This reflection is based on Luke 13:22-30.
There’s something paradoxical about the Gospel reading today. On the one hand, we’re encouraged to “strive to enter through the narrow gate,” but that not all will succeed and many of us will, in fact, have the door of the kingdom shut before our very faces. In almost the same breath, however, we are told that people from every possible direction will “recline at the table of the kingdom of God.” It sounds suspiciously like there’s another access to the kingdom that isn’t as narrow and selective as the front door!
So, what’s going on here? Either the Lord has, in spite of himself, gotten self-contradictory here, or heaven simply has a blatant set of double standards. Is there actually a wide-open backdoor to heaven?
As it turns out, there is neither self-contradiction nor double standards here. You could say that there really is just one gate to get into the kingdom, and it’s one helluva narrow door. Our Lord tells us the secret to get through it, and it’s not what we think. “Many will attempt to enter,” Jesus says, “but will not be strong enough!”
Strength? Doesn’t it require patience or ingenuity to squeeze through a tiny pathway–at least physically speaking? In a spiritual sense, my guess is that it would take humility to get through heaven’s narrow door. We need to make ourselves small not only before the eyes of God, but also in our own and others’. We need to humble ourselves–be “poor in spirit”, as Jesus invites us in the Beatitudes–before the kingdom of God can be ours.
Come to think of it, it does take strength to be humble. It’s so much hipper and cooler these days to be “in-your-face” confident. Worse, it’s so much more hilarious to make fun of people and to put them down–and the more outrageous and out-of-line you get, the louder the cheers and the applause from the unthinking mob. It’s heartbreaking to see how arrogant and egotistic people get away with murder. And it’s just as heartbreaking to see the more decent and discerning among us look away or just keep mum. It takes every ounce of strength to resist the temptation of pride not only because it’s so fashionable in this day and age, but also because it seems so much more effective to get the work done.
I say this because I struggle with this temptation every single day. In doing my work, I deal with people, and people, by their very nature, complicate life. Writing my dissertation was hard work, but it was simple work because I was working alone. Once we work with people, we can’t help but get entangled with every sort of things we’d rather do without, whether it’s people’s lack of competence, lack of integrity, or especially lack of humility. And my knee jerk reaction is to judge them, in the process, unwittingly enthroning myself as superior to them.
In my most exasperated moments, I catch myself thinking: “Why can’t people just be as competent, as honest, and as humble as me?”
Yes, I know what you’re thinking–and I agree: What a terrible and conceited thought indeed! By reacting to others and judging them, I have fallen into the trap of pride.
So my point is, it takes a lot of strength to stay humble. But as if it’s not hard enough to work hard to squeeze through that narrow door, we also need to exert every effort to keep our hearts wide open to others–including the very people we can’t stand! I hate to admit it, but there are people I’d rather, for various reasons, exclude in my life: people I prefer not to work with because they’re difficult and tedious, or even persons I’d rather not deal with because they’ve hurt me in the past or they are potentially harmful.
But an essential part of being humble, it seems, is being forgiving, tolerant, and inclusive: Yes, people have hurt us, but we need to forgive them because we ourselves have been beneficiaries of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Yes, some people are truly intolerable, but we have to be patient with them because each day of our lives, we are recipients of the Divine Patience. And finally, it’s sometimes much safer for us if some people are written off (or even black-listed!), but we need to strive to be as inclusive as God’s all-embracing love in spite of how people are.
The paradox is that to enter through the narrow door of heaven, we need to fling the doors of our hearts wide open to people from every possible direction.
It’s tough, isn’t it? No wonder our Lord tells us that it takes strength to go through the narrow gate. Let’s pray for that strength today: the strength to be humble, forgiving, and inclusive.