church who follow him, adds a profound sense of the corporate. “You are the body of Christ,” Paul says. If we adopt a very minimalist position, and avoid religious jargon, we can say that a church, at its best, is profoundly humanising. Seeking to living life as Jesus would live it, if here were here in our shoes, is also profoundly humanising. It’s one reason we follow him!
[There is nothing inherently wrong with What Would Jesus Do? as a mantra. It’s the same as any other exegesis. If we sloppily and uncritically ‘read ourselves into’ the Jesus we imagine, then our question will not yield us a good answer. Our question will also yield much less help if we approach it from an intensely individualist perspective, ignoring the Powers and our corporate responsibility.]
Our common experience also warns us to avoid a life lived in too much isolation. It also warns us that psychopathy, and all the forms of using people for our own ends, instead of living cooperatively and compassionately are destructive- not only of others, but also of ourselves. How life has lived has its consequences.
What Jesus adds to this mix, is its relationship to the notion of the kingdom, and that final reality we call God. His tradition, and ours, says that all this we have talked about goes beyond psychologically healthy living. It goes beyond a community not essentially concerned with the divine. It goes beyond following the example of a good man or woman.
The effect of entering the ‘narrow door,’ this disciplined Jesus-based living, is to enter what the gospel writers called ‘kingdom.’ It is to enter consciousness of a reality that is not yet, but sometimes is now. We get glimpses. Living according to it's precepts is transforming, liberating, and transcendent. It brings us into an experience of a wider, deeper reality where words begin to fail, and our normal categories have a certain incompetence. This is especially true of the narrowly defined methodologies of experimental science which shape much modern thinking.
Jesus is saying this reality can be lost. There can come a point when, even if we realise what we are missing, it is too late to come back to it.
There are three things with which I want to conclude.
In this life, before the death of the body, I have seen enough horror to be deeply committed to the truth of this. That is, don’t miss out! There is glory to be had, and there is also the potential to be left with soul crushing regrets about a wasted life.
Secondly, I have seen the most remarkable transformation of elderly folk who lived lives that had seemed hugely toxic to themselves and others. Grace and healing are a reality.
Finally, if an ‘us’ somehow survives bodily death, I can see no inherent reason why that ‘us’ might not be separated from God. But Jesus’ lament in the reading for this week, and the implications of his life “casting out demons and performing cures” suggest we might have to work rather hard to achieve this.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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