The first last and the last first
(Readings: Isaiah 36: 18-21; Hebrews 12: 5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30)
Introduction to Mass
The readings today emphasise God's desire to save every individual, to invite everyone into communion of life with him. In the gospel Jesus echoes the preaching of the Old Testament prophets when he tells his listeners that it’s more important to practice the commands of God than to offer him token gestures of allegiance and worship.
To prepare ourselves to offer Mass…
This gospel passage by Saint Luke finds Jesus on his preaching tour around the towns and villages. Someone asks him a question which was probably more immediate to the religious mentality of his day than it is to most people today: "Will only a small number of people be saved?"
As he does very often, Jesus side-steps what he regards as a less important or even an irrelevant question and goes on to answer another question, which he regards as more important from the standpoint of getting a truthful idea of what God is like and how he is disposed towards us.
Behind Jesus' answer is the conviction that "salvation" or "redemption" refers to two things at the same time. On the one hand it refers to the future life which lies ahead for each of us after our death - which seems to be mainly what the man who asks the question is getting at.
Then on the other hand "redemption" or "being saved" refers to the way we live now, not in the future. Our relationship with God starts now, not after we die. It involves being receptive to God's grace and being changed by it, and wanting to be changed by it. And this is what Jesus tries to emphasise with his answer.
When we're open to God's activity, in all the different ways that he touches us, our values and motivations are affected. All our natural inclinations towards self-seeking are eroded. We don't identify our own happiness with gaining advantage or triumphing over other people to get what we want - which are normal facets of human nature.
We take on God's perspectives instead, as revealed to us in the person of Christ: detachment from worldly things rather than grasping as much as we can for ourselves; concern and commitment to other people's welfare rather than seeing them as satellites orbiting around our own ego; humility and a more accurate sense of proportion about our own importance, rather than inflated notions about ourselves; a reverence for others, rather than giving into our violent and aggressive motives.
These are the effects that God has on us and when people put these values into practice they're living a "redeemed" way of life - they're already practicing the way of salvation. It's not just something we experience in the future, after we're dead.
Jesus was asked questions like this one many times during his ministry and he always declined to answer questions directly if they involved making judgements of people and determining who was going to be saved and who wasn't.
His answer was always that this isn't for us to know or decide. Only God knows the innermost heart of each person, their real self, their struggles, their suffering - and for that reason only God is entitled to judge the true worth of a person.
What Jesus usually did was he turned the question back on the questioner: never mind worrying about whether other people are going to be saved or not. Search your own conscience, and examine your own behaviour and concentrate on whether you are being open enough to God in your own life. That's the only thing each of us needs to feel responsible for, rather than speculating about whether anyone else is saved.
So when Jesus talks here about "entering by the narrow door" he doesn't mean that God has restricted salvation to a tiny number of people, an elite. God offers his invitation to everyone, without any restrictions. But the way of life that's involved in responding to the invitation involves some difficult demands and sacrifices. It goes against the grain of our self-regard. And it's in that sense that Jesus means that many try to enter but only a few succeed.
Having made that point, Jesus goes on to issue a warning.
Some of the people, he says, who think of themselves as automatically entitled to enter God's company won't be allowed in, while other people who are considered to be outsiders or infidels are welcomed in and given their places at the feast. "There are those now last who will be first," Jesus says, "and those now first who will be last".
In the framework of the Jewish faith both John the Baptist and Jesus attacked the idea that simply being a member of the Chosen People gave them a privileged status in God's eyes. "God could turn stones into children of Abraham if he wanted to" was John's way of confronting that idea.
In this passage Jesus is making the same point for his followers - for us. Just eating and drinking in the company of Christ, to use his image, doesn't make someone a real disciple. Just being a member of the Church, just getting baptised, isn't equivalent to actually living the gospel. Making genuine contact with God, and registering the effect of that contact, is more important than just wearing the label.
At the same time the opposite is also true. Saint Luke conjures up a picture here of people who don't have any direct relationship of faith with Christ, but who get welcomed into the Kingdom because they've put a way of life into practice which actually expresses God's values and attitudes.
Saint Luke's point isn't that there's no value in belonging to the Christian community or taking part in its formal worship, or receiving the sacraments and so on. It's more of an appeal not to make those things empty gestures, and an appeal to practice the substance of discipleship, and not just claim the name.
So those are the attitudes that Jesus is trying to persuade people to adopt in this part of his teaching: to leave any final judgements about other people's salvation to God; to concentrate on our own following of the demands of the gospel instead; and to recognise that faith in him shows itself in concrete discipleship, not in claiming rewards and privileges on the basis of a fairly superficial acquaintance.