Sunday Aug. 25 is the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C, Cycle 1).
Isaiah 66:18-21; Psalms 117:1-2; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30
Some of us are in for a surprise when we die, according to Jesus Christ in today’s Gospel reading. For some, it will be a rude awakening. For others, it will be a happy day.
The group that experiences the rude awakening is made up of self-righteous sinners. “Lord, open the door for us,” they will say. They know him; they expect him to let them in right away. “I do not know where you are from,” he will answer.
How could this be? These aren’t casual acquaintances. These people went to catechism class (“You taught in our streets”) and went to Mass (“We ate and drank in your company”).
So why can’t they enter? The Gospel gives us a couple of reasons. Jesus says many will attempt to enter but “will not be strong enough.” He also says they will come “after the Master has locked the door.”
This brings to mind a picture of slouching people coming up to the door later than they were supposed to arrive.
When we lived in Hamden, Conn., we used to hike up Sleeping Giant. It’s a large hill or traprock mountain with a well-maintained hiking trail. At the top is a large play castle, with fun corridors and overlooks. The Gospel's vision of heaven reminds us of this hike: a hike up a road to a narrow gate — only this heavenly one seems to have a timetable. The Master plans to lock the door at 6pm.
On our hikes, invariably, one of the children would lag behind, and one of us would have to cajole the child up the hill. Sometimes we instructed the child to “change your attitude,” and it would work — especially if a reward was involved. But sometimes we had to carry the child.
This isn’t far off from the second reading from Hebrews. In it, St. Paul tells the Christians that they seem to have forgotten the exhortation that was given to them “as children.”
Specifically, he says: “Strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed.”
That’s good advice. It basically describes an attitude change. Instead of walking up the hill with weak knees, look lively. Instead of wandering in a crooked line with your hands in your pockets, walk straight and tall.
In faith terms, live your faith purposefully. Accept your Father’s advice and follow it — not in a begrudging way, but with a spring in your step. Joyfully lived faith is the path to heaven.
Which brings us to the other group that will be surprised.
“And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see … all the prophets in the Kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out. And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the Kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
Continuing the metaphor of the grumpy hiker, Jesus is saying that the slowpokes will watch aghast as their families enjoy the castle with others. Those others are the Gentiles — or those outside the Church — who walked with determination up the hill, following their consciences with swiftness and strength.
We hear more about them in the first reading:
“I come to gather nations of every language,” says the prophet Isaiah, speaking for God. These include people who “have never heard of my fame or seen my glory. … Some of these I will take as priests and Levites, says the Lord.”
In the end, we will be surprised when we get to heaven if we think that it will be peopled by a particular group.
Readings in upcoming Sundays will explain God’s mercy and how he does, indeed, carry children up the hill. But this week, Jesus wants to make very clear that we understand that, ultimately, the one thing all the inhabitants of heaven will have in common is simple: They did what the Father told them to do.
Tom and April Hoopes write from Atchison, Kansas,
where Tom is writer in residence at Benedictine College.