“I come to gather nations of every language…brothers and sisters from all the nations.” Such is Isaiah’s description of the in-gathering of the faithful from north and south, east and west, all worshiping on God’s holy mountain; invited by God, brought in by God. It is a compelling vision.
Some people understand this to reveal that in the end God will save everyone; no one will be left out. That is certainly a comforting understanding that lets you sleep nights, but not one shared by the questioner in today’s gospel. He asked: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” One wonders about the motivation for the question. Is he concerned that there are but a few seats at the final banquet in heaven.? Is he concerned that the cost of admission is too high – or at least a price he might be unwilling to pay? It is the reaction of the rich young man who, upon hearing the cost, walks away sad.
Jesus’ response does nothing to assuage or comfort the questioner: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” Matthew’s gospel is similar and includes something about the wide gate: “Enter through the narrow gate for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction and those who enter through the wide gate are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.” (Mt 7:13)
While Isaiah’s vision is amazing and compelling, Jesus’ response indicates that the problem is not inadequate seats at the banquet table, but the cost of admission is too high for some. But what is all this about wide and narrow gates?
In the marketplaces of East Africa – Mombassa, Nairobi, similar to the markets of Jesus’ day – the walled marketplaces have many entrances. The daytime gates are wide open to whoever and whatever. The night gates are small and guarded – only those who belong pass through. Our churches are entered through the wide gate. As G.K. Chesterton said about the Catholic Church: here comes everybody.
The “wide gate” lets you come to Mass or prayer – kinda’ slipping in with the crowd, anonymous, no one asking you questions about who you are, why you’re here and what you hope for. You attend Mass – fully actively participating – or not. You receive the sacraments approaching the altar to whisper our “Amen.” We are at the earthly table of the Eucharist. We are close to Jesus. And that’s good, right?
We leave after Mass and try to live good lives. We are good people, right? We keep the commandment. And along with the rich young man we ask, “Lord, what else must I do to earn eternal life?” Did I just describe good people who journey through life on broad avenues and enter via wide gates? How will this story end as we arrive at the eternal banquet and knock on the door crying out “Lord open the door… we ate and drank in your company” – announcing our arrival and expecting the gate to open wide for us. Will the reply from the other side of the locked door be “I do not know where you are from…” What happened? We were good and faithful Catholics, weren’t we? “What more does God want?”
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
But what if the Church had one small door manned day and night by a porter. What if you had to knock to enter and after knocking the porter began to ask you, “How was your week? How did you serve the Lord in love? How did you love the people that God loves?” – or other similar questions. What if you had to give an account of your week as you entered? There would be no anonymity; there would only be your thoughts, words, and deeds – a chance for you to examine your own heart for love’s trace, God’s touch. A chance to see how love has changed us, challenged us, called us ever onward to be whole, to be complete, to love even more more fully. Perhaps to ask ourselves, “what does God who is love want of me?” Why…. Love wants it all –your whole soul, mind, and body turned to God.
Perhaps that is not “natural” for us – now we can understand: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” Not strong enough, not virtuous enough. In our examen of the week at the porter’s gate we can realize we are so flawed, incomplete – and yet loved.
The Franciscan St. Bonaventure wrote that “Humility is the guardian and gateway of all the other virtues….and the first evidence of it is gratitude.”
To strive via the narrow gate is to be humble enough to engage a review of the hours of our day, our week, the passing, fleeting moments of our lives. The wide gate is the generic confession: “I lied.” The narrow gate is “I lied to this person about this thing because I was hoping to get this or avoid that.”
To strive via the narrow gate is to be humble enough to approach that person and ask for reconciliation. And when you get there you again choose your gate – the wide gate of “I’m sorry” (that’s about you and you alone – what about the other person?). Or the narrow gate of “please forgive me” and then be willing to wait in the moment of silence before the reply – an answer which might be “I forgive you” or might be “No, I’m not ready to forgive you.”
There are many more examples of the wide and narrow gates we face in each and every day of our journey to God. Moments when we choose, willing to be accountable, humble, strong enough to enter the narrow gates of what Love asks of us.
“I come to gather nations of every language…brothers and sisters from all the nations.” People who strive to live the common language of love – in their thoughts, in their deeds, and in their words. Flawed people who miss the mark, sometimes get it wrong, but are always willing to attempt the narrow gate. People who are saved in love, for love and because of love, by Love itself.
This is the people God calls. These are the people who will be saved. Those who knock on heaven’s door, to whom God replies – “I know you.”
May we be graced to choose and then to walk constricted roads and the narrow gates that lead to eternal life.