The Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C - August 25, 2013
Though today's Gospel (Luke 13:22-30) may well be a loose collection of sayings of Jesus, uttered in several different contexts but brought together here under the general heading of "who will be saved," the overall tone of Jesus' meaning is clear: The good news is offered "whole and entire" and must be accepted in the same way.
Jesus words follow upon the parables of the kingdom (Luke 13:18-21) and stress that great effort is required for entrance into the kingdom (13:24) and that there is an urgency to accept the present opportunity to enter because the narrow door will not remain open indefinitely (13:25).
Behind the sayings is the rejection of Jesus and his message by his Jewish contemporaries (13:26) whose places at table in the kingdom will be taken by Gentiles from the four corners of the world (13:29). Those called last (the Gentiles) will precede those to whom the invitation to enter was first extended (the Jews).
Lord, who will be saved?
The question to Jesus really is: "Will only a few be saved?" Jesus answers by saying that the initiation is open but the way into the kingdom is narrow and demands more than casual interest. In fact, the "door of opportunity" will not remain forever open. God's purpose moves toward the eschaton, and when the door is closed, it is closed.
This door will certainly not be reopened for persons who only claim is that Jesus once visited their towns and villages or preached in their streets or that they once saw Jesus and a crowd or encountered members of his family. Such appeals are not only futile but also self-incriminating because their opportunities carried obligations.
Added to the pain of sitting before a closed door will be the sight of large numbers who are admitted, not only the expected ones among Israel's ancient faithful but also the unexpected Gentiles who heard and believed. It provides Israel and us opportunity to assess where we stand in relation to the Kingdom of God.
What does it mean to be saved?
To be saved as Christians, we must acknowledge Jesus now as master. From today's Gospel we learn that Jesus may not recognize everyone who bears the name "Christian," but he will recognize immediately all those whose lives bear the stamp of "Christian." Each of us must re-think whatever notions we have of the kingdom of God, of who will be saved. Those we think least likely to enter may be the first to do so, and vice-versa.
Salvation is a life-long journey and along the way we are found and chosen by God. On the journey we become friends with God and with one another, and enter more deeply into the holy mystery of God. Furthermore, the whole transformative journey is made in love.
Salvation through Jesus Christ
The difficulties that sometimes accompany our efforts of evangelization revolve around the problem of the salvation of those who do not visibly belong to the Church. In his brilliant encyclical letter "Redemptoris Missio," Pope John Paul II wrote that the gift of salvation cannot be limited "to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all." And, in admitting that it is concretely impossible for many people to have access to the Gospel message, the Pope stated: "Many people do not have the opportunity to come to know or accept the Gospel revelation or to enter the Church. The social and cultural conditions in which they live do not permit this, and frequently they have been brought up in other religious traditions" (No. 10).
We must never justify the relativistic position of many today who maintain that a way of salvation can be found in any religion, even independently of faith in Christ the Redeemer, and that interreligious dialogue must be based on this ambiguous idea. That solution to the problem of the salvation of those who do not profess the Christian creed is not in conformity with the Gospel. Rather, we must maintain that the way of salvation always passes through Christ, and therefore the Church and her missionaries have the task of making him known and loved in every time, place and culture. Apart from Christ "there is no salvation."
As Peter proclaimed before the Sanhedrin at the very start of the apostolic preaching: "There is no other name in the whole world given to men by which we are to be saved" (Acts 4:12).
Are you saved?
Has anyone ever asked you if you have been saved? Several years ago, I was walking in downtown Toronto to an evening event, dressed in my clerical suit and engrossed in thought when a small group of street people met me and struck up a conversation. "Hey, Reverend, have you been saved?" It was the last thing I needed to hear that evening! I told them that I wasn't able to answer their question. My mind was on the talk I was to deliver later that evening to Catholic business leaders at a dinner function. One of them replied: "You Catholics aren't saved, and you don't know what it means!”
That whole encounter got me thinking. Such questions about being saved are never put to me in theological faculties or Church meetings. I am often asked if I have been saved at downtown street corners, or at the entrance to a large shopping mall in downtown Toronto. I say to myself: "Are they not simply poorly educated, unsophisticated street folks, or fundamentalists who rudely break into my quiet space with their impertinent questions?"
Nevertheless their question is one that must be dealt with, especially for us Catholics who aren't often versed in the biblical language of salvation and who are not used to providing an answer to such an essential question. The next time we are asked if we have been saved, we might do well to ponder the idea a bit, and we may be pleasantly surprised at the results of our reflections.
The architect of the Christian faith
In today's second reading from the letter to the Hebrews (12:5-7, 11-13), Christian life is to be inspired not only by the Old Testament men and women of faith (12:1), but above all by Jesus. As the architect of Christian faith, he had himself to endure the cross before receiving the glory of his triumph (12:2). Reflection on his sufferings should give us courage to continue the struggle, if necessary even to the shedding of blood (12:3-4). Christians should regard their own sufferings as the affectionate correction of the Lord, who loves them as a father loves his children.
Praying for the salvation of others
On Aug. 28, the Church remembers St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine. If anyone every prayed for the salvation of a loved one, it was Monica. I have met many parents who confided in me their concerns and worries for their children. I speak of Monica to each of them, reminding them that she is a great intercessor for parents, and children, in distress. Monica undoubtedly often asked herself the question: "When and how will my son be saved?" as she waited with great perseverance and patience for her son Augustine's conversion.
Monica had many reasons to worry about her son. At 18, Augustine had a mistress and a child. Then, Augustine joined the religious cult of the Manichees. Preaching to Augustine didn't work and disowning him only drove him away. When she asked a bishop to intervene, he gave her a different answer than she expected: "Let him be. Simply pray for him." So she prayed -- even when God seemed to ignore her. Augustine sailed for Rome though she had begged God to stop him. But God knew her real prayer -- and in Rome Augustine learned enough to reject the Manichees, but he still was not a Christian.
Patience, fidelity and hope
Monica was a popular saint in whom we see several important characteristics: patience -- first with her husband and then with her son who exhibited quite dysfunctional behavior as we would call it today! It was only in the last year of her life that Augustine converted to Christianity. Monica was a model of fidelity -- she trusted in Providence and lived with so much obscurity and ambiguity. She was also a model of hope -- in a moving conversation in Ostia with her son, they both gazed out over the sea and reflected on the real questions of life and death. Listen to Augustine's words from his Confessions about his mother's persevering faith:
"The day was now approaching when my mother Monica would depart from this life; you knew that day, Lord, though we did not... My mother said: 'Son, as far as I am concerned, nothing in this life now gives me any pleasure. I do not know why I am still here, since I have no further hopes in this world. I did have one reason for wanting to live a little longer: to see you become a Catholic Christian before I died. God has lavished his gifts on me in respect, for I know that you have even renounced earthly happiness to be his servant."'
Monica's prayers and her quiet, consistent and loving witness bore fruit for all the church: Augustine was baptized in 387 and became bishop of Hippo in North Africa less than ten years later. It was only in the last year of her life that Augustine converted to Christianity. It had taken 33 years but God answered her prayers in a way she never expected -- Augustine became a saint and a doctor of the Church.
As we remember and celebrate the life of this holy mother, let us give thanks for the ordinary faith of our parents and friends, who have been for us models of great faith, fidelity, patience and hope. Such people help us to desire and taste salvation here and now.
[The readings for 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time are Isaiah 66:18-21; Psalm 117; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30
This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2010 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled "Words made Flesh," is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.
(Photo courtesy CNS/Crosiers)