Jesus passed through towns and villages,
teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem.
Someone asked him,
"Lord, will only a few people be saved?"
He answered them,
"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.
And you will say,
'We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.'
Then he will say to you,
'I do not know where you are from.
Depart from me, all you evildoers!'
And 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.
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.
For behold, some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last."
Something to bear in mind about the question Jesus received ― “will only a few people be saved?” ― is that the questioner is asking Jesus to weigh in on a common dispute among Jews from that time. Remember that the Jews understood themselves as God’s “chosen people,” his special nation among all the nations of the earth. In the mind of the person asking this question, only Jews could be saved. Their real question is this: were all Jews part of the chosen people? Even the adulterers and murderers who called themselves Jewish? Would they too be saved? Not all rabbis agreed on the answer to that question. In the scenes leading up to this moment, John the Baptist and Jesus had been warning people about the dire consequences to some of their actions. It makes sense that the crowds would wonder if these consequences included exclusion from God’s chosen ones.
The first thing to see in Jesus’ response is his insistence that one’s Judaism ― in a purely ethnic sense ― will not admit them into the Kingdom of Heaven. Insofar as the questioner presupposes that only Jews can be saved, their question is the wrong question. And so Jesus’ response insists that not only can Jews “attempt to enter [the Kingdom] but [then] not be strong enough,” but people from all the other non-Jewish Gentile nations, “from the east and from the west and from the north and the south, will recline at the table in the Kingdom of God.” It is important to see that, in this passage, Jesus is not really commenting on the population of heaven as much as he’s commenting on the kind of people who end up there. And his basic point is not that heaven is crowded or empty, but that it’s populated by more than just Jews. This helps explain the little parable Jesus offers. When “the master” comments that he does not know these people who are knocking and expecting entry into the Kingdom, notice that they insist they “ate and drank in [his] company.” This is their way of saying, “We are Jews like you! We ate the Passover with you! You taught in our streets! What do you mean you don’t know us?!” Let’s set aside the irony that the same people who accused Jesus of being “a glutton and a drunkard” for dining with sinners and tax-collectors (Lk 7:34) are now eager to recall their meals with him. Jesus’ broader point is clear: Yes, the Jews are God’s chosen people, but that is not the sole criterion for entry into the Kingdom.
So then how does one enter through the narrow gate? What does it mean to participate in the Kingdom? Jesus’ parable insists that those in the Kingdom are known by the master of the house. He recognizes them, like you might recognize your friend unexpectedly in the market. This is a claim that is, in one sense, frightening and, in another, exciting. It’s frightening because we can be just as naive as the person who questioned Jesus to start our reflection. We don’t really believe that, just because we come to church, just because we “eat and drink in his company” each Sunday, that the Lord necessarily knows who we are, do we? The frightening theme to this week’s gospel is the possibility that, when all is said and done, when I meet my maker, we might not recognize each other.
But the flip side to that warning includes a marvelous invitation. Namely that being familiar with the Lord ― speaking with him from my heart, opening my wounds to him, revealing my fears to him, dining with him in the Eucharist and not just mechanically receiving him, confessing my weakness to him, meditating upon his life ― these acts of familiarity with Jesus mean that he knows me ― he’s heard my voice and my story ― and this familiarity is already the beginning of my participation in the Kingdom of Heaven.
It’s a very homely image for Jesus to use ― Jesus says the master will recognize us. Think of seeing your close friend after many years. Think of the familiarity and excitement you feel at their sight. This is how Jesus describes the first look between God and the person who’s just died ― they recognize each other even though they’ve never fully met, and not because of their human ancestry, and not merely because he or she was in the pew each Sunday, but because they are somehow old and familiar friends.