“Years ago, before Korea was divided, a theological professor from Yale visited a mission in northern Korea. He wanted to preach in a country church, so the mission sent him with a missionary interpreter to a rural Korean village where no English was spoken. The professor began his sermon, “All (Christian) thought is divided into two categories, the concrete and the abstract.”
The Korean interpreter looked at the tiny congregation sitting with eager attention on the floor of the little church—toothless grandmothers, barefoot schoolboys, mothers holding babies — and made a quick decision. “Dear friends,” he translated, “I have come all the way from America to tell you about the Lord Jesus Christ.” [Samuel Moffet, Christianity Today [11/14/94], p. 55]
The preacher went on, “Jesus’ teachings that are concrete, almost all of us can understand.” The interpreter interpreted this way: Jesus teaches us how to understand what God instructs. The preacher: Even for the Christian, more abstract teachings of Jesus Christ are difficult to grasp and construct concretely. The interpreter: The door to heaven is narrow and only Jesus Christ can show us the way. It went on from there in the same manner with the sermon basically being preached by the interpreter hoping to make sense for those hearers in the little, rural church.
We may feel like that when reading Scripture. We need an interpreter to explain it to us. Or to soften the blow! There are some very difficult passages in scripture with which to struggle. For instance, read some of the Psalms; they are far from all beautiful. In Judges, chapter 4, a woman named Jael drives a tent peg through the temple of someone’s head and there is complete slaughter of men, women and children in villages unlucky enough to be in the way of the Israelis. There is quite a bit of violence in Scripture.
The Book of Acts chapters 2 and 4, the faithful in Jerusalem following Jesus after his resurrection and ascension, sells all their possessions so that they would all be held in common. What do we do with that in our capitalist society? Jesus withers a poor fig tree that is not producing fruit during a season it wouldn’t be producing fruit, just to make a point. A Gentile woman comes to Jesus begging for his help and he turns her away at first until she likens herself to dog that would eat crumbs under the table. It is only then that he notices her faith and heals her even though she is a Gentile. The Book of Revelation consists of end-time images that we can’t possibly identify with yet alone understand for our lives today. I could go on and on but you get the idea. What do we do with these, and so many more, passages? Well, we don’t throw them out with the bathwater. Instead, we struggle with them.
A difficult passage, at least for me, is found in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 13, verses 22-35: our passage for this morning. There is irony and paradox running throughout and it doesn’t seem to jive with our notions of God’s love, grace and mercy. I suppose if you read this passage literally, that some Christians seem to do without much thought and not in context, it may seem straight forward. The first part of our passage in the Gospel of Luke chapter 13, that I am mostly focusing on today, says that the way to get to heaven is through a very narrow door and you may not get through that door. To clarify at once, the verse doesn’t say ‘hell’ anywhere in it although, it does proclaim that those who don’t enter heaven will “cry and gnash” their teeth. They will, after all, be separated from God however that takes place.
Exploring this passage, in the first verse, vs 22, and explained further in verses 31-35, the reader is told that Jesus is on his journey to Jerusalem and his death. That is a shock. Jesus is the great healer, teacher, prophet and only child of God. He is going to die? . . . God dies? That is very paradoxical for the Lord is thought of as the living Lord and eternal. This behavior of a Messiah is not at all in line with what the Israelites think they were promised. That Messiah would come and conquer the conquerors, the Romans, and Israel would be free. It is important to note that Jesus is referring to the Israelites here. He is responding to a Jew who asks him the question of whether or not many or few will be saved. Jesus is talking about believers. There is no specific reference to non-believers in this passage. He is talking to those who believe and follow the God of Israel. However, this passage is often used to judge non-believers and, from my study, that doesn’t seem to be the case here. In its context, this passage puts the onus to follow on the path to that narrow door on believers.
In verse 23, Jesus really doesn’t answer the question directly with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for many entering. He launches into an ironic explanation that reverses what has been taught in Jewish Law which is that the people of Israel are to follow the Law and then, they will receive salvation. In this passage, the people of Israel may be following the Law of Moses, the hundreds of commands given in the Old Testament books of Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus, but most of them are not following Jesus as Prophet, let alone as Savior. Ultimately then, the chosen of God will not enter into eternal life with God, in this passage. Others will come to take their place. Luke seems most interested in Israel’s rejection of the Gospel message with the subsequent inclusion of the Gentiles, non-Jews. We must remember that Jesus originally came to save the lost people of Israel. Here is one struggle with this passage. Why would the faithful not receive salvation?
