Thought for the day
For a long time, Western Christianity was marked by a deep pessimism. Most were surely going to hell! In sum, we seem to have moved from clarity and pessimism to agnosticism and optimism. A necessary rebalancing, of course, but with the attendant risk of complacency, convinced as we are, and ought to be, of God’s boundless mercy, love and compassion. These gifts, on the other hand, should not trigger a kind of lazy confidence but should invite even greater engagement, commitment and costly discipleship. God desires the whole person, all that I am.
God of costly love, help us to take up the path of discipleship and respond to your Son’s call by giving our whole selves to you and the Gospel. Amen.
Luke 13:22 Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. 23 Someone 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. 25 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.’ 26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 But he will say, ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’ 28 There 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. 29 Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. 30 Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
The reading is very challenging on at least two levels. The topic is some kind of contrast between those who feel they belong and those who actually get into the kingdom. The setting is quite hard especially in vv. 27-28. The other level of difficulty is ascertaining the traditions (plural) behind the text and trying to name their original settings within the ministry (it seems clear that the traditions gathered here were originally distinct sayings).
The traditions found here are dispersed in the other Gospels.
V. 22 = Luke only, because of the journey to Jerusalem theme.
V. 23 = Luke only, who often “provides” a questioner.
Vv. 24-26 = Matthew 7:13-14, 21-23 (Sermon on the Mount)
V. 28-29 = Matthew 8:11-12 (centurion’s servant)
V. 30 = Matthew 20:16; Mark 10:31
Kind of writing
It is a series of discrete teachings, taken from the common source of Matthew and Luke, known in scholarship as Q, with one saying coming from Mark. Q is made up almost entirely of sayings with a very strong wisdom and ethical emphasis. The form that lay behind both Matthew and Luke may have looked like this:
Q13:24 Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.
Q13:25-27 When once the householder has risen up and shut the door, you will begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us.’ He will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from,’ Then you will begin to say, we ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from; depart from me, all you workers of iniquity!’
Q13:28-29 You will weep and gnash your teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves thrust out. Men will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God.
Q13:30 Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.
Old Testament background
The text is largely about the inclusion of those without rights into the God’s redeemed people and some Old Testament passages are especially relevant.
Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon; Philistia too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia— “This one was born there,” they say. (Psalms 87:4)
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. (Isaiah 25:6–7)
The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. (Isaiah 52:10)
New Testament foreground
Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:23–27)
A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother.’” He replied, “I have kept all these since my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:18–25)
A reverse warning is given by Paul in Romans 11, worth citing at length:
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree. (Romans 11:17–24)
Verse 22 This is the first of several travel notes in Luke’s Jerusalem journey section of Luke 9-19; other notes appear at 17:11; 18:31; 19:28, 41.
Verse 23 The question is triggered by the warnings just given in the previous passage. It was also a question much discussed among the rabbis themselves.
Verse 24 “Strive” is very strong here (the verb means an athletic contest): Try your hardest (NJB); Exert every effort (NET); Make every effort (REB).
Verse 25 V. 25 doesn’t quite seem to follow from v. 24 and most likely reflects a distinct tradition (as in Matthew’s version). The narrow door symbolises the cost of discipleship. The pressure to use the present moment for that very struggle is underlined by the (future) shutting of that door (most likely indicating the second coming). The question remains as to why the Lord should reply in this way. An explanation is given in Matthew in context but the related tradition in Luke is found in Luke 6:46-49. Cf. “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.” (Luke 6:46–49)
Verse 26 The claim is to relationship without responsibility. It is quite difficult to imagine the original setting of such a saying, but it looks as if some sort of right of entrance through mere belonging (to Judaism?) is being asserted, perhaps in the light of openness to Gentiles.
Verse 27 Very severe, because Jews do know where they come from.
Verse 28 This sounds quite like Matthew, although his use of it in Mt 8 is surely an interpolation into that story. Weeping and gnashing statistics: 6-0-1+0. Clearly, it is Matthean.
Verse 29 A common vision of the kingdom, but now extended to all nations, irrespective of ethnic origin.
Verse 30 In context, this is a judgement against Jews (who used to be first) and for Gentiles (who used to be last).
Pointers for prayer
1. The question put to Jesus is one that many still ask: “Will many be saved?” In his answer Jesus is not concerned about numbers but warns his listeners about complacency. Just as his listeners could not regard the mere fact of being Jews as sufficient for salvation, neither can we regard being Christians as enough. That entitlement will come from our acceptance of Jesus. For any relationship to be alive – either with god or with another human person – the real question is “Is my heart in this relationship?” What does your experience tell you of this?
2. “Strive to enter by the narrow door”. Jesus himself is on his journey to Jerusalem, purposeful and determined. True followers of him will also be purposeful and determined. That is true in any journey, career, or relationship if there is to be growth or progress. What it is like for you when you fail to do this? What is it like for you when the effort is there?
To the banquet of your kingdom, O God of the nations, you have invited people of every race and tongue. May all who are called to a place at your table come, by the narrow way, to the unending feast of life.
We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.