While traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus preached in the towns and villages. Someone asked whether God would save only a few. Jesus answered that the door to the Kingdom of God is narrow and hard to enter. Many will try to go in but will not be sturdy enough. Only those who “strive” will enter. When God would reject some disciples who worked for the Kingdom of God, they might complain on their rejection. Their dissatisfaction would be high when they notice that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the prophets, and even the Gentiles remain inside the Kingdom while God would cast them out. A passive discipleship is not enough. We have to strive with dedication and commitment to inherit the Kingdom.
(Luke 13:22) Jesus went through towns and villages teaching and making his way to Jerusalem. (23) Someone asked him, “Lord, is it true that only a few people will be saved?” And Jesus answered, (24) “Do your best to enter by the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. (25) Once the master of the house has got up and locked the door, you will stand outside; then you will knock at the door calling: ‘Lord, open to us.’ But he will say to you: ‘I do not know where you come from.’ (26) Then you will say: We ate and drank with you and you taught in our streets! (27) But he will reply: ‘I do not know where you come from. Get away from me all you workers of evil.’ (28) You will weep and grind your teeth when you see Abraham and Jacob and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God, and you yourselves left outside. (29) But others will come and sit at table in the Kingdom of God, people coming from east and west, from north and south. (30) Some who are among the last will be the first, and some who are first will be last.”
(Luke 13:22) Jesus went through towns and villages teaching and making his way to Jerusalem.
Though Jesus had gone to Jerusalem several times, this last journey there was to offer himself for crucifixion, the perfect sacrifice for people’s salvation. Through his exemplary life, Jesus showed how to enter the Kingdom of God through the narrow door. Jesus made use of his last journey to Jerusalem also to inform the people of their last chance to change their life journey towards God by choosing the tough path instead of the effortless way of selfish life.
While traveling to Jerusalem, Jesus taught in towns and villages. He used to preach in Jerusalem, where many used to gather for sacrifices, especially for the pilgrimage feasts. Jesus also used to preach in the synagogues on Sabbath where people used to gather to listen to the Word of God and worship. However, he went to towns and villages to reach out to the non-believers, Gentiles and those who could not travel to the synagogue or the Temple.
(23) Someone asked him, “Lord, is it true that only a few people will be saved?” And Jesus answered.
The concern of the questioner was on the number of people who would attain salvation rather than his own salvation or that of his people. According to the popular teaching of the time, all the Jews would inherit the Kingdom of God because they were the covenant people. The Gentiles were not eligible for salvation. However, Jesus’ teaching differed from that. So, the person who raised the question had a doubt on how many would inherit heaven. Jesus did not give a direct answer to the quantity. Instead, he focused on how the questioner and other listeners could gain salvation. However, he implied the answer at the end.
(24) “Do your best to enter by the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.”
“Strive” is the key word here. It is not an easy entry through a wide door but requires maximum effort. We can compare it to an athlete who does strenuous preparations to win the contest. St. Paul clarified this, “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” (1 Cor. 9:25). Again, he says: “Fight the good fight for the true faith.” (1 Tim 6:12a).
A few or many who would gain salvation depend upon how many would strive to enter through the narrow door. Many would prefer the wide and easy door that does not require any struggle. Some others might try to enter through the narrow entrance but might not be strong in their persistence. During the public ministry of Jesus, many who followed him left him because his teachings were too difficult for them to comprehend, especially his teaching on the Holy Eucharist (John 6:66). Later in the early church, many who had joined the church left it because of severe persecution from the Jews and Romans. They also had pressure from their family members to give up their faith.
Another reason for the failure of those who wish to enter through the narrow door might be their delay to act on time before their death. God can shut the door of life at an unexpected time. So, we cannot procrastinate conversion or reconciliation with others. A Christian should have constant dedication and commitment for the church and the people. We see such lifestyle in the lives of many saints like St. Paul, St. Augustine, Fr. Damien of Molokai, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 14:6) and he is the gate of the sheep (John 10:7). He reentered heaven through the narrow gate. He told his disciples, “If anyone wants to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24). Jesus came not to eliminate our cross but to help us carry our life burdens with him. Only through him can we enter the lost Paradise. Any attempt to reach God without Christ would be a failure.
(25) Once the master of the house has got up and locked the door, you will stand outside; then you will knock at the door calling: ‘Lord, open to us.’ But he will say to you: ‘I do not know where you come from.’
The narrow door for salvation shall not remain open for long. God entrusted Jesus as the master of His house. He who sits at the right hand of the Father, would one day arise, and lock the door to heaven. This can be the end of our life in the earth. So, the time of repentance and entry through the narrow door is now and we cannot postpone it.
