This coming weekend celebrates the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time during Lectionary Cycle C. Today we consider a reflection from the Scripture scholar Alan Culpepper, who, at the end of his commentary [277-78], provides an interesting story from Franz Kafka:
His parable “Before the Law” is the story of a man from the country who seeks admission to the Law. When the doorkeeper tells him he may not enter, he looks through the open door, but the doorkeeper warns him that he is just the first of a series of doorkeepers, each one more terrible than the one before. So the man waits for the doorkeeper’s permission to enter. For days and then years, the man talks with the doorkeeper, answers his questions, and attempts to bribe him, but with no success. The doorkeeper takes the man’s bribes, saying he is only doing so in order that the man will not think he has neglected anything. As the man lies dying, he sees a radiance streaming from the gateway to the Law. Thinking of one question he has not asked, he beckons the doorkeeper and asks him why in all those years no one else has come to that gate. The doorkeeper responds: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. Now I am going to shut it.”
There is an incompleteness one experiences after reading the “Before the Law.” It seems as though the man from the country is caught in a terrible institutional “catch-52,” unable to enter the very gate prepared only for him. Some might quickly focus on the gatekeeper as representative of the worse parts of organized religious, or the trap of fear implied in series of other terrible gatekeeper, or other parts of the parable.
There is also an incompleteness – or better said – mystery in Jesus’ parable in which the who and how many are never answered to the reader’s satisfaction. But Jesus is clear on several points: one must strive. As noted before, striving with an athlete’s power and intention is seeking an Olympic medal. The man from the country in Kafka’s parable waits for “the Law” to come to him.
All of this points to questions that have bedeviled Christianity since its foundation: what is the balance of grace, election, free will, the action to which people are called, and so much more. Perhaps even if Christian denominations will never agree on the theological balance or answers, we can agree that one should never presume upon God’s grace or God’s gifts.
Perhaps this parable asks us to take this attitude in life: strive as though admission to the kingdom depended entirely on your own doing, but know that ultimately it depends on God’s grace.