by Pearl Maria Barros
It’s not every Sunday that you hear about “wailing and grinding of teeth” – thanks be to God. But this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 13:22-30) includes this rather unsettling phrase which is only followed by another slightly disconcerting one: “For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” What on earth or in heaven (or maybe a combo of the two) might all of this mean?
In the beginning of this week’s Gospel, Jesus is asked “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” to which he answers, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” When I was younger, all of this “narrow gate” business seemed intimately linked to an endless list of dos and don’ts. Do go to Mass every Sunday; don’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent. Do share your toys with your cousins; don’t talk back to your parents. The narrow gate was indeed hard to squeeze through: sometimes I wanted to sleep in on Sundays or keep my better toys for myself. “Why is Jesus so strict?” I’d ask myself as a child. “Why does he always seem to speak in riddles?” I’d wonder. Even as a child, I was confused as to why God who is Love would lock us all outside as we stood “knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’” Why can’t God just open the door? God is God, God can do anything. Why would God choose not to open the door?
I can’t say that I have found any definite answers to these questions that emerged in my childhood and remain with me today. But I can say that I’ve come to look at them differently. Firstly, if we return to the question that prompts this whole situation – “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” – I think that we might find some hope for those of us frantically knocking on the door. Indeed Jesus, as usual, addresses the people who surround him with an understanding of their socio-cultural situation and the symbolic universe that it helps to construct and maintain. Now, I am no expert on Judaism or any of the other religions operative in first-century (what is now) Palestine, but from my few classes in biblical studies I know that many people of Jesus’ time had a definite expectation of who would be saved and who would not be saved. Sound familiar? Yet Jesus challenges this expectation. He states instead that salvation is hard and that not many will make it through the narrow gate – even those who expected to get through it. In fact, he tells us that those who are first will be last and that those who are last will be first; those people who seem to be obvious getting-through-the-narrow-gate material may actually be last to get through it.
And there is the hope. Hope for us all, especially any of us who know how much work it takes just to inch our way through the gate. Perhaps, then, this Sunday’s Gospel calls us to ponder what it means to be saved. One suggestion it gives us sort of hidden between all of the questions and grinding of teeth is that being “saved” has something to do with being familiar with God for Jesus says, “He [the Lord] will say to you [the frantic door knockers] in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from.’” Maybe that’s a clue. Maybe this Sunday’s Gospel, like most of the Gospels, asks us to grow in our relationship with God and maybe that relationship is ultimately what gives us the grace to get through the narrow gate which is actually much wider than we expected.
Pearl Maria Barros is a doctoral student at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, MA.