Another struggle is in a confusing aspect of our passage reading that those who try and call upon Jesus’ name, Lord, Lord, still may not enter. The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary explains that this teaching means “Whether one enters (the door to eternal life with God) depends in part on human freedom, one’s vigorous effort to reach salvation. Many will try, but few will succeed.” I don’t hear much grace in that explanation. How could Jesus turn the believer away if we at least try our best? What about mercy, forgiveness and generous, abundant love? This passage is paradoxical when compared with some other parts of the Gospels.
Next, the passage moves to another paradox in verse 25 for the door is not only narrow, but it closes- SLAM! The narrow door becomes the closed door. Doesn’t Jesus say in Matthew chapter 7, to knock and the door will be opened to you? Why is it now closing on some who try to enter it by believing? Jesus proclaims, presumably to the believer, “I do not know where you have come from.” In other words, “Who are you? I don’t know you.” Ironically, in the same Matthew chapter 7 I just mentioned with the open door, Jesus states believers will say “Lord, Lord,” but Jesus will turn them away not recognizing them as followers. We believers may come to that door and be turned away and others we think should be turned away, may enter! Yikes! What do we do with this?
There is mystery and ambiguity in these verses and perhaps it is best, although likely not satisfyingly so, to leave these verses as mystery and ambiguity. Certainly that would be true when trying to use them to judge others, Christian or not. Only Jesus, the master in the story, seems to know who will enter and who won’t. Even through the ambiguity and mystery, a point can be made to guide one’s life. Jesus admonishes his followers to strive to reach and go through the narrow door, before it closes. Jesus gives a warning of many surprising reversals for, and here he uses a saying found in a few other places in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, ‘the first will be last and the last first.’
As believers we follow Jesus’ admonishment to strive for the narrow door. It is helpful to briefly discover the Greek meaning for the word ‘strive.’ It refers to an athlete striving to be the best. An athlete can’t be passive and be the best she or he can be. They must work hard and diligently to reach their goal to be the best, and ultimately to win the prize. The athlete doesn’t say, “I (have) never worked out or run in a race until a few weeks ago. I thought it would be fun, so here I am.” The true athlete strives for the finish line with all her or his heart, mind, soul and strength, at all times. That is the way we are to strive for the narrow door.
“So, is there any hope for us?” you may think. Yes, of course there are many teachings that open the door for us to live with God eternally. God loves us so much as to die for us- that’s a vision of a more open door full of grace. Jesus teaches forgiveness 7 times 70, like the forgiving father greets his prodigal son home. In the Parable of the Generous Vineyard Owner, Jesus teaches that God, who is the vineyard owner, gives to each the same measure of generosity whether one comes to the work early or late and we’re not sure how late we can come as believers. We read in that God shows no partiality in Acts chapter 10, Romans chapter 2 and Galatians chapter 2. God shows no partiality in love and care for all of creation and creation includes believers and non-believers. There are many more such examples.
The point of this passage is not to judge others, not to proclaim that he or she isn’t good enough or faithful enough to enter but it is a forceful encouragement to strive for the goal to enter. We don’t earn our salvation that way. The point is to respond to our salvation, wholeheartedly and throughout our lives. The judging is up to Jesus Christ, God. All we can do is seek to positively respond and be transformed into the image of Christ within us.
In the latter half of our 2 Lucan passages, Jesus laments what will happen to Israel, Jerusalem in particular, for they will turn from him and kill him much like the prophets of old. All Jesus wants to do is gather them to him much as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings when danger, like the presence of a fox, is nearby. This female image for God is found other places in Scripture in its nurturing, caring, and protecting image. Jesus is sad about his coming death at the hands of many of his own people.
You may find that there is mystery and ambiguity found in chapter 13 of Luke in our verses. It leaves us with more questions than answers. Again, that doesn’t mean that we throw these teachings out. Instead, it means that we struggle with them. Even with Jesus in our lives, God remains part mystery. We cannot know fully that which is so much greater than ourselves. We can only strive, mightily, for that narrow door and rely on God’s good judgement, loving kindness and gracious forgiveness in this life and beyond.
How do we strive? We strive, as we reflect during this Season of Lent, on the way we treat others, the way we respond to lies and slander of others, the way we show the love and mercy of Jesus, the way we take time to study God’s Word, the way we are able to say what we believe to others, and to question if we take enough time for God in our daily lives or not. People of God, continue to strive for life lived fully in Jesus Christ during this Lent Season. Do not give up if your faith becomes too hard. Rely on the strength and comfort of the Holy Spirit to get you through the ups and the downs of life for we strive for an extremely important goal- to be with God eternally.