This coming weekend celebrates the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time during Lectionary Cycle C. Our reading continues Jesus’ formation of his disciples for their time to take up the mission of the proclamation of the kingdom of God. Jesus makes several references to the seriousness of the proclamation of God’s reign and to the need for a sober decision of discipleship to undertake the journey to Jerusalem with Jesus, a journey that will end in suffering and death (Luke 9:22–23).
23 Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” He answered them, 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. 25 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.’
It has been quipped that most young people are said to believe in a hell where nobody goes. Among the middle aged there are those who think hell largely populated by enemies. And among the old are believers who nervously wonder if hell might be populated by the likes of themselves. They, like St. Paul at some moments, consider the question of their salvation “in fear and trembling.”
Jesus’ answer did not likely comfort the person who asked. Rather than responding to the question of how few will be saved, Jesus remarks instead on how many will not be saved: for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. The image of the narrow gate stands in contrast with the broad way (e.g. Mt 7:13-14) and was an ethical teaching image common in Jewish and Christian thought (Jer 21:8; Ps 1:6; 4 Ezra 7:1–9; Didache 1–6).
What was presented as a question about the future, is suddenly turned into a response about what is happening at this very moment. ““Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” As many commentaries point out, the verb tense of “strive” is in the present using a common athletic metaphor. Both the Greek and Hellenistic Judaism used the term with respect to the practice of virtue and obedience to the law of God. [Green, 530] The image of an athlete striving to win a race is also found in 1 Tim 4:10; 6:12; 2 Tim 4:7.