21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
In today's first reading from the prophet Isaiah we have an image of an almost limitless line of people streaming toward Jerusalem, God's "holy mountain," a symbol of Heaven. The Lord says,
I come to gather nations of every language;
they shall come and see my glory.
Today's gospel reading from St. Luke gives us the same picture.
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.
You may recall that we have been in the third or "C" cycle of readings since the year began. In this cycle most of the gospel readings are from St. Luke's gospel. From the beginning it has been St. Luke's intention to depict our Lord's journey to Jerusalem. All year Jesus has been preaching, teaching, healing, and working wonders on His way. Today's reading begins this way:
Jesus passed through towns and villages,
teaching as He went and making His way to Jerusalem.
All along the way He has been asking His people, including us, to join Him on the journey.
Despite the vast numbers of those who will enter the Kingdom, there is a hint in both readings that some will not make it. There is even the strong suggestion that among those who will not make it are those who might have thought that they had it locked up. Isaiah says that the Lord will go outside the ranks of the "chosen people" to strangers in distant lands who "have never heard of my fame, or seen my glory." This reminds us of the parable where Jesus speaks of a King who, after the invited guests failed to show up, had to go out into "the highways and byways" to find guests for his banquet.
The message of today's gospel is equally clear. The master of the house has locked the door and some will be left out. This parable refers to the Jews, especially the Pharisees, of our Lord's time. They will see Abraham and the prophets at the great banquet but they, themselves, will fail to be admitted. Now, whenever Jesus speaks to the Jews and Pharisees we should realize that He is also speaking to us. For just like our Lord's contemporaries we also run the risk of being locked out of the banquet.
Now we shouldn't get the impression that Heaven is a kind of walled fortress that is almost impossible to enter. When our Lord compares it to a banquet, He means that it is happiness. He never says that we have to wait until death to find happiness. We can start the journey right now. In fact, it will be fatal to delay.
Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough.
It's hard to know exactly what He means by "narrow gate" but let's consider the words, "strive" and "strong." As He does on so many other occasions, Jesus says that concentrated effort along with constant preparedness is necessary to find happiness.
His saying brings to mind the Olympic games that are held every four years. Of all the athletes how many will be strong enough, fast enough, or skilled enough to reach the victor's podium? Talk about a narrow gate! Just think of all the athletes who will not even be eligible for their country's Olympic trials. Think about all those who will then fail to qualify at the trials. Finally, when they get to the Olympic games many world class favorites will falter and fail to realize their dream.
Whether winners or losers we know that all the participants will have put in incredible amounts of time and effort in pursuit of their goal. Even though TV cameras will only highlight the efforts of a few favorites, all of the athletes must believe in sacrifice and self discipline. At the last Olympics, for example, one young runner said that he had dreamt of the Olympics since he was nine years old, and had dedicated his whole life to getting there.
However, when it comes to our own lives, why are so many of us couch potatoes? What do we do to prepare ourselves for the great events that we will face in life's decathlon. Today's second reading is about discipline, the constant training and practice that is required to face life's hurdles and trials.
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.
How many of us in our business and professional careers go to countless workshops and seminars in order to strengthen and develop our skills. We learn and practice these skills in order to improve our performance. Yet, how often do we fail to apply these skills to our own personal quest for happiness? If discipline and self-sacrifice work in sports or business, why shouldn't they work in our personal journey?
Reading 1. Isaiah 66: 18-21
Reading II. 1 Hebrews 12: 5-7, 11-13
Gospel. Luke 13: 22-30 (the narrow gate).