Once the end of life happens, the focus is not the narrow entrance but Jesus who is the master of the house. He is the mediator through whom the judgement would take place. People would ask Jesus to open the door for them. They come close to the door of heaven. But since they are late, they miss the opportunity to enter and the door would remain shut. So those who postpone reconciliation or those who are passive in action for the Kingdom cannot enter the heaven.
Jesus would answer to those who would knock at the door, “I do not know where you come from.” We shall not take this in a literal sense. Jesus knows them because he is an omniscient God. The meaning is that they do not belong to him. They were attending church services, including preaching and worship. But they did not strive to practice his teaching in life like the Good Samaritan did in helping the helpless person. Like the foolish virgins who waited for the bridegroom without oil, they were cooperative but were irresponsible servants.
(26) Then you will say: We ate and drank with you and you taught in our streets!
This could mean the contemporaries of Jesus who ate with him at the house of Zacchaeus, Lazarus, or any other location. This also might include those who listened to his preaching in many places. It could also mean those who took part in the Eucharistic meal in the church and listened to the Word of God. But there was no Christian outcome in their actions outside the church, especially in their dealing with their family members and community. Just being a Christian is not enough to inherit the Kingdom, but we should produce good fruits in our lives. Christian behavior, which comes out of our participation in the redemptive mystery of Jesus, will be the basis of Christ’s judgement.
(27) But he will reply: ‘I do not know where you come from. Get away from me all you workers of evil.’
Christ will say, “I do not know where you are from” followed by the firm command, “Depart from me.” This is like the last judgement wordings Jesus gives in the gospel of Matthew. “Then he will say to those on his left: ‘Go away from me, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels! For I was hungry and you did not give me anything to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink; I was a stranger and you did not welcome me into your house; I was naked and you did not clothe me; I was sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’” (Matthew 25:41-43). A Christian who disregards the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, or prisoner is “cursed,” and considered as an “evil doer.” Just as Jesus called the Scribes and the Pharisees hypocrites, he would consider the same for those who do not practice Christian charity.
(28) You will weep and grind your teeth when you see Abraham and Jacob and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God, and you yourselves left outside.
The Jews were proud of their patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They believed that since they were the offspring of these patriarchs, God guarantees their salvation. But according to Jesus, he would reject the Jews who do not accept him as the savior while the patriarchs will be in his kingdom. Salvation comes not by the Jewish lineage but by the practice of faith based on Jesus’ teachings.
The Jews and their ancestors had persecuted the prophets whom God sent to direct them to the right path of salvation. They will see the prophets, whom they rejected and persecuted, also in the Kingdom of God.
“You yourselves cast out,” expresses shame and agony for the Jews when they would see this happen beyond their expectation. Those whom Jesus selects will be in the Kingdom of God, where “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There shall be no more death, and no more mourning or crying or pain, for those old things have all passed away.” (Rev. 21:4). In contrast, those whom Jesus would deny heaven, would end up in a place of horror. “As for the cowards, the traitors, the depraved, the murderers, the adulterers, the sorcerers, the idolaters and liars of every kind, their place is the lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Rev. 21:8).
The phrase, “wailing and grinding of teeth,” expresses severe anguish because of their rejection from the Kingdom of God. Grinding of teeth is a physical expression of deep physical pain or mental agony. It can also happen because of anger, as with St. Stephen’s trial when the members of the Jewish council “were enraged and they gnashed their teeth at Stephen.” (Acts 7:54). It expresses anger and dishonor.
(29) But others will come and sit at table in the Kingdom of God, people coming from east and west, from north and south.
The people from the four corners of the world represent the Gentiles who would also recline at the table in the Kingdom of God. This is the fulfillment in Isaiah 43:5, 45:6, and 49:12 that people of all nations would inherit the Kingdom. Jesus commissioned his disciples: “Go, therefore, and make disciples from all nations.” (Matthew 28:19a). The sin of building the Tower of Babel caused the dispersal of the unified people into 70 nations. God will gather those people from all directions and nations in Jesus’s name in the new Kingdom. So, to the enquiry on whether only a few will have salvation, Jesus answered by saying that many will achieve salvation from all over the world.
“Recline at table” stands for the love, relaxation, joy, intimacy, and communion of saints at the Kingdom of God. During Biblical times, people were not sitting around the table as we do now. According to the Jewish and Roman custom, the dining table was a low desk with couches around its three sides. This was how Jesus used to eat at houses and at the Last Supper.
(30) Some who are among the last will be the first, and some who are first will be last.
According to the Jewish concept, the first are the Jews and the last are the Gentiles in front of God. The Jews misunderstood the plan of God, and they did not expect salvation for the Gentiles. For Jesus, Gentiles are eligible to enter the Kingdom of God, provided they accept his gospel. Even in the history of Israel after Jesus, the nation that considered itself first, lost its nation and got scattered all